But for any who may wonder what their feline companions are really thinking, “Cat Sense,” by John Bradshaw, provides the best answers that science can give for the time being.
Dr. Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Bristol in England, has studied animal behavior and cats in particular for the last 30 years. The starting point of his analysis is that cats are still essentially wild animals. They wandered into our encampments when we first started to store harvested grains, which attracted mice.
Unlike dogs, which have been greatly changed by domestication from their wolf ancestor, cats have almost never been bred for a purpose. They caught mice well enough, and their kittens made attractive companions. So cats have stayed much the same, with any evolutionary trend toward domestication constrained by frequent interbreeding with wild cats.
To this day the population of domestic cats is maintained in a semiferal state by the practice of neutering. About the only males available for domestic female cats to breed with are the wildest and least people-friendly tomcats who have escaped into the feral cat population. Some 85 percent of all cat matings, Dr. Bradshaw writes, are arranged by cats themselves, meaning with feral cats.
The result is that when cats interact with people, they have to rely almost entirely on their natural social behaviors, which are not highly developed. The strongest social bond is between a mother and her kittens. Kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, and they knead their mother’s belly to keep the milk flowing.
Also in the cat behavioral repertory are grooming and rubbing against known cats. When cats rub up against you or invite their head to be stroked, they are treating you as a nonhostile cat. An upright tail is a greeting sign between cats, and “is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us,” Dr. Bradshaw writes.
One of the cat behaviors most disturbing to owners is their habit of bringing dead animals into the house. My cat Hodge, a young tabby, regularly deposits dead shrews and mice on the kitchen floor, as well as abandoned gloves, to which he has taken an inexplicable liking.
Minerva, a plump but acrobatic ginger cat, specializes in flying creatures. She brings in butterflies, dragonflies, cicadas and the occasional bat. The dragonflies and bats she probably found already dead and brought in for show. But I have seen her leap into the air to claw down butterflies, greatly to my distress.
Many people explain away such wasteful killing with the assumption that the cats view their owners as kittens who need to be fed. Dr. Bradshaw gives this explanation short shrift.
Cats bring their prey into the house, he says, as a side effect of their hunting strategy, which is basically to sniff out the scent marks that mice and other rodents leave to communicate with one another. The cats just sit downwind of such marks and wait for the rodents to show up. Because several cats may congregate where such marks are abundant, it’s better to take any prey to a safe place where it can be eaten in peace.
But once cats have taken a catch into their house, only then do they remember that canned cat food tastes so much better, so the freshly killed rodent is dumped on the floor, Dr. Bradshaw says. (But, if I may presume to question his expert explanation, why then did my cats leave none of their dead offerings when I went away for a week last month?)
As for cats’ attitudes toward their owners, Dr. Bradshaw thinks they regard them not as kittens but as a combination of mother-substitutes and larger, nonhostile cats.
I found the book’s sections on the evolution and archaeology of cats a little long-winded, and the writing in general is clear but stodgy in places. That aside, “Cat Sense” will teach you much about the biology of cats that you never suspected.