You probably know that monkeys and apes are known to be most like people, but did you know that cats also share many similarities with us biologically, physically and psychologically?
A 2007 genome study found that about 90% of the genes in a cat are similar to human genes. In this study, Initial sequence and comparative analysis of the cat genome (ncbi.nim.nig.gov), the percent of genes represented in a dog were only 81.9 percent and chimpanzee 78.8 percent comparatively (to humans).
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus, Tufts University, explains that cat brains are composed of gray and white matter. Like humans, they have temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex. Dr. Dodman adds that “Cats seem to think in the same pattern as humans, too, partly owing to the similarity of neurotransmitters … Cats receive input from the basic five senses and process that data just as humans do.”
Cats also have short- and long-term memories. Dr. Dodman provides an amazing illustration of cat memories from his award-winning book, The Cat Who Cried For Help (Bantam; 1999). The story involves a cat very bonded to his owner who passed away in a bedroom in his house. After the owner died, the cat refused to go into the bedroom for exactly one year. On the anniversary of his owner’s death, the cat entered the room and jumped on the bed.
Once, I nearly shut my cat’s leg in a door I was opening. The next day, he hid from me when I opened that door showing he recalled that unpleasant incident and was afraid it would happen again if he came near that door.
Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified cat behavior consultant and best-selling author, says, “Cats are learning all the time. Every experience teaches them that something is either positive, negative or not relevant. Cat parents are often not even aware of how much they are training or reinforcing their cats’ learning in everyday life … Just as with cats, we tend to repeat behaviors that have a desired consequence and try to avoid experiences that are unpleasant or threatening.”
Samantha Martin, owner and trainer for Amazing Acro-Cats and Rock Cats Rescue, adds that “People, especially young children, learn things by watching adults do things and mimicking them. Cats also mimic what they see other cats do and get rewarded for. Many of my cats have picked up tricks that I have not trained them to do just by watching another cat do it repeatedly.”
Dr. Dodman recalls an incident at a cat show in Texas many years ago where an obstacle course was set up. Cats were led through the circuit by people waving a teaser toy to guide them over the obstacles. This wasn’t so impressive because any cat would follow someone with a cat teaser. But when a cat who had already passed through the course went back a second time and repeated the circuit without any teasers or assistance, it showed how quickly cats can learn and remember.
Connection and Affection
Pam also explains that, although cats are stereotyped as aloof, they are social animals who need the same type of affection and companionship as people. Just like us, they each show affection in different ways.
“There are cats who enjoy close physical contact when it comes to affection. For some cats and people, that includes anything from holding to simply a gentle touch. It may also mean just some degree of physical connection such as sitting close together enough so as to be touching or leaning against each other. There are cats and humans who prefer to show affection in more subtle and easy-to-miss ways,” Pam says. “Not all people enjoy physical contact and they may show affection through thoughtful actions, being present or through kind words. It’s also easy to miss some ways cats show subtle affectionate displays as well, such as being nearby, showing a relaxed body posture, purring or giving slow eye blinks.”
Cat owner Diane Kane had a cat named Scooter who she found as a young kitten separated from her mother. Diane recalls, “I fed her with a dropper and slept with her on my chest … As she grew, she was my constant companion.” Diane gave an example that when she worked in her garden, Scooter would watch her digging and mimic her behavior by digging holes, too. Another way that Scooter showed her affection included returning Diane’s kisses with “audible smacks.” Although Scooter died young of kidney disease, Diane says that “she lived her life perfectly content to be one with her human family.”
Cats suffer from “human” diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, thyroid disease and cancer. I’ve had cats with diabetes, cancer, kidney disease and my current cat, Stripey, has hyperthyroidism. My diabetic cat, Floppy, who passed away at 15 in 2007 had been treated with prednisone for asthma as a kitten and developed diabetes at 6. I administered two shots daily of Humulin insulin to him. He also suffered from pancreatitis and a liver condition. All his treatments for these illnesses were similar to those people with the same problems received.
Deborah Barnes, past president of the Cat Writers’ Association, also has a cat, Zee, with hyperthyroidism like my cat Stripey. “When Zee was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, we were given some choices for treatment,” she says. Deb chose the methimazole pill, while I chose the compounded transdermal cream applied to the ear twice a day (which I find easier to administer than pills). Weight loss is common in hyperthyroid cats, as it is in people, and is one of the main symptoms of the condition. Stripey and Zee have put on some weight since their treatment started. Deb also keeps Zee on a special diet. She says he gets a combination of canned and dry food that caters to the dietary needs of a cat with thyroid issues, and she also gives him additional supplements in his food. While Stripey eats canned and dry along with our other cats, we also give him treats with his medication and occasional fresh chicken.
Besides sharing common human diseases, cats can also spread what are known as zoonotic diseases to humans. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (catvets.com) in its Feline Zoonoses Guidelines, “Zoonotic diseases are defined as being common to, shared by or naturally transmitted between humans and other vertebrate animals.” Some common zoonotic diseases cited in the catvets.com brochure What Can I Catch from My Cat? Feline Zoonoses include cat scratch fever, ringworm, rabies and toxoplasmosis.
Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council for Lifelong Health of Companion Cats, says that the single most important point for preventing many feline zoonotic diseases is year-round parasite preventives, including indoor-only cats. She recommends cat owners work with cat-friendly vets to find the appropriate preventive for their pets. There have also been concerns regarding coronavirus as a zoonotic disease. (Go to catster.com to read our article Coronavirus and Cats: What Cat Owners Need to Know About COVID-19.)
Mental Health Issues
Dr. Dodman says that cats can also suffer from the same psychological issues as people and are also treated similarly for these problems. They can be anxious, have phobias and even disorders such as OCD. “Cats (with anxiety) respond to the same anxiety drugs as people,” he points out.
Another area that cats and humans are similar emotionally is how they respond to loss. Pam relates her experiences with “clients who have experienced the loss of a human, canine or feline member and are confused about what to do for their surviving cat. Very often, they think the cat is lonely, and they adopt a new feline companion. Even though the family understands their own grief, they are often surprised to learn that the surviving cat is grieving and the sudden addition of an unfamiliar cat only makes matters worse. Although we don’t display grief in the same way as cats, we share that emotional pain and loss.”
Cats are also similar to people personality-wise. Dr. Dodman refers to tests that have been conducted on cats to determine their character traits. These tests are similar to the Myers/Briggs study of human personalities. Cats were found to have a combination of three traits: alert (active and curious), sociable and equable (stable temperament). These different trait combinations, according to Dr. Dodman, are also found in people. Cats can be introverts, extroverts or in between the two.
“There are more similarities than differences between cats and people,” Dr. Dodman says.
I’ve also found in the many years I’ve shared my life with cats is that, like people, they all have their own personalities. This individualistic nature of felines is what I believe cat lovers enjoy most about them.