by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library
Scientists didn’t use to study domestic cats. They considered it beneath them. That changed a generation ago. Cat Sense brings this research up to 2013 when the book came out. John Bradshaw is an anthrozoologist, that is to say he specializes in animal-human relations. More particularly, he specializes in the domestic cat. About 14 years ago Stephen Budiansky provided this same type of account for general readers in The Character of Cats. It was a revelation for me, discovering that scientists had started studying these felines and that what they’d found out was as interesting as I’d hoped it would be.
Bradshaw’s book would bring me more or less up to date, I thought. I was right. Though Bradshaw isn’t as adept at Budiansky at making everything engaging, he runs a close second. And there’s no one else to turn to anyway. A cat owner himself as well as someone who does field research, he has a well-rounded perspective that blends the professional with the personal.
So what’s going on with the most popular pet in world? Bradshaw makes many key points about cats by contrasting them with dogs, the number two pet. Such as this statement: “The dog’s mind has been radically altered from that of its ancestor…cats, on the other hand, still think like wild hunters. Unlike dogs, only a small minority of cats has ever been intentionally bred by people.” One of the most interesting accounts in the book is a text/box showing the ur-cat Pseudaelurus, the ancestor of all cats today, big or small. It came about approximately 11 million years ago. Interestingly enough, critical development of the cat took place in this hemisphere before the cat went elsewhere. About 10,000 years ago cats threw in their lot with us. Just 2,000 years ago, the cat was physically different from our cat: it was somewhat larger. Bradshaw gives a fine account of the Egyptians, the first people who clearly made pets of the cat. We all know they worshipped cats, but what is much less known, and what shocked me, is that they sacrificed them to their cat gods. In great numbers. I won’t look at the Egyptians the same way again. Amazing and germane facts like this fill the book. Ypres, a Belgian city, only made cat worship illegal in 962 CE, "while a cult based around the [cat-associated] goddess Diana lingered in parts of Italy until the sixteenth century." Eventually Bradshaw brings us up to 40 years ago, when commercially-available, well-balanced cat food became widely available. This has made it unnecessary for non-feral domestic cats to hunt, a major shift in cat behavior, to say the very least. This is one of many instances he shows where humans have shaped cat evolution. It is one of the strengths of the book that, in reading about how we’ve done this shaping, it makes you feel personally closer to cats.
A chapter on the cat’s view of the world clued me in on the fact that biologists have long since rejected the belief that one species is “superior” to another. The author admits that cat owners may think their charges feel differently. The chapter is biology-heavy, but it’s accessible. We learn that a cat can’t focus on objects very close to its nose but compensates by using its whiskers, which “provide a 3-D tactile ‘picture’ of objects that are right in front” of them. What are whiskers anyway? Modified hairs.
The “Thoughts and Feelings” chapter states something I’ve seen science moving towards but didn’t know they’d embraced, namely, that “all mammals, and therefore cats, have the ability to produce many of the same emotions we feel.” There. Embraced. No anthropomorphizing needed. In other words, “it’s now scientifically acceptable to explain [cats] behavior in terms of what they ‘think’ and ‘feel.’ ” Doesn’t mean they’re human, of course (though they’re much more like us than you might think—the book provides numerous examples of this).
The switch from solitary creature to social animal has required of the cat a gigantic leap in social techniques, and Bradshaw clearly shows this. Occasionally, the author summarizes scientific studies and goes too much into how Control Groups A, B, C, D, and E varied slightly. These should’ve been translated into user-friendly English from the technical journals (yes, they have those journals for cat study).
As recently as Budiansky’s book, scholars had been very divided about exactly how cats purr. But that’s been settled now—you’ll learn how they do it in the book.
One of the marvelous scientific agreements in the book is the consensus that cats aren’t always driven by the need for food and shelter. They are capable of pure affection, word scientists understandably prefer instead of love. For years I’ve experienced this. A neighborhood cat has on hundreds of occasions greeted me when I returned home, looking for a petting. I’ve never fed this cat. I’ve known that this cat is looking for affection from me and is willing to return it, but of course this is anecdotal proof. Well, now it’s official: that cat has been showing affection.
In later chapters, Bradshaw shows how cat science can help us live better with our cats. In fact, the subtitle of the book is How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. Actually, only these chapters really do this in any direct way, but marketers are marketers. Still, there’s something in every section of the book that’ll help you get along better with your cat, but you’ll get this by inference and example rather than by explicit direction.
Do cats have their own personalities? Yes, say the cat scientists. The word “personality” is now scientifically kosher. Does Bradshaw address the anti-cat brigade? Yes, and he does it dispassionately, dismantling their arguments very well. I scarcely knew there was such a movement. Bradshaw shows how humans create the social and technological landscape and the ground rules, cats make do with these as best they can and then humans blame them for making do. We blame cats for problems we create. Bradshaw diplomatically makes these points and gives me a book I can recommend to the brigade to should I have the need.
“Cats of the Future” is the name of the last chapter. I don’t know why, but this is an unintentionally hilarious phrase. I pictured felines whirring around in Jetsons getup. But seriously, Bradshaw shows how we can all lay the groundwork, and ground rules, for a positive cat future. Hazards such as over-neutering and breeding are addressed here. It’s clear that we’ll continue to shape the cat’s evolution, but it’s up to us to choose positive ways to do this.
Cat Sense isn’t always easy reading. But it is substantial and I felt a real sense of accomplishment finishing it. I think other readers will feel the same. It’s sort of like taking an upper high school or college 101 course. Your cat will thank you.