Why Are Cats So Cute?
Why Are Cats So Cute?
Ask any cat person, and they’ll tell you why their cat is the cutest. For instance, my cat Margot has the softest, fluffiest fur, and the prettiest, roundest green eyes, and she makes the most adorable little mewing noises for attention. She’s just sooo cute! But it turns out, there’s a reason those particular features make me ga-ga for her.
The science of cute (yes, it’s a thing) explains why cats are so cute, and why we want these meowing purring, scratching, pooping creatures to live in our homes.
Human babies are the original source of these characteristics. Scientists theorize that appearing soft, vulnerable, and loveable is an evolutionary adaptation that ensures survival. In other words, babies are cute so that adults will take care of them!
But it’s not just human babies who trigger our caretaking instincts; kittens, puppies, lambs, and other baby animals make us feel the same way. And so do adult mammals who retain their “kinderschema.”There’s a scientific term for that, too: neoteny, or “the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal.”
Of course, not all adult cats have big heads or round eyes. But most of them have soft, rounded body shapes. They have fur that’s pleasing to touch. They make high-pitched, baby-like meows and comforting, rumbly purrs. Cats are chock full of cute characteristics that make humans want to take care of them.
In other words, when you see your cat do something extra-cute, your brain simultaneously tells you to protect it and rewards you for doing so. That may explain why I still love my cute cat Margot even when she pees on my dirty laundry. It also explains why kittens, in particular, set off our “squee” response.
Just picture a wide-eyed, round-bellied, soft, stumbling kitten. That adorable, helpless little thing! Don’t you just want to cuddle it and keep it safe?
Yes, yes you do.
Another term for all this: “cute cues.” As explained by the New York Times, “cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness, and need.” And people have a pretty low bar for cuteness, so anything that strikes us as even a little bit baby-like can elicit an “awww” response.
Some people think cats may have evolved to be cuter as they became domesticated in order to make people want to take care of them more. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that cats would become increasingly cute as they became increasingly dependent on human beings to survive?
However, if you’ve lived with a cat, you know that sometimes their features can be downright brooding! So why are cats so cute, even if they aren’t wide-eyed and round-featured?
One possible answer: conditioning. Humans have been living alongside cats for hundreds of years. At this point, we’re used to thinking of them as cute, even the ones who are less baby-faced. In fact, according to British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, author of the book Cat Sense, cats’ “rather unexpressive faces” may make humans want to protect them even more.
Sound counterintuitive? Bradshaw says it’s all about projection: we humans come up with our own ideas about what a cat is thinking or feeling (source). And for many people, living in a society that values pets and makes cute cat videos go viral all the time, we often project vulnerability.
In other words, cats are cute because humans decided they were cute.