Cats Aren't Evil: 5 Feline Myths That Just Aren't True

Why do our feline companions get such a bad rap?

09/16/2015 01:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2015
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Do you really think evil has a face like this?

People like to joke that cats are evil.

We get that -- it can be fun to play off the stereotype that cats are aloof, uncaring and downright disdainful. But the way that pop culture sometimes portrays cats has real-life negative consequences for our feline friends.

"The idea that cats are uncaring 'evil' animals feeds into cruelty -- kids tying firecrackers to their tails, for example," anthrozoologist John Bradshaw told The Huffington Post.

Other myths -- like the idea that cats can be left home alone for days on end -- may lead otherwise well-meaning individuals to give their pets less than great care.

Let's dispel a few frequently repeated myths about cats.

Myth #1: Your cat doesn't like you.

Hilary Hanson/The Huffington Post

OK, we can't speak for your cat purrrsonally -- it's possible he hates you. But the claim that cats don't feel affection for their owners has more basis in stereotyping and sensationalistic media reports than reality.

This notion resurfaced last week with the publication of a British study suggesting that in unfamiliar situations, cats don't see their owners as a source of safety in the way that a human child might see a parent. Misleading headlines on this topic ranged from "Your Cat Doesn't Care About You" to "Your Cat Hates You," but that's not what the study said at all.

What most articles left out was that the study had absolutely nothing to do with affection. From LiveScience:

Ask any cat person, however, and they would swear that Mr. Whiskers does love them. They may be right, [lead researcher Daniel] Mills said. The new findings simply mean cats don't see their human companions as parent-like figures. For instance, in the Strange Situation test, parents don't form a secure attachment to their babies because they don't see their children as a "safe base" -- but it would be wildly inaccurate to say that parents don't love their kids. It may simply be that feline-human love is rooted in something other than dependence.

Notably, other scientists in 2007 used the exact same experiment to determine "attachment" and concluded that cats' behavior was "consistent" with that of "children attached to their mothers." Another study in 2011 found that cats and their owners have relationships that "mirror human bonds" and that cats form complex social relationships with their owners.

Bradshaw noted that cats are more likely to express affection when they "are on what they perceive to be safe ground." Signs of affection include "raising their tails upright when they see us, rubbing their heads or flanks on our legs, licking us when they're sitting next to us [and] purring when we stroke them," he said.

Myth #2: Cats aren't social.

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Since cats aren't pack animals in the same way that dogs are, people often have the misconception that they're total loners. But it really varies by cat, said certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger.

"Every cat is an individual, with her own history and personality," Krieger told HuffPost, noting that cats "can form strong bonds with each other" and that such bonded pairs should "never be separated." 

Anecdotal evidence suggests cats can also form strong bonds with other species.

Since they are territorial, Krieger said, it's crucial to introduce cats to each other gradually to avoid conflict. And while many cats get along well with their fellow felines, Krieger noted, "some cats just don't do well with other cats [and] would rather be the queen or king of their households." But even those cats need environmental enrichment, like toys and places to climb, as well as social interaction with their humans, she said.

Myth #3: You can leave your cat alone for days at a time.

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"[Cats] shouldn't be left alone all day and night without someone checking on them, interacting with them and cleaning their litter boxes," Krieger said. In other words, if you're going out for more than 24 hours, hire a cat sitter or enlist a friend to check in on Fluffy.

Krieger explained that cats can be left home alone while their owners are at work or out for relatively short periods, but they need things to do while the people are gone.

"During the day, while their owners are at work, they need plenty of environmental enrichment, such as toys they enjoy batting around, high places to climb, things to scratch," she said. She also recommended creating "treasure hunts" by hiding treats around the house for the cats to find. "Make the cats work a little for their food and make it fun," she said.

And how do you know if your cat is getting too lonely?

Telltale signs are a cat that's become lethargic or overly clingy, started to groom itself excessively or begun to have trouble with the litter box. But she warned that all of those behaviors can also be caused by medical problems, so check with a veterinarian to make sure everything is OK.

Myth #4: Your cat will likely give you schizophrenia or cause a miscarriage.

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Every few months or so, it seems there's a flurry of new articles warning of the dangers of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite sometimes found in cat feces. Research has found a correlation between T. gondii infections in humans -- which most commonly result in mild flu-like symptoms in healthy people -- and developing schizophrenia. Additionally, a pregnant woman who contracts the parasite can pass it to her fetus, potentially causing a miscarriage.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't recommend that pregnant women, or anyone else, give up their cats. Instead, the CDC advises thoroughly washing your hands after changing the litter box and using gloves if possible.

Since cats can only contract the parasite in the first place by eating contaminated raw or undercooked meat or consuming an infected rodent, the CDC also recommends keeping your cat inside and keeping its paws away from raw meat. Because the parasite is only infectious from about one day to five days after the cat excretes it, changing the litter box daily cuts way back on your risk as well. 

The CDC notes that cat feces are hardly the only source of T. gondii. People can catch the parasite from eating undercooked meat themselves. And they can get it from contaminated soil, which is why you should thoroughly wash vegetables and fruits before eating them and clean your hands after gardening or digging in the dirt.

Myth #5: Cats can't be trained.

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Have you seen the cat circus? Animal trainer Samantha Martin's troupe of traveling felines that play musical instruments, jump through hoops and skateboard will convince any naysayer that cats can indeed be trained.

Martin told HuffPost in July that training a cat takes a little more patience than training a dog, but said that "any cat can be trained to do something." The only reason people think of cats as untrainable, she said, is that nobody really tries to train them.

Both Martin and Krieger recommend clicker training, which involves making a sound with a clicker at the exact moment a cat performs a desired action and then rewarding the cat with a treat. The clicking sound serves as an "anchor" to alert the cat to the specific action that you're rewarding.

Both women also describe clicker training as a way to strengthen your bond with your pet, provide mental stimulation and curb bad behavior.

Krieger added that the idea that a cat's behavior is set in stone is one of the most detrimental cat myths.

"The belief that their behaviors can't be changed often results in cats being surrendered to shelters, euthanized or made to live outdoors," she said. "Although behaviors such as litter box avoidance, aggression and furniture scratching are not pleasant to live with, they can be changed through a combination of behavior modification and simple changes to the environment."

Don't think that you have to be a professional to train a cat. This reporter tried Martin's clicker training tips and had her cat giving high-fives in no time.

Cats, Cats, Cats!
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