Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday cat blogging: scientific observations for cat lovers

John Bradshaw is a British anthrozoologist who likes cats. Hence Cat Sense: How the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet. He worries that domestic cats are asked to thrive in an environment that we urban humans create, an environment that is at odds with the survival instincts evolution has bred into them.
The transformation of the cat from resident exterminator to companion cohabiter is both recent and rapid, and -- especially from the cat’s perspective -- evidently incomplete. Today’s owners demand a different set of qualities from their cats than would have been the norm even a century ago. … Most owners would prefer that their cats did not kill cute little birds and mice … Their independence, the quality that makes cats the ideal low-maintenance pet, probably stems from their solitary origins, but it has left them poorly equipped to cope with many owners’ assumptions that they should be as adaptable as dogs. …
Not being a British wildlife-enthusiast (now there's an intense human sub-species!) nor lived with an outdoor cat in the last 20 years, many of Bradshaw's prime concerns are not mine. The house-cats I've known have all had individual personalities and quirks, but seemed to live lives with us that were more or less satisfying to them. Nonetheless, I found many of Bradshaw's observations fascinating. Here's a sample:
Domestication appears to have subtly modified the sound of the eat's meow. … domestication has enhanced cats' ability to learn how to use their meow, but may have also altered its basic sound.

Owners often say that they know what their cats want from the tone of their meow. However, when scientists recorded meows from twelve cats and then asked owners to guess the circumstances under which the meow had been uttered, few guessed correctly. Angry meows had a characteristic tone, as did affectionate meows, but meows requesting food, asking for a door to be opened, and appealing for help were not identifiable as such, even though they made sense to each eat's owner in the context in which they were uttered. Therefore, once cats have learned that their owners respond to meows, many likely develop a repertoire of different meows that, by trial and error, they learn are effective in specific circumstances. How this unfolds will depend on which meows get rewarded by the owner, through achieving what the cat wants -- a bowl of food, a rub on the head, opening a door. Each cat and its owner gradually develop an individual "language" that they both understand, but that is not shared by other cats or other owners. …

Cats demonstrate great flexibility in how they communicate with us, which rather contradicts their reputation for aloofness. Cats come to realize that human beings do not always pay attention to them, and so often need to be alerted with a meow. They learn that purring has a calming effect on most of us, as it did on their mothers when they were kittens. They learn that we like to communicate our affection for them through stroking, which fortuitously mimics the grooming and rubbing rituals in which friendly cats indulge with one another. They may even learn, through our lack of reaction, that we are oblivious to the delicate odor marks that they leave behind on our furniture and even our legs. …

Owners who expect long, intense interactions with their cat are frequently disappointed. Unlike most dogs, cats are not always ready to chat, often preferring to choose a moment that suits them. Cats are also nervous of any indication of a threat, however imaginary that might be; as such, many do not like being stared at, staring often being an indicator of impending aggression if it comes from another cat. The most satisfying exchanges between cat and owner are often those that the cat chooses to initiate, rather than those in which the owner approaches the cat, which may regard such uninvited advances with suspicion.

An affectionate relationship with people is not most cats' main reason for living. Our cats' behavior shows us that they are still trying to balance their evolutionary legacy as hunters with their acquired role as companions.
Morty doubts any human knows anything about him.

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