I’m using material from a recent article about cat behaviors in the Washington Post by John Bradshaw for this post. Bradshaw offered some explanations for the sometimes winsome and sometimes frustrating behaviors that puzzle even the most dedicated cat lovers. He noted that “Cats are the world’s most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by as many as three to one.” He attributes cats’ popularity in part to their “convenience.” They don’t need walking; they can be alone for days with water and some dry food; they don’t chew the furnishings like dogs (although they have been known to “mark” their territory in ways which upsets their owners. Indeed, the rub for many cat “staffs” (dogs have owners; cats have staff) is that they can be your best friend at one moment (feeding time) and then wouldn’t cross the street to say hello the next.
Cats formed a unique partnership with humans between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago when granaries used by the inventors of agriculture in the Middle East attracted mice. The wildcats recognized a free lunch when they saw it, and moved in. They were more like urban foxes, “born to be wild” and solitary, but willing to be around people in an arrangement that benefited both parties.
Early farmers also appreciated cats for qualities we still prize: soft and furry, they also showed a wonderful intelligence and an entertaining playfulness, even if that was on their own terms.
Cats are natural distrustful of each other, but can live together peaceably if they must share a food source. Even feral cats divide up available food, growing to colonies of several hundred in close proximity. In such situations, they evolved cooperative behaviors such as grooming each other (which for their humans means petting) and the raised tail which means they are receptive to being approached. They also communicate by meowing, which has such a range of expression that their staff can tell what they are “saying.” I know when my cat Nacho wants to play or eat, or if she does not appreciate my attempts to play with her. And sometimes she tears around the house vocalizing in a way that can only be described as barking. My vet said she is a “dog in a cat suit,” which might explain this behavior. Cats also purr, which can be a sign of distress, as well as of contentment that most people take it for. Animal behaviorist theorize that purring essentially means, “Please come here and settle down beside me.”
There’s no doubt that cats occupy a unique place in our lives. We have always had at least a couple in our household for the past 40 years, and we’re hopelessly smitten by them. It would be hard to imagine a day without a tabby or dilute tortie or any of dozens of breeds sleeping in the sun, playing with string, stalking a dust bunny or running at the sound of a can opener. For my money, there’s nothing like a cat for companionship, entertainment, protection (Siamese are particularly good at this), and, yes, convenience. Through millennia they have capered and stalked beside us on the long road to the present, and I pray they will continue on our journey together.