In Defence of Cats

During Badger Fortnight an amazing blog post by climber Craig Armstrong came to my attention – detailing the climbing exploits of him and his cat Millie.

I particularly love the comments that express amazement or defend the cats’ loyalty.

As you might have guessed by reading this blog, I’m a big fan of animals, but if you forced me to choose, I’d describe myself as a cat person.

Legend (or family lore at the least) tells that when I was a baby, our two cats were fascinated by the new arrival. They would sit on either side of the changing mat, and sneak into the cot whenever they could manage it. My mum clearly wasn’t a subscriber to the old myth that cats suffocate babies. (Unless she was and she was hoping they might . . . she’ll undoubtedly comment on this so check below for her thoughts).

John Bradshaw’s ‘Cat Sense’, one of my favourite popular science books, talks about how cats have always polarised people. More recently, I’ve been arguing with our MOOC cameraman about how cats are awesome (he disagrees – let us know in the MOOC forums if you note a distinct dog bias in our glamour shots). Lastly, even a climbing cat couldn’t convince my sister, climber extrordinaire, that cats are just as awesome as dogs, if not more so.

Buckle your seatbelt, kitten, we’re having a Caturday.

When I first started composing this post it devolved into a long series of memories about this little lady, Posie. Adopted from an SSPCA shelter when I was five she’s the kind of cat who might have stepped out of a Homeward Bound film (except her homeward journey took her four years to travel six miles, but never mind). She would walk with us to the shops, and was one of the most affectionate little animals I’ve ever met. Hers is a story I’ll save for a Fluffy Friday.

Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.
Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.

Instead let’s talk about the cat-human bond. I talk about dogs a lot and in fact they’re one of my favourite examples to use when I’m explaining why humans and animals have long histories. Despite this, dogs are pretty understudied in animal welfare and cats receive even less attention. So this post will be a very potted summary of what we know of the human-cat bond.

A 9,500 year old grave in Cyprus contains a man buried with a cat (Vigne et al, 2004), and there’s archaeological evidence in China dating around 5,300 years ago of cats living with humans, eating leftovers and eating the rodents around our grain (Hu et al 2014). Much like dogs, but considerably later, cats started exploiting humans by making use of our environment. Particularly when we started farming and lots of little rodents started preying on our grains.

Like dogs, cats true wild ancestor no longer exists. Instead, the cats which could tolerate humans became our domesticated cats, those who couldn’t stayed far from humans, and became something else. But cats are a few thousand years behind dogs in this domesticated tree. While dogs were a product of the hunter gather, cats are a product of the farmer.

One of the little titbits in John Bradshaw’s book absolutely fascinated me. A tenth century Welsh statue says

“The price of a cat is fourpence. Her qualities are to see, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole, and to nurse and not devour her kittens. If she be deficient in any one of these qualities, one third of her price must be returned”

Good mothers, good mousers. This cat would fetch the same price as an untrained house-dog a sheep or a goat. Kittens were a penny, the same as a piglet or a lamb, and a young cat was two pence. And female cats were much more highly prized than toms (a strange quirk that I still buy into, I’ve always liked female cats more, for no real reason).

The good mother clause is interesting because cats are not, by nature, all good mothers. My old cat, Posie, had two litters of kittens. Her first litter she decided to have on my bed, in full view of the world, on a bedspread with a cat and kittens on it. I don’t think I was older than seven, and I remember being very touched that she chose to have her little little of black fluffballs in my bedroom. Looking back on it now, I still can’t decide if this was a demonstration of absolute trust and security, or simply a demonstration of her not quite having the right instincts during her pregnancy.

While she would feed them all, she was not particularly defensive of them. When they started to crawl, my mum and I experimented by taking one from her nest and taking it to the far side of the kitchen. Posie eventually came to get it after we called on her, evidently not greatly perturbed by the kitten’s plaintive mews.

Her second litter was born while we were temporarily living in a flat. We had only been in the flat for a few months and she seemed to need somewhere quieter to have her kittens. I opened my wardrobe not long before we were due to move back home and promptly informed my mother Posie had had kittens again, which was no small consternation considering it was a pet-free flat.

Being small and petite, Posie would drag her large fluffy kittens along the floor rather than pick them up. The only thing that ever seemed to arouse her mothering instincts was when they would get stuck under the bathroom sink and cry. Even years after she was spayed, the sounds of a crying kitten on the television would have her searching under the bathroom sink.

Related cats will happily share litters, and in a good environment, they’ll stay with their mothers for a long time. Girls are particularly social, staying with sisters for a long time. If this is reminding you of any other big cat structure there’s a reason – house cats and lions are the only felines which will typically naturally live in groups. Kittens which are socialised very early with humans, between 2 and 9 weeks, appear to give their owners more social support (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008).

So what is it about cats that makes them decide to pride-up with humans, in the same way dogs pack-up with us? I firmly believe that dog people are threatened by the cat’s ability to control. We understand that dogs get their way by being cute and adorable, but cats seem to be able to train us.

McComb et al (2009) did one of my favourite studies because it confirmed something I had long recognised in Posie’s relationship with me. She had a specific purr which incorporated a quiet, high pitched chirrup, a rolling r and a little uplift at the end. We used to call it ‘purring with excitement’ and it was given in anticipation of food, when she thought food might be included in Tesco shopping bags, when she was about to be let out of the door and when she was desperate for a cuddle (the ‘prrroing’ noise would escape as she leapt up onto the sofa or bed, soon giving way to a deep, rhythmic purring as she reached her goal).

McComb et al investigated how these solicitation purrs sounded to cat owners and non-cat owners. All identified these solicitation purrs as being more urgent and less pleasant than the same cat’s relaxed purr. But cat-owners were significantly better dentifying the same cat’s solicitation purr and relaxed purr than non-owners, suggesting that owners learn this. McComb et all went on to investigate the auditory properties of these solicitation purrs and the peak of the cry lies at around 300-600Hz, the same as a human baby’s hungry wail.

Yep, cats vocalise at the same pitch as our babies, a sound that we are incapable of habituating to, thanks to that pesky evolution.

Cats play their affection for us coolly. While we can use infant human attachment tests to measure a dog’s obsession with its owner, cats which are isolated from their owner do not respond to their owner’s voice with body language or vocalisation, but by a tiny ear swivel in the direction of their owner’s voice (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013). I haven’t found any evidence of people using separation tests in cats (let me know if you know of a study) but there is evidence of cats showing separation related behaviours when left alone, such as excessive grooming, vocalisation and defecation (Schwartz, 2002).

Dogs share a lot of traits with us, trained in ways we understand instinctively, motivated by affection and praise like we are, but cats have a different kind of intelligence, less comparable to ours.

Teach a dog and a cat to pull a string for a food reward. They both quickly take to pulling the string. Give them two strings and show them that food exists at the end of one string. Dogs are reasonably able to deduce that they want to pull the string attached to the food. Cats, not so much. Pull string, get food. Cats don’t understand they need to link the food to the string, whereas dogs seem to be able to grasp this at a rudimentary level. Finally, if you cross the strings, cats are still playing their little string games and the dog geniuses are entirely confused. Causal understanding is not a cat’s strong point (Whitt et al, 2009).  Dogs and babies can do object permanance tests, cats struggle (and some cats don’t even bother).

So, emotionally manipulative, intelligence alien to our own, and only barely able to tolerate other cats and humans if given the right amount of socialisation as kittens. Why do we love them?

What I love about a cat is its ability to be selective in its affection. I like to feel important in a pet’s life. My mum’s new cat, adopted from a friend who could no longer look after her, greets me with raised tail and chirrups when I walk up the road with an overnight bag. She sniffs my face and then promptly investigates all the bags and treasures I have brought. While I’ve known her for four years now, her affection for me has only recently developed. Earning the trust of a cat I see infrequently feels more rewarding for me than the instant love of a dog I’ve just met.

In my opinion its this small personality difference that distinguishes dog and cat people. Dog people are more extraverted, socialising easily and freely. Introverts value that socialness no less, but like it a different, more concentrated source.

Bradshaw finishes his book with a surprising statement that doesn’t come naturally from most animal welfare scientisits. He suggests that we start breeding for a truly domesticated cat, teaching people how to train their cats, and stop neutering the excellent housecats we have indiscriminately. He points to his 1999 paper which found that an area with a high population of neutered cats was producing moggie kittens that didn’t have particularly sociable genes.

Bradshaw argues that if we want the domestic cat to survive as a pet, we must use our knowledge of animal welfare to produce an animal more suited for its new environment. He suggests that we can avoid making the mistakes we made with dogs and take a scientific approach to producing the animal we want, affectionate, relaxed, and with little hunting motivation.

 

I find that an interesting idea, and it has certainly affected my thinking about any future cats I will own.

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9 thoughts on “In Defence of Cats

  1. I was about to say I subscribe to the notion that earning a dog’s affection is far too easy, while a cat will award affection in a far more rationed way, when I remembered Katie, the velcro cat. Then, I thought I would talk about my love for cats being due to their manipulative intelligence – then I remembered Bobo falling off the fence this morning for no reason other than she got her paws mixed up. So, I guess I am just programmed by their chirrups and proings, aimed at me in baby frequencies. By the way, I didn’t let the cats sleep in your cot, honestly. They just kept breaking into the bedroom. Laav ya really x

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    1. I suspect it also has something to do with how hilarious a cat fail is too. Impossible not to love a humiliated cat. And seeing as I survived childhood I’ll just have to assume you did your motherly duty!

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  2. Thank you for proving that my dog is actually a cat.
    Joking (only a little bit) aside – we once had a very special cat who I am certain knew how fridge doors opened and had a particular meow for milk, but who was often found licking the wooden furniture.

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      1. He was very special. Massive big fairly cuddly ginger cat. I loved his little sister more though. We “owned” the mum, dad and the whole of the first little. In terms of pets they were excellent cats. Affectionate but happy to be out at night, they didn’t need to be house cats but lived very sociably with humans and dog. The mum Ellie used to snuggle to the dog and rather adored him, he was heartbroken when she died.

        Anyway, I could talk about my pets for far too long.

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