The headline heard round the world last week: your cat really wants to kill you. As a cat owner, did that scare you? Maybe? Kinda sorta? Not at all? Hopefully your opinion fit more with the latter, because the truth? Well, that headline was a work of fiction that has even the lead researcher of the study, Marieke Gartner, mystified.
The study, published last year in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, and conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, used assessments made by zookeepers, and cat owners to compare the personalities of domestic cats and those of their wild relatives: Scottish wildcats, African lions, snow leopards, and clouded leopards.
Seems harmless enough; yet somehow news outlets took the study in an entirely different way, and held fast to something that was never so much as mentioned or indicated within the study: that domestic cats want to kill their caretakers.
“My research did not suggest this — in fact, it’s completely unrelated,” Marieke Gartner told The Huffington Post in an email. “I don’t know why people would say that.”
The second misconception seen in article after article on the topic? That cats are neurotic, dominant, and impulsive. While Gartner did mention the trio of traits as personality factors, she did not identify felines as any of the above; rather, she used those traits as a scale of sorts, placing each individual feline (wild or domestic) on a spectrum ranging from not very impulsive to very impulsive and so on.
“In humans, personality is described by five personality factors: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism,” Gartner wrote. “There is a difference between factors and traits — so no, the most prominent personality traits [in cats and lions] are not dominance, impulsivity, and neuroticism. These are the three personality factors that describe each species — but each individual will range along the spectrum of traits that make up each of the personality factors.”
While this isn’t the first time that the supposed murderous motives of cats has been brought to the forefront, it most certainly will not be the last. Mikel Delgado, certified cat behavior consultant and Psychology Doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley sees one reason for the trend.
“They don’t have as many facial muscles [as dogs],” Delgado told HuffPost. “Their face is harder to interpret. People do seem to wonder, ‘What’s my cat thinking?'”
Given the fact that cats are compact in size in comparison to canines, and known for aloof personalities, they’ve simply become an easy target for entertainment purposes.
“We almost find it humorous that cats want to kill us, or hate us or we’re their slaves,” Delgado said.
Nevertheless, the truth remains: cats have shared space with us for millennia, with no murders to speak of.
“If they really wanted to kill us,” Delgado asked, “don’t you think it would have happened?”