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Do cats really prefer women?

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By Jennifer Viegas

New research recently revealed that women, in general, tend to bond more with cats than men do. Many men, however, enjoy equally rewarding relationships with cats. What might explain our puzzling human-cat dynamics? Science is providing some answers.

Cats Make the Right Sounds
Karen McComb, a reader in behavioral ecology at the University of Sussex, is both a researcher and a cat owner, so her daily interactions with her own pet often become fodder for studies. McComb began to notice that her male cat frequently sounds like a human infant. "Cats have about the right size of vocal folds to produce a cry that is similar to a baby's," she explains. "The meow, which can sound like a crying child, will be particularly effective with humans." Both men and women seem to respond to this sound, with the mothering instinct particularly kicking in for women.

Cats can also engage in what McComb calls "solicitation purring." This sound combines purring with an embedded high-pitched cry, which creates a sound that's nearly irresistible. "In the case of my cat, if he sees you stirring from sleep at all in the early morning, he will immediately switch into giving this solicitation purring and position himself next to your head so you get the full impact."

Cats Have the Right Touch
Cats are extremely tactile animals. Even among themselves, they are forever showing affiliation by affectionately pushing against each other, cleaning faces and even snoozing together in one big pile. This need and compulsion to touch extends to their human social partners too.

Manuela Wedl of the University of Vienna's Konrad Lorenz Research Station and Department of Behavioral Biology and her team recently analyzed the social dynamics between 40 cats and their owners. In their study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes, they documented these tactile interactions and more:

  • Cat rubs face against owner
  • Cat rubs body against owner
  • Cat rubs tail against, or curls tail around, owner
  • Cat bumps owner with forehead
  • Cat reaches out with forepaw and touches owner
  • Cat kneads owner

Women and Cats
Men and women frequently differ in their influence over the cat. "It is known that, when humans and cats first meet, women tend to speak/vocalize to the cat more than men, and cats tend to approach women more often than men," says Wedl.

Once again, sound isn't the only bonding factor. "In studies of cat-owning families, it has been found that women tend to interact with their cats more than men do," says Wedl. "In response, the cats approach female owners more frequently and initiate contact more frequently, such as jumping up, than they do with male owners." She additionally points out that other researchers believe "female owners have more intense relationships with their cats than do male owners."

Men and Cats
Mysteries remain as to why cats and women so often seem to bond well. It could have to do with the cat-baby similarities. It may also just be that the ways women tend to express affiliation match better with those of cats. Hormones, genetics and other forms of hardwiring can come into play. Conversely, it's said that dogs are man's best friend.

Just as many women love their dogs, however, many men adore cats. Wedl and her colleagues studied numerous such relationships, and noted that petting, playing and other more active forms of engagement were not affected by whether or not the owner was male or female. Sometimes research data is even skewed toward women because, in some households, women tend to be at home more and can therefore spend more time with pets.

The bottom line is that if you can share affection -- be it in the form of food, a place in your home or time for play -- a cat would likely welcome your generosity and return the kindness in its own way.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics. 

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