Yes, you are compelled by 10 reasons to call your cat a “fur baby”. And if you don’t call your cat a fur baby you relate to your cat as a baby. And if you don’t think you’re doing that then you will relate your cat as a child. One way or another they are your baby and the forces railed against you are powerful.
Domestic cats have baby-like features
The experts call this a “baby schema”. This is when a set of combined facial features produce a baby-like appearance. For the cat, perhaps the most influential baby schema feature is the eyes. They are much larger in relation to the size of the head than the eyes of humans. Often, they are almond-shaped but sometimes they are round. Breeders selectively breed for big eyes in the Persian cat. The traditional Persian cat is called a “doll-face Persian“. That, in itself, explains a lot. They look like dolls and dolls are babies. And cats have small noses and mouths. They are little infants. People rate kittens as equally cute to babies. People have a preference for baby features.
Domestic cats have developed a baby-like meow and purr
Over the approximate 10,000 years of domestic at evolution, some domestic cats had been wise enough to develop both a meow and a purr which can sometimes contain the frequency and tone of a baby crying. This tweaks the human brain into responding. Clever, aren’t they? It’s cats training people. The experts say that a cat meow is a neotenous feature. The word “neotenous” refers to juvenile features in an adult animal. The meow of the domestic cat has evolved from the meow of their wildcat ancestor. It is shorter and higher pitched. It is generally “less threatening, more juvenile and more appealing” according to one study. And researchers have identified meows as sometimes being like the cries of a human baby.
Cats respond to baby talk
People often talk to their cats as if they are babies. The cat develops an understanding of the tone, timbre and frequency of these human sounds and learns to respond to them. It’s two-way traffic. It’s a bit like the way domestic cats have learnt to meow like babies. They’ve learned to meow like babies and humans have learnt to speak like babies! It works though.
Domestic cat kneading
We know that domestic cats like to “make biscuits” on their human’s lap or other parts of the human anatomy. This is infantile feline behaviour. They are expressing milk from their mother’s breast. So, the adult domestic cat is behaving like a kitten. Therefore, we relate to the adult domestic cat as a kitten which encourages us to relate to them as babies.
We keep cat in a state of kitten-hood
Because humans are surrogate mothers to domestic cats, we keep them, in terms of their mentality, in a state of permanent kitten-hood. They see this us surrogate mothers and we play that role willingly. We provide everything they need (in a decent household). This relationship perpetuates the notion that cats are fur babies. It’s a kind of cycle which reinforces itself.
Cuteness is a powerful motivator to a caring response
Cats elicit the baby schema response, the experts say. Cuteness elicits a strong desire to care for a creature and even an object. People demonstrate a baby schema response when exposed to cute features. They pay better attention and are more willing to care. And there is a decreased likelihood of aggression. A research study showed that when people are exposed images of kittens and puppies, they are more careful when playing the game Operation.
In the right homes, where the human caregiver is good at their work, cat and human become closely attached to each other. This bond mimics the bond between parent and child. Cats are often very attached to their owners. This is despite the misleading notion that cats are aloof. It is possible for humans to be imprinted on the minds of their cat as their genuine mother. This happens sometimes when people raise newborn kittens to adulthood. These are particularly strong bonds. The cat’s world revolves around the human in these relationships. Humans often report being strongly attached to their cats, self-reporting an attachment score of 9.3 out of 10. Cat owners who are particularly predisposed to the baby schema response show a strong attachment.
People anthropomorphise their cats
This is very common. I think pretty well every person does it. Perhaps the more cat-orientated a person is and the more they like cats, the more they are predisposed to anthropomorphising their cat. For visitors whose native language is not English, to ‘anthropomorphise a cat’ is to humanise a cat. It is to look at a cat as a little human. This is evidenced in people dressing up their cat in human-like clothes, celebrating cat birthdays and as mentioned relating to cats as children. Cat owners sometimes give cats emotions which they might not have. I’m referring to the higher emotions such as grief. This may result in expectation management problems. What I mean is people may expect too much from their cat.
There is a potential problem with anthropomorphising a cat. One’s expectations can be misplaced. It can undermine the human-to-cat relationship. It is important to respect the cat as a cat while treating them with gentleness and understanding and that they have a feline character and not a human one.
The primacy effect
This is a reference to human parents having difficulty accepting that their child has grown up. A study found that people tend to weigh earlier information more heavily than late information. If you adopt a cat as a kitten, you are likely to refer to your cat is a kitten even when they become adults.
As touched on above, cat breeders can breed cats with exaggerated baby-like features. They select cats with those features and they become foundation cats and the breeding line is based upon this sort of appearance. This reinforces the ‘fur baby’ culture.
P.S. My thanks to Karen Wu Ph.D. for teeing me off on this.