So, what is a cat really doing when it’s exhibiting ‘typical’ cat behaviour, and what does it truly think of its human hosts? Most cat owners have no particular interest in delving in great depth into feline psychology because they have a relationship with their own cat and they flatter themselves that they know EXACTLY what it is thinking all the time. They’re wrong, and so will you be unless you do some homework.
No matter what humans do to them or with them, cats still share certain common characteristics. First and foremost, they are carnivores and they hunt, catch, kill and consume prey. There is no such thing as a vegetarian cat. You can go further, should the topic arise, and say they are ‘obligate’ carnivores, meaning they require protein from an animal source to survive – always an interesting topic with vegetarian or vegan cat lovers. Effective hunters need excellent vision and hearing, patience, sprinting and jumping prowess and, most importantly, lethal weaponry. As you already know (if you are reading this book sequentially), the cat has claws that protract, meaning they extend from the sheath when required, so most owners remain relatively unscathed, though some have been known to fall foul of the claws and teeth when their cats are ‘in the zone’. It should be common sense that an animal that is motivated and driven by the sight, sound and movement of prey, especially at dawn and dusk, makes a dangerous bedfellow. Another consequence of this, of course, is that when the lovable pet goes outdoors, it is very likely to come back with anything that might once have had a pulse. When visiting a cat lover’s house, do not be alarmed to see a succession of the corpses of many different creatures, including mice, voles, shrews, rabbits, rats, squirrels, frogs, slow worms, lizards and birds. You will undoubtedly assume heroic status if you know the drill to follow when something is brought in that still has its pulse. Cats that are well fed still hunt, but some lack the inclination to kill and consume and are content with roughing them up a little in the comforts of their home.
MEALS THAT MOVE
Step 1 Remove the cat from the scene.
Step 2 Put gloves on! Either garden gloves or, if they are not available at short notice, oven gloves will do nicely, as this drama often unfolds in the kitchen.
Step 3 Prepare a suitable receptacle for transportation, e.g., box or jar with lid, etc. Try to avoid saucepans – you might be distracted, and forget that you have guests staying.
Step 4 Locate and isolate the victim. If possible, move it into a corner.
Step 5 DO NOT follow step 4 if the victim is a rat, although there is no self-respecting rat that would allow itself to be ‘brought home’, and no sensible cat that would even try. Rats attack when cornered. You have been warned.
Step 6 Cradle the victim gently from both sides and scoop. Place in receptacle, close lid.
Step 7 Place in hidden area in garden. Open lid.
Step 8 Keep the cat indoors for as long as possible to give the victim a sporting chance.
Step 9 Prepare to repeat steps 1-8 when the cat brings the same victim in half an hour later.
Cats aren’t just hunters – they are also solitary hunters, which means that they rarely share what they catch, and don’t need the help of a pack (clowder) to bring down a proverbial wildebeest. Sharing is not big on a cat’s list of priorities and that can be an enormous issue for those cat lovers who have multiple cats.
Rudyard Kipling referred to the cat that ‘walked by himself’, and one thing is for sure – cats are also solitary survivalists. When the chips are down, every cat is for itself. This innate self-reliance is probably where the cat’s poker face comes from. Veterinary surgeons will tell you that cats are notoriously difficult to read when it comes to signs of pain, and the same can be said for stress and anxiety. This makes perfect sense, as to appear weak and vulnerable would not be a good survival strategy. This is in stark contrast to the dog, who wants the world to know about its pain.
‘One is never sure, watching two cats washing each other, whether it’s affection, the taste or a trial run for the jugular.’
The cat is also a territorial species, as previously mentioned. This is an issue for many cat owners for various reasons. Firstly, cats fight with their neighbours’ cats, are often more attached to their ‘territory’ than their owner (ask any cat owner about the joys of moving house), ‘mark’ their territory, and may struggle if their whole world consists of a one-bedroom flat.
The super-sensory nature of the cat also comes with potential drawbacks. The simple act of an owner changing her perfume can cause some to go into meltdown. Familiarity and routine are everything for the solitary survivalist, as they represent safety: if the cat did something yesterday and didn’t die, it naturally assumes that it probably won’t die today if it does the same thing again. However, this could all change with the arrival of a new sofa, a new hall mat or a visit from a maiden aunt.
To make sense of the ensuing psychodrama, you could say that all cats are paranoid pessimists. Whatever their inscrutable expressions suggest, they are undoubtedly plotting and scheming – looking for subtexts, hidden gestures and conspiracies. When your new sofa is delivered, you might think, ‘What an attractive fabric.’ The cat, however, thinks, ‘Today that sofa might attempt to kill me.’ There is a subtle difference, although the cat would be unlikely to agree that there is anything subtle about the arrival of a new source of danger in its habitat.
Nowhere is there more room for misinterpretation than when cats are observed in the presence of other cats. If cats are sitting in the same room at the same time, this might be considered a good sign. You will know differently. Similarly, if a cat is sitting casually on the staircase when another cat in the household is upstairs, there might not be a perceived problem. Again, you will know differently. Cats are strategists and won’t start a fight unless they have a sporting chance of winning, so standoffs and psychological warfare are rife. You can handle this sensitively by suggesting that all may not be as it appears, quoting any of the ‘ethological’ content above. Cat owners will be completely unable to come back at you with a counterargument.
But only a highly qualified professional should ever strip a cat owner of their belief system and must do so with compassion and emotional support. Be careful before entering the same behavioural minefield with your newfound knowledge, instead restricting yourself to an understanding nod that suggests, ‘Cats, eh?’
The following is probably the easiest way to classify the more recognisable types of cats. It will also suggest to any cat aficionado in the vicinity that you have given the matter some thought, and thus have a convincing claim to hold yourself out as somebody who knows their feline onions. The particular idiosyncracies described are not common to all cats which might be thought to fall under one of the stereotype headings. It is important to stress that every cat is a distinct individual. This will be music to every besotted owner’s ears.
LARRY THE LODGER
This cat does its own thing, coming and going as it pleases, but is just as likely to be indoors and fast asleep at night as out. Larry is the cat wanted by everyone who has ever said ‘Cats are less of a tie than dogs.’ He affects to love his owner best when he or she is opening a sachet of ‘gourmet’ something-or-other or making tuna sandwiches. This cat may sleep on its owner’s lap in the evening (much to their delight) if the person in question is warm enough and promises to remain still. Larry is particularly smart as he pays absolutely no rent.
IGNATIUS THE INSCRUTABLE
Whatever Ignatius feels about life, you will never know, but you can be absolutely sure his owner is even more clueless. He has an expression that never changes; he always appears impassive (possibly, it’s so hard to tell) but there are plenty of anarchic thoughts going on in his head – watch for subtle changes in behaviour, a change in the angle of the whisker by one degree or an ever-so-slight rotation of the right ear, for example. He is friendly enough – on his own terms – but rest assured that in the blink of an eye he will disappear to patrol his territory or engage in some other activity more exciting than being with you.
BARRY THE BEANBAG
Barry gives the appearance of a bag stuffed with beans, usually rather more beans than that particular bag should comfortably hold. He sleeps on his back with his legs in the air and any substantial incendiary device going off nearby will fail to register. Barry tolerates any new cats in the home by rolling onto his side with a huff of resignation, not really mixing with them unless absolutely necessary (e.g., mealtimes). Note that sometimes, like a tortoise, he has to be helped to roll over.
Trevor is the opposite of Barry; he starts at the merest sound or movement, but appears confusingly relaxed at other times. He sleeps a lot indoors and tends to go out mainly when the owner is gardening or chatting with the neighbours, at which point he will show great bravado in the face of the bolshy cat from No. 3, usually from a position of safety behind his owner’s legs.
Who said cats don’t have a sense of humour? Living with Clive provides an endless source of amusement thanks to his apparent tendency to sleep in absurd postures, get his head stuck in impossible places and fall into the toilet bowl with monotonous regularity. Clive is very much the star of YouTube. He will play with anything, and seems to have boundless energy as he skids across the kitchen floor in pursuit of something ghastly he’s just found under the fridge. Owners often describe the Clives of this world as ‘not quite playing with a full deck’, but also tend to believe that they’re merely enjoying life. The reality is that Clive is mortified about being laughed at and is plotting revenge at this very moment.
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE
Dr Jekyll is the most loving and affectionate cat towards his owner, yet his alter ego, Mr Hyde, is a vicious thug who appears to take sadistic pleasure in fighting, torturing and terrorising other cats. Picking on the elderly (cats or humans) is particularly entertaining. He will break into other people’s homes to steal food and intimidate the resident cats. Mr Hyde is best not disturbed by the protective owners of his victims because he doesn’t discriminate between cats and humans when he is on a mission of destruction and mayhem. This particular character often comes in the guise of a Burmese or Bengal.
Fanny demands to be noticed on occasions but is distant most of the time. She is happy to have attention but it must be on her own terms – something you will hear oft lamented by owners who have had gestures of affection frequently rebuffed. Sometimes Fanny ignores you, and then for no discernible reason she can’t get enough of you. This is all very confusing for those owners who like to know where they stand in a relationship, but you of course will be wise to this apparent ambivalence. The truth of it is that Fanny, like most cats, sees her owner as a useful idiot rather than a serious relational equal.
SCOTT THE SCHIZO
Beware! Your lack of knowledge may be exposed if you get fooled by Scott. He rubs round your legs and then redesigns your features if you dare to touch him. Scott is the master of the mixed message; he may sit on your lap and then bite and scratch you if you dare to stroke him for a second too long. Owners believe that poor Scott must have been ill-treated as a kitten, but this is rarely the case. He is merely objecting to the fact that humans are such rubbish at speaking cat.
Violet might as well be a lost slipper for all the time she spends under the bed. She tends to come out at night or when her owner is in the garden. If you visit, you will not see her, as she will do a record-breaking sprint when the doorbell rings, never to be seen again.
Cuthbert is definitely a neutered male (testosterone is the only thing that once made him self-reliant). He must have Velcro on his undercarriage because he spends most of his time stuck to the front of his owner’s sweater. He follows her everywhere, sleeps in her bed with her, and dribbles, purrs and treads on her stomach constantly. Definitely a mummy’s boy, he is prone to losing his appetite when she’s away (but then of course she rarely goes away). Cuthbert would undoubtedly pine to death in a cattery, or so he would have his owner believe.
Sophie looks like she cannot believe your audacity when you dare to touch her – British Shorthairs have got this look down to a fine art. The whole experience appears to make her feel physically sick. Sophie disappears to a private place repeatedly because she’s trying to get away from humans in general.
Stanley is really rather cute and sweet until you try to give him a pill or an injection – this is definitely not a cat on which you would attempt to demonstrate your expertise in these matters. Stanley will, if restrained, develop four times as many legs, teeth and claws as normal and do his skilful best to ensure maximum shredding of any human flesh in the vicinity. Whatever anyone is trying to do to him will never be achieved unless he is anaesthetised or dead. Stanley has ‘EXTRA CARE’ written all over his medical records at the vets.
REGGIE THE RINGMASTER
Reggie will get the soft-hearted owner jumping through hoops just because he can. This is the cat that demands total compliance and has an armoury of devious ways to ensure the owner obeys at all times. The owner loves him dearly; blissfully unaware that he is definitely laughing at her when she’s not looking. Your best defence in the presence of Reggie is to feign complete indifference; it is something so far outside his understanding, he simply won’t be able to calibrate.
This is where cat lovers go all misty-eyed and fanciful. They believe that every now and then their lives are touched by Old Obidiah. These are cats that seem to their owners to possess a wisdom and aura more likely to be found in a Tibetan monk than a five-year-old furball. Obidiah tends to be a legendary creature that turns up on the doorstep and adjusts completely and effortlessly into the lives of the gullible. No one knows where he came from, but he will always be remembered long after he is gone. Obidiah will go for walks with his owners, meet the children from the school gates or raise spirits when his owner is down. You will hear countless tales of reincarnation of cats previously loved and lost or even the spiritual manifestation of long-dead relatives. Prepare an appropriately compassionate and knowing expression in the mirror in silent acceptance of the fact that Obidiah has definitely been here before.
Although all cats share many characteristics, in reality every cat is unique. Do not burst the bubble of any cat lover by attempting to explain their cat’s behaviour in biological terms, as this will fall on deaf ears and all your hard-earned bluffing credentials will be worthless.
DID YOU KNOW…?
You can calculate a cat’s age in human terms by deducting two years from its age, multiplying the result by four and then adding 24. In other words, for those mathematically inclined:
Equivalent human age = (χ – 2) x 4 + 24 [χ = age of cat]
Ethology, meaning ‘the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour’, is a very good word for bluffers to know.