When Becky Evans started studying cat-human relationships, she kept hearing, over and over again, about how cats are psychopaths.
On one hand, anyone who has looked into the curiously blank face of a catloafknows exactly what that means. But also, exactly what does it mean to apply a human mental diagnosis to felines? We let these clawed creatures into our homes and our beds, but we still have trouble understanding them on anything but our own human terms.
Evans, a psychology graduate student at the University of Liverpool, recently devised a survey for owners who think that their cats are psychopaths. The survey asks owners to describe the allegedly psychopathic behaviors, and so far they have included bullying other pets, taking over the dog’s bed, and waiting on the kitchen counter to pounce on unsuspecting family members. In short, pretty typical cat behavior.
These answers get at the tricky semantics of calling a cat a “psychopath” when it is just … a cat. There’s always an implicit comparison when we talk about cats as aloof little jerks, says Mikel Maria Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at the University of California at Davis. And that comparison is with dogs, which humans have spent thousands more years domesticating and molding in our image.