NOT Breaking My Pledge…

…to never write about cats or sports. I’m writing about animal behavior. It just happens to be my cat’s behavior. Totally different! No, really!

I like pets. In addition to dogs and cats, I’ve had fish, reptiles, frogs and toads. My family briefly had a canary. Kids have had mice and hermit crabs, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. So, pets, yes.

I like dogs and cats, but like cats more because a) I find their ‘personalities,’ such as they are, more interesting, and b) cats are a lot easier to care for than dogs. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

One thing is clear: virtually all discussion of animal intelligence is projection. Dogs and cats are intelligent, in some sense, but not usually in the senses people seem to think. Both are predators but of very different kinds, and have ‘intelligence’ that reflects how their ancestors stayed alive in their environments of evolutionary adaptation. At least, that’s the party line among evolutionary biologists, and seems to me to account for the vast bulk of Fluffy’s and Fido’s behaviors. There’s behaviors around the edges, such as cats attacking dogs who are attacking their humans, or dogs standing watch over the graves of their former owners, which are harder to explain, or rather, the explanations come off as egregious ‘just so’ stories.

Yet on the whole, our furry pets’ behaviors seem to make sense, once you think of a dog as a pack animal, and a cat as a largely solitary hunter. Dogs, like people, ‘know’ instinctively that their survival depends on belonging to a pack/tribe/herd. Belonging is survival Job 1, and so dogs are forever seeking affirmation, showing submission (or dominance, if poorly trained), and trying to engage you in play of some sort. They also really have a hard time with the ‘my food/your food’ distinction unless you are there to enforce it. In the dog’s world, the alpha should simply never walk away from food he still wants.

A cat, on the other hand, will leave you a present. That dead rat, mouse or bird on the welcome mat is a gesture of affection perhaps even more profound than a dog’s leaping up to lick his master’s face. This is food we’re talking about – life and death. You ‘share’ cat food with the cat, which in some ways must blow his tiny mind. They must really like you to share back.

We are currently down to one pet, a cat. Our cat is a Siberian. Unlike other breeds whimsically named for exotic places, Siberians are called that because they come from Siberia. They look the part, with the thickest, softest fur, suited for a place where it gets really, really cold. They are also large – helps with heat retention.

Siberians are most well known for low levels of allergens in their saliva, meaning that people with cat allergies can tolerate Siberians better than most other breeds. (1) Everyone in the family except me and the Caboose are allergic; we all went to the breeder’s house together and spent an hour there, and nobody reacted very strongly – and so I paid actual money for a cat, something I’d never done before.

They are also known for their strong ‘personalities’ – they tend to be smart, playful, athletic and fond of their humans. They can also have a mean streak: our son very presciently named his cat ‘Razor’. He’s a nice cat, usually, just don’t cross him. Sharp claws and teeth, and he does not hesitate to use them.

So, anyway, here’s the interesting situation that occasioned this post. The Caboose is the cat’s human; I am the number one back-up. In general, this means that when the boy is sitting around playing video games or watching something, the cat can most often be found draped on him. When his boy is not available, he wants my attention.

This cat’s idea of getting attention is to act like a toddler: he will follow me around, and any time I stand still, he will put his front paws on my thigh to get me to pick him up. Usually, I obligue. When I don’t, like when I’m up early and trying to make some coffee and breakfast, the cat generally gives up after a few tries, and then maybe tries again when I’m done eating.

Well, his boy has been on three one-week Boy Scout adventures this summer so far, and the cat is not taking it well. When I get up early – almost every day – and the boy is not around (2), the cat freaking panics. He doesn’t just follow me around, meowing, and putting his paws on my leg, he freaking chases me down if I try to walk away. No amount of ignoring him will get him to stop. I finally had to put him in another room and close the door just so I could have a cup of coffee.

By now – 2:00 p.m. – I’ve picked him up and held him and petted him for a bit at least half a dozen times today. He finally went off to nap somewhere, meaning I can type this. His boy got up mid-morning (hey, he’s 15, it’s summer) and that helped. But it didn’t fully end it.

This behavior seems much more dog-like than cat-like. I certainly have never seen it before. I’m trying to map it to ‘solitary predator’ behavior, and it ain’t working. What is up with this crazy cat? I’m sympathetic and all, but it’s also driving me nuts. What will happen when our son goes away to college in a few years?

The Caboose is scheduled to be home for the next few weeks, then is heading off for another one-week Boy Scout gig. Sure hope the cat figures this out on some level, or he’s going to be spending alone time in closed rooms.

For reference only: the animal in question, with his boy, as of a couple years ago.
  1. All this means is that for people with allergies that are not too severe, jut having Siberians around will likely be tolerable. If you hold them and play with them for extended periods, are bets are off. Works for us, anyway.
  2. We all keep our bedroom doors closed at night, as the cat will otherwise decide he needs to work on his prowling and pouncing skills at some point during the night, or needs some petting at 2:00 a.m. or other such nonsense. So he really doesn’t seem to know who is home and who isn’t until we get up.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

9 thoughts on “NOT Breaking My Pledge…”

  1. My family briefly had a canary.

    Somehow, that tickles my funny…..

    cats are a lot easier to care for than dogs

    If I have to leave for two weeks, I know who I’d rather have.

    **********

    A thing to remember with pets is that they don’t just recreate the pack or whatever with us– they tend to stop at “kitten” or “puppy” stage, although both in the older range.

    So your son’s cat was just abandoned by mommy.

    That is a lovely young cat, rather like our little Demon girl crossed with the Tuxedo Mafia. (Two older boys, one of whom predates the marriage and the other of whom was the “please don’t hate the baby” bribe to firstborn.)

    1. Good point. Neutered pets never get past adolescence, at most. I’ve been shamed into carrying the cat around a bit more, and he seems a little better, BUT EVERYBODY IS HOME TODAY. He’s been sitting on grandma, hanging with his boy – and he still wants me carry him around. I’m trying to see this as affectionate.

      It’s also a little humorous in that he’s the big cat, death to any little creatures that cross his path – and he wants to be held and carried around all the time.

  2. We had a pet raccoon when I was young, an abandoned cub. No doubt based on the rich diet we gave him, he grew to be enormous, and once he hit adulthood, simply got too rough and started reverting to his natural wildness. So we let him go (on a ranch out in the Texas Hill Country far from our house). A year or two later, I stumbled across the short novel “Rascal” by Sterling North, which told a very similar tale. I read it over and over again and cried each time.

    As for cats, I read something not too long ago that argued they’ve never really been domesticated in the same sense that dogs have. (The old joke is that dogs have owners while cats have staff.) They simply adapted to associating with humans without surrendering their autonomy. (I suppose that goes back to the dog-as-pack-animal/cat-as-loner model.) Certainly ours make constant demands on me, but good luck trying to get them to do anything they’ve no mind to.

    1. Cats just don’t understand, if they don’t want to.

      Read somewhere that tigers – solitary hunters – are as trainable as lions – pack hunters – but that the approach is much different. Similarly, cats are as trainable as dogs, but require a much different approach. I have no personal experience of this.

      The only thing I can say our cat is trained to do: he will climb into the refrigerator any time we open it – we all pretend it’s because the cold reminds of his ancestor’s home – and just sit there, and give you that blank cat look when you try to shoo him out. So, somebody, I think it was my wife, began to entice him out with kitty treats.

      So we’ve successfully trained the cat to rush into the refrigerator and wait until we offer him treats to leave. At least, objectively, that what it looks like.

  3. I know nothing certain about these matters, but my understanding is that the closest wild cousin of the housecat is usually thought to be the African wildcat, and while African wildcats are solitary hunters, they are unusually social wildcats and always live in loose groups. Their social groups just tend not to have much structure — I suppose the highly structured wolf pack is connected with the fact that wolves actually hunt together, and cooperative hunting is not the sort of thing that you can do with everyone just taking whatever role they happen to feel like at the moment. My (complete) guess is that cat sociality is more about safety (of food-territory and themselves), so perhaps your Siberian is looking for reassurance that the protective alliance is still functioning.

    But who knows; cats always act oddly with humans, anyways. Feral cats and wildcats don’t generally share food (except mothers with kittens), so the fact that housecats will bring humans food is as strange as the fact that they meow, which they also only do with humans. So perhaps it has something to do with us — maybe there’s something about our behavior that strikes them as kittenish, so they are treating us as needing special attention.

    1. That’s also a good point. Some big cats – tigers, jaguars – are really solitary, as in fighting off any other cat that comes into its territory, unless to mate or a females own small cubs. But feral cats, at least, tend to hang out in groups, like, as you mention wildcats. That we appear kittens to them does fit much of the appearances.

  4. Your elves are different?

    I like cats and dogs both. Ideally, I’d have both, but the rest of the household is allergic, and they don’t mix well with rescue greyhounds. (Which are a magical horse-cat-dog mashup!)

    Cats hunt for fun, so they’re not sharing food with you, they’re sharing toys. Which a friendly dog will do as well. A friendly lab will try to put it in your mouth. Ask me how I know.

    It’s been 3 decades since my last cat, so I have only a little ability about helping your friend-in-fur cope with the loss of her loved one. When I first embarked on owning greyhounds and adding them to the family, I dug into books on how these beasties were socialized, how they communicated, the works. It was very helpful. I suspect literature on cat brain-wiring and social habits also exists. Eschew any source that tries to romanticize its subject.

  5. When we lived on the farm, we had a cat that would regularly bring a dead mouse to our doorstep. This puzzles me. Reminds me of Dick Whittington’s cat. There must have been a long term breeding program that rewarded cats who brought their kills back to their master, long term enough that it became part of their genetic makeup.

    1. I think it’s the “mommy” response.

      My mom found an entire litter of kittens– six or eight, eyes not yet open.

      She saved them all.

      Our front yard was freaking impossible for the next summer, because they ALL brought food “home” for mommy.

      It went away when they were given out as barn cats, so I guess itmight be a “bring they catch back to mom so she can actually kill it” thing for kittens since they so often fail to kill the @#$#@, but oy.

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