We don’t toss the phrase “depraved indifference” around too often, but when we do, it’s most likely in reference to a cat. Anyone who has been in contact with a house cat of any breed knows why they have a reputation as soulless manipulators: They stare at you with the blank-faced serenity of a serial killer, usually while doing something chilling like purposefully pushing prized figurines off a shelf or casually attempting to murder your other pets. The Internet is full of compilation videos displaying bad cat behaviour, but we hardly need the proof. Your basic domestic feline’s defining trait is aloof disdain.
Another reason we’re so ready to believe our cats are psychopaths? They don’t have a lot of facial muscles. That blank stare you get from a cat isn’t because they’re getting ready to go all Patrick Bateman on you — it’s because they communicate in other ways, using their tails, ears, and other body language.
But just because your cat is a deep ocean of secrets doesn’t mean they’re not plotting to murder you in your sleep and embezzle monies from your bank accounts for the purpose of purchasing sardines and felt mice. As it turns out, science has investigated cats and concluded that yep, they are psychopaths.
The evolution of the cat
Cats not only display the common traits associated with psychopathy (selfishness, callousness, and the “remorseless use of others,” which is a phrase so accurate when describing cats it’s actually kind of frightening), but these behaviours are probably the result of evolution. The study involved creating a scientific standard for testing psychopathic behaviour in cats, then asking several hundred cat owners a series of questions. The answers gave a pretty clear picture of a common house pet we should probably not have in our homes — apparently letting a cat into your house is on the same level as inviting some vampires in for cocktails.
The scientists performing the study theorised that psychopathic behaviours in ancient cats probably gave them better access to resources like food, water, and warm human laps. These personality traits also made ancient cats better suited for a solitary lifestyle, an evolutionary trend that has now backfired as we regularly capture cats and imprison them in our homes, then become enraged when they don’t just sit around being adorable 24 hours a day.
How to deal with your cat’s behaviour
If psychopathy is the defining trait of cats, humanity’s defining trait is probably an affable stupidity, because we’re a species famous for doing things that are bad for us. That includes allowing these furry little psychos into our homes, where we allow them to do things like stare at us while we sleep, scratch our precious things to hell, and get into fur-flying scraps with each other that sound like something out of a horror movie. So, since we can safely assume no one reading about this study is going to do the sensible thing and evict their cats (I myself have five cats and even if I found bomb-making materials hidden in one of their hiding places I would still not evict them, possibly because I am enslaved by a parasitic infection), how can you effectively deal with some of their most psychopathic (and sometimes legitimately dangerous) behaviours?
First, do a wellness check. Many of the negative behaviours cats engage in stem from physical or mental distress. If your cat is suddenly yowling a lot, is being extra destructive, or is going to the bathroom outside its litter box, start with a visit to the vet to rule out illness. You might also consider a veterinary behaviorist (aka Cat Therapist) to determine if they are experiencing stress or other triggers, resulting in the unwanted behaviour.
Second, contrary to popular belief you can absolutely train your cat. The independent spirit and uncooperative nature of cats have been wildly overblown — using a combination of soft deterrents (like noise or a water bottle) and rewards, you can shape your cat’s behaviour to be less insanely hostile. But while it’s well worth the effort, it takes a while. In the meantime, here are some specific strategies for dealing with psychopathic cat behaviours.
Cats have a bizarre urge to snake between your legs as you try to walk, and the more liquids and breakables you’re carrying, the harder they seem to work to trip you. This can be pretty dangerous, especially if you’re walking up or down stairs while they do this. A few ways to survive:
- Control access: Pet/baby gates that limit your cat’s access (for example, to the stairs) thus limiting their opportunities for attempted murder.
- Bell them: Like any aspiring murderer, stealth is your cat’s best friend. Foil their plans with an old-school bell and collar so at least you’ll be alerted when the beast is making its move.
Psychopathic cats aren’t just a threat to you — they can be a real menace to your other pets, including their fellow cats. To reduce trips to the vet after bloody scraps, ensure all of your pets have defined territories, and control resources like food carefully. You might think giving each cat in your home its own food dish would reduce fighting, but that can lead to aggressive cats regularly invading more timid animals’ spaces in order to raid their food, so having set mealtimes can reduce pet-on-pet violence.
Cats have razor-sharp claws, and their brains are the size of walnuts, so cat owners are usually resigned to bloody scratches they wear as badges of honour. But an aggressive cat can be dangerous, as a scratch to your eyes or other sensitive areas can cause real damage. A few tips:
- Deter them when they’re young: Kitten claws are tiny and harmless, so we often encourage scratchy behaviours because we find their little fits of rage adorable. Resisting that urge and discouraging scratching as early as possible will save you ER trips in the future.
- Look for triggers. Despite the whole “cats are psychos” narrative, aggressive behaviour in cats is usually triggered — though the triggers don’t always make sense to us. Petting them too long or encouraging rough play can lead to an attack. If you observe and identify the trigger, you can work to avoid it.
- Try pheromones. Pheromone-based products can sometimes work; most commonly available in a form similar to air fresheners that you plug into a wall outlet, these devices release calming pheromones into the air, which can reduce your cat’s stress and its resultant urge to scratch your eyes out.
- Redirect with toys. Cats like to scratch things. If your cat likes to scratch you, try giving them a substitute when it happens — a large stuffed toy of some sort is ideal for a cat to work out its aggression.
“Vocalisation” is a fancy word for “waking you up six times a night with demonic yowling.” While not immediately dangerous, ruining your sleep will definitely have a negative effect on your health in the long run. A few ways to deal with this behaviour include
- Give them extra attention. Cats who yowl at night are often bored, and since they’re chaotic, they see nothing wrong with waking you up for some entertainment. Giving your little psychopath some play time right before you go to bed can tire them out and satisfy that nocturnal urge to play.
- Remaining stoic. Whatever you do, don’t reward your cat’s vocalisation by getting up and giving it what it wants — food, pets, your banking app passwords. That will quiet them down in the moment, but it will also teach them that the behaviour works.
- Give them soft deterrents. You should never physically punish a cat (again: they have brains the size of a walnut and often know not what they do), but negative results can shape their behaviour. Spritzing a vocalizing cat with some water will eventually teach them not to do it.
Cats can be jerks, there’s no disputing it. But since about four per cent of humans are sociopaths and we don’t freak out about it, we should be able to deal with a certain level of psychopathic behaviour in our feline friends. Alternatively, start viewing the care and feeding of your cat as a series of tributes to a terrifying demon and view each day you don’t wake up dead as a gift.