Cat owners are an insecure bunch. We are always looking to scientists to prove whether or not our feline friends truly love us, since they are not as endlessly affectionate as dogs. The data doesn’t always bear out—studies have found that your cat might not be purring out of love but rather manipulating you for food, and that cats who allow themselves to be petted show higher stress hormone levels after.
A new study in Behavioural Processes, though, is one that cat owners should find reassuring. Sometimes, our cats like us even more than food. In tests with both shelter animals and pets, cats expressed a preference for human interaction over preferences for food or toys, as Motherboard reports.
Like many pet studies, this one is small: the Oregon State University–led study used 19 pet cats and 20 shelter cats. (The researchers intended to study 25 of each, but some cats were too nervous or uninterested to complete the tests.) Each of the cats was placed in a room either in its home or at the shelter, where it was given opportunities to play alone with different toys, eat different meats, smell different natural scents (like gerbil or catnip) on a cloth, or hang out with a human for short periods of time.
During the human interaction test, the people alternately played with the cat, pet it, or talked to it for several minutes at a time. The stimuli (including, in the human condition, the person interacting with the cat) moved around the room to make sure the cat was actually drawn to it, and the cats were tested in each category with 12 different stimuli total.
At the end, the researchers figured out what the cats had spent the most time doing—playing with a certain toy, eating, smelling the cloth, or interacting with the person—and set up a trial where the cat could pick from all of them.
Overall, the study found that cats preferred hanging out with humans (either their owners or people at a shelter) more than even food (though food came in second). Half of the cats chose to interact with the person in the room instead of the food or toys it had shown a preference for.
This suggests that cats do occasionally see us as more than just a meal ticket … though they also want that out of you, too.