It's six in the morning and your cat puts a paw on your eyelid. "It's time to wake up," she seems to be saying. She couldn't give a monkey's how tired you are. She wants feeding.

There's a widespread perception that everything cats do is just a little self-serving, a touch self-centred. In a word, selfish. But not content with idle stereotypes, we put this little question – are cats selfish? – to the BBC Earth audience.

Some of you didn't like the question at all. "Selfish is a human trait," argued Ann Halim. "'Selfish' is hard to apply to any animal other than humans," agreed Kevin Bonin.

It certainly is hard, but that has never stopped us trying.

In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin argued that animal minds are similar to ours in many ways. "The difference in mind between man and the higher animals…is certainly one of degree and not kind," he wrote.

Cats are entirely self-serving

If that's true, then surely a cat – or any other higher animal – might meet the Oxford Dictionary's definition of selfish: being "concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure."

Many of you identified with the idea that cats are out for themselves.

"Are cats selfish??? That's like asking has the pope got a balcony?!" says Jane Ramsden. "Let's just say, there is an I in kitty," says Dan Okeneski. "Cats are entirely self-serving," says Frankathon Dirabis. "It's a good thing they are cute and furry."

Gina Darlin Strange's cat has clear views about where she sleeps. "If the Sun is shining across my bed in the morning and my daughter's in the afternoon, she demands total access to it and will get an attitude if you move her," she says.

A lot of cat-lovers describe what appear to be altruistic acts on the part of their pets

Annette Jeneane Behnke-Park's cat is constantly seeking attention. "She tries to get us to play tag, wants what we have for food, wants my spot on the chair, loves to lay across me at night," she says.

Some correspondents also report their cats showing signs of selfishness towards other cats.

"Hector will steal treats from Harvey without fail if given the chance," says Marlee Lütz. Vijaya Shadrak's tomcat began to urinate wherever two other cats in her home liked to rest. "Now he is scaring them," she says. Bad kitty.

However, most of the people who responded say that selfishness is not a trait they recognise in their cats.

Instead, a lot of cat-lovers describe what appear to be altruistic acts on the part of their pets. Altruism is defined as "selfless concern for the well-being of others."

David Penn once knew a kitten that comforted him during a bad tooth infection

How else are we to interpret the domestic cat's habit of gift-giving? This is how Chris R. Ainsworth sees his cat's tendency to leave a "decapitated mouse/bunny/bird/chipmunk/squirrel" on his doorstep.

This generosity of spirit does not always involve dead animals. Sarah Pratt's cats fetch her live animals, as well as ice cubes and hair ties. "They're nice that way," she says. Similarly, Mary Jozwiak's cats drop their toys outside her bedroom.

A lot of cats also seem to be in tune with the emotional state of their owners.

Jacqueline Tong recounts how her cat kept her company throughout 19 long hours of labour, "licking my face between every contraction".

Domestic cats still have strong basic instincts and one of them is wariness and self-preservation

David Penn once knew a kitten that comforted him during a bad tooth infection by curling up on his cheek and purring him to sleep.

Jessica Natasha A's cat Gina would always be there to comfort someone if they were sad.

Stories like these suggest that cats are not always as cold and calculating as they are commonly portrayed.

To make sense of the complex suite of behaviours displayed by domestic cats, we have to think about their origins, says Eva Leighton. "Domestic cats still have strong basic instincts and one of them is wariness and self-preservation."

We know that cats are descended from the wildcat (Felis silvestris). Wildcats are intensely solitary creatures, so it makes sense that domestic cats are also happy in their own company.

All domesticated cats are descended from wildcats that lived in and around the Fertile Crescent

We might expect that the process of domestication would root out that spirited independence. But cats were not domesticated in the same way as other animals, with humans carefully choosing which ones to breed from and which traits to encourage.

Instead, cats were probably responsible for their own domestication.

"It's better to think of cats the way you think of mice and rats and sparrows and pigeons," says Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Rockville, Maryland, USA.

A 2007 genetic analysis by Driscoll and his colleagues reveals that all domesticated cats are descended from wildcats that lived in and around the Fertile Crescent, precisely the spot where humans began to settle more than 10,000 years ago.

Some will be more like their wildcat ancestors

"These settlements were completely new ecological environments and animals that were plucky enough to investigate…did very well," says Driscoll. Wildcats were likely one of these species, drawn into an urban niche by an abundance of easy prey and an absence of big predators.

"All these animals had to do was become behaviourally adept at living with people," says Driscoll. But importantly, "there was no selection against them hunting, or against them finding their own mates, or against them finding places to build their own nests in a rubbish heap."

This may account for the range of behaviours displayed by the BBC Earth cats. "Some will be more like their wildcat ancestors and show [a] much more solitary, independent existence," says Driscoll. "Others, on the other side of the spectrum, are doting on their human companions."

Given all this variation, it really is hard to give a clear answer to the question of whether cats are selfish. Instead, we'll conclude with the wise words of Gata Bela: "Cats are simply adorable!"