This may be hard to believe, but I am fascinated by cats. Sure, I—and seemingly the entire internet—am in love with every kitty, but emotionally entwined with my two furballs. However, I find the animal, and its relationship with humans, enormously interesting.
It’s funny, but there wasn’t much research science done on cats until a couple of decades ago. I imagine that was because there were far more pressing areas of research than trying to find out why cats hold humans in utter contempt. Pet cat? Cat scratches. Feed cat? Cat scratches. Give scratching post to cat? Cat continuously scratches anything else but.
Back when I was growing up, no one was really sure how cats purred. I’m sure it was difficult to get a cat to purr in whatever scanning device they’d try to put it in. (Cat scratches research intern.) Now, we’re almost sure about the mechanics behind the purr, but in researching that, we’ve discovered what most veterinarians knew—cats purr when they’re scared or injured, too. They purr at a frequency that makes New Age holistic practitioners jealous, or rather their purr helps them build and repair bone and tissue. This brings up an interesting conjecture. The purr may benefit the lazy lifestyle of a cat, as it can gently keep itself in good tone while its relaxing. Living the dream!
We tend to think of cats as solitary animals, but that’s in a mistaken comparison to dogs. Cats have a very complicated social structure, which makes it difficult to study and understand. Cats tend to not be solitary, just aloof. Feral cat colonies run a bit like lion prides, with similar habits in resource sharing, protection of territory, and community support for raising kittens. Cats seem arbitrary and capricious, and they’ll seemingly turn on their human or animal companions in seconds. This tends to drive non-fanatics crazy, but cat fanciers know that swiping, hissing, biting, or outright attacking are actual moods and understand the triggers, probably better than the cats do. But cats socialize with humans on their own terms.
Researchers wanted to see why cats don’t seem to react negatively to someone threatening their humans. A dog generally dislikes someone who is aggressive with its human. And dogs tend not to forget either, and so will continue to not trust the aggressor. Cats, however, seemingly do not care. If I got punched in the face, my two cats would still react with excitement if the puncher then gave them food. (This is simplifying a bit. If there was a ruckus, both cats would probably skedaddle before the violence went down.) But cats don’t understand human to human interaction. Amongst themselves, cats may act aggressively towards each other, but a lot of it is territorial or mating related. My two cats do not like each other. But they can be in the same room, same bed—I’ve even had them both relaxing on the same lounge chair. But they’ll have occasional spats, and I usually chalk it up to the younger cat being bored and looking for someone to hassle. The howling and pouncing and beatings by paws of fury happen when the female is in her territory (two very specific chairs) and the male encroaches. They know why they hate each other, even though it’s inscrutable to us. If two humans are fighting or getting in each others’ way, maybe cats consider that territorial scuffling.
Sure, I anthropomorphize my cats. We communicate mostly by feedings and lap sittings, with the occasional petting party, the length of which is determined by cat and shall not go beyond. My wife and I talk to them, as if they understood, and as if the male cat weren’t deaf. But this helps our relationship with them. Just like they approach us with their feline outlook, so do we accept them with our humanity. I have to imagine the majority of households with cats in America do not keep them for their vermin catching abilities. Instead, we hire our cats to eat disgusting cans of meat parts that they semi-efficiently turn into poop that we’ll dispose. What’s in it for the humans? We bring our compassion and love and comfort and let them act as furry mirrors for us.
Jinx, the female cat, is currently sitting on my lap, after about a half-an-hour of trying to get me to stop typing out these secrets that cats do not want us to know. She was sitting next to me, meowing with a purring undertone, to get me to pay attention to her, until she gave up and moved to my lap. It’s comforting, although it forces me to sit in an awkward position away from my keyboard. And I love her for it. We communicate with each other, not completely understanding what we’re saying to each other. But the warmth transfers between us, and I pet her, and she purrs, and we’ve told each other all we needed for the moment.