Written by Brad Kollus
Dr. Dennis Turner has established himself as the world's leading expert on the feline-human bond. He has conducted and published numerous studies on how people interact with their cats and how this relationship benefits both species. Among his numerous credits and titles are co-editor of both The Domestic Cat: The Biology of it’s Behavior, and Companion Animals in Human Health. Dr. Turner is Director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology, and Senior Research Associate, Zoology Institute, University of Zurich in Switzerland, among other positions. Why does he love cats so much? “I appreciate the fact that they’re very sensitive. They are very independent thinkers and independent actors and they’re very elegant and beautiful to watch. I could watch cats for hours,” says Dr. Turner.
Communicating with Kitty
Most cat owners have no doubt that they communicate with their cats regularly. However, there hasn’t been much hard scientific evidence to prove communication is occurring, and doubters remain unconvinced. Dr. Turner and his student, Maya Weilenmann, have now changed that. “We proved that communication is taking place between the cat and the human. Of course, humans are communicating with their cats, but are the cats really communicating with their owners? In the sense that each cat uses individual signals specific in its own particular relationship with their owner, we were able to prove that they do this using Information Theory,” said Dr. Turner. Information Theory is a complex mathematical system, which is usually used in computer science to determine whether real communication between two entities is occurring. “We were was able to prove that there is indeed information transfer between the cat and the human. This is the first time information theory has been used to prove inter-species communication,” said Dr. Turner.
How is the cat communicating with its owner? “Well of course ever cat owner will have their own idea about this and that’s the beauty of the cat, they are individualists, and that was the most important thing. Some will rub more frequently around the legs. Some will sit down and look at the owner. Some will meow. Some will scratch the floor, all sorts of different body language, and it is a very individual pattern. As cat owners, we all know those patterns which our cats have. Certain things vary according to the individual pair of human and cat. The different ways each cat sends signals to their owners is what proves real communication is going on,” said Dr. Turner.
Cats - The Perfect Match
Cats have become the most popular pet in the western world and Dr. Turner’s research may have some answers to why they have become number one. “One of the major findings I discovered over the last two decades, and was able to model statistically, was that cats will accept the level of involvement their human wants without any question. If the human partner wants a lot of interaction then the cat will also interact a lot. If the human partner has a low level of interaction with their cat, then the cat will accept that low level of interaction. They won’t complain, they will adapt their behavior to their owners level of involvement, and that’s at least one of the reasons why cats are so popular because they are very adaptable, ” said Dr. Turner.
Dr. Turner’s research in this area led to a second discovery which was even more amazing. The opposite was also true. “What we found was the more the owner complies with the cats wishes to interact, the more the cat complies with the owners wishes, at other times. They go up together, or they go down together. If the person doesn’t comply with the cats wish to interact then the cat doesn’t comply with the persons wishes. It’s a fantastic give and take partnership. It’s a true social relationship between owners and cats,” said Dr. Turner. This flexibility, or meshing, in the feline-human relationship, which mirrors each other, helps to make cat ownership so enjoyable for both cats and human.
Does My Cat Know When I’m Sick?
Many cat owners are convinced their kitty can tell when they are depressed, or ill. Dr. Turner’s research has shed some scientific light on this issue. He found that when the depressed person was in a room with their cat, and the cat was not near the person, the cat did not react any differently than it usually would. “However, if an interaction between the cat and person begins then the cat is able to tell whether a person is depressed or anxious and does react differently to the owner in a positive way. The cat will significantly rub the owner’s legs more, will vocalize or call out to the person more often. They do react very strongly to the mood of the person,” said Dr. Turner.
Cats and Moods
Dr. Turner, along with his student Gerulf Rieger, conducted a series of experiments on how cats affects a person’s mood. In the first experiment, they tested the moods of cat owners compared to those of former cat owners who hadn’t had a cat in the last 6 months. In this way they were able to test the affect just the presence of the cat has on a person’s mood, not necessarily how the cat and owner interacted. “Current cat owners had fewer depressive moods. They are less anxious, or fearful and they are less introverted and more sociable than the former cat owners. So just having a cat there can improve your bad moods,” said Dr. Turner.
In an another experiment, Dr. Turner and his colleague observed people and their cats in private households and compared the person’s mood before and after they interacted with their cat. “We were able to discover that again, negative moods can be reduced such as fear, anxiety, and depression,” said Dr. Turner.
“Both the cat’s presence and their interactions can reduce bad moods. This wasn’t in any sort of clinically ill population or people with psychological problems, this was with average cat owners,” said Dr. Turner.
Dr. Turner and his colleagues are proving to any doubters, using scientific measures, the depth, complexity and benefits of the human-cat bond. And this bond will only become stronger for it.
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