Meet Shasta. Shasta is a cat. Shasta is ancient by cat standards, at almost 15. She is a typical cat: cuddly and affectionate when it suits her (which includes 3a with surprising frequency), uninterested and aloof when it feels like one of those days. She plays fetch, she hisses at other cats but loves all humans, and she has long lost interest in all play that doesn’t end in her being fed a treat.
In short, she’s adorable. She’s also very, very docile: even on the roughest of days, she doesn’t scratch. She’ll occasionally bite as a warning when she’s done playing, but never to hurt. She hasn’t met a stranger she didn’t like better than me, probably because I insist on harnessing her when she’s in public.
Yet, there are people that hate her. Hate all cats. I am not talking about those that are allergic to cats, I would understand that. I am talking about people that hate the psychology, such as it were, of cats. Cats, you hear, are perfidious, odious, traitorous. Sometimes it feels like half the negative character words in the English language are kept around just so that cats can be insulted.
Yet, cats rule. The Internet has declared them the winner in the universal cuteness contest, way ahead of dogs. Which is really odd, since there are actually more dog and puppy videos available on the Internet than cats and kittens. As a sort of response, cat haters have gone to great depths to expose the horrifying conspiracy of cat love. Even scientists, documentary film makers, and journalists have been enlisted to expose the tragic horrors of cat worship.
What follows is a series of negative cat myths and my comments about them. Enjoy! (I should mention that I absolutely love dogs. In fact, I’ve been looking at getting a Goberian for the past year. Who can resist a Husky/Retriever mix?)
Myth 1: Dogs were domesticated thousands of years before cats and are much better adapted to humans, as a result.
That is something science tells us. The first statement, that dogs were domesticated before cats, is based on burials. Currently, the oldest dog buried with an owner is much older than the oldest cat buried with an owner.
There is one giant problem with that statement, namely evolutionary geography. Humans and cats shared their native habitats ever since modern humans came into existence, both being from Northern Africa. Dogs, on the other hand, are domesticated wolves and hence never lived in Africa at all. In other words, humans must have been acquainted with cats for thousands of years before they even met wolves. When they met wolves, then, they must have been hunted by them.
Which gets us to the second statement, namely that dogs are better adapted to humans. The problem is that dogs, being wolves, require a lot of modification before they can be human companions. That cats are not as well adapted is simply because they require no adaptation. Sure, you want to pick a cat with a docile temperament, but you wouldn’t have wanted an aggressive dog, either, not even today.
Myth 2: Cats do not make eye contact with humans, unlike dogs.
Cats are much more afraid of humans than dogs. That’s due to size, not psychology. A wolf will weigh more than half as much as a human, whereas a cat is about a tenth the mass. Cats are afraid of humans in a way that dogs don’t have to be, because we can simply squash a cat to death by sitting on it.
It is essential to a cat to figure out escape routes in case she’s held by a human with whom she’s unfamiliar. That’s the reason cats will look away when held, or when approached. To make things worse for cats, they are unable to run far, so not only do they have to figure out where to run to, but also where to hide under.
If the cat is familiar with you, she will make constant eye contact. Shasta, in fact, stares at me all the time, since she has figured how to read my facial expressions and their correlation to mood. Which is how she gauges if I am going to give her a treat.
Myth 3: We only love cats because a parasite makes us.
This one is really funny, because it is so weird. There is a parasite, toxoplasma gondii, that needs felines to reproduce. It’s a really poor choice, one would say, but since we share the same environment, humans have evolved to tolerate toxoplasma. It infects a lot of people (a third to half the human population) and is largely kept in check by the immune system.
In rats, toxoplasma has been shown to inhibit the fear of cats. In particular, it seems to have evolved to suppress the reaction to cat urine. Rats, not afraid of the smell any longer, become more easily predated. The effect must be small, since rats have not evolved a response to this.
Now, cat hater logic goes, rats are not afraid of cats because of toxoplasma. Toxoplasma infects humans. Ergo toxoplasma is the reason we love cats.
That is patently stupid. Toxoplasma doesn’t make rats love cats, it simply removes the disgust response to cat pee. That the disgust response to cat pee is very strong in humans I can tell every time I have to clean up the litter box (pew!). As a result, Toxoplasma gondii doesn’t make us love cats.
Myth 4: We only love cats because they evolved their meows to match human babies.
Shasta never was much of a vocalizer, unlike her brother, Mondo, who died last year. When he died, though, she started becoming a feline Callas. She now spends half her waking time making funny trills, purrs, hisses, meows, mews, etc.
Why is that? Because she wants to figure out what the best sound is to get treats. Cats did not evolve a sound that appeals to humans, they learn it. You may consider that mercenary, but it’s pretty much the same as when we say, “Please?”
Cats will meow like human babies. Not because they want to sound like human babies, or because they evolved to sound like human babies, but because that’s what gets them attention. If a different sound gets them attention, they will use that sound. That’s simply intelligent.
Shasta, I should mention, realized that trills get my attention, so she trills now. I taught her that by consistently reacting to the trill and consistently not reacting to meows. Which now means I have a cat that doesn’t annoy me at night.
Myth 5: Dogs are social animals, cats are anti-social.
This one shows a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word, social. Cats are very social animals and routinely live in clusters. They have a very developed social hierarchy and means to communicate it. Cat fights are about supremacy in the hierarchy and a large number of the typical traits of cats is devoted to this fighting between cats.
What cats are not but dogs are is pack animals. Wolves roam and hunt in groups that are tightly organized with specialized functions. They agree on a prey and a strategy in a strictly top-down organization. They also divide the spoils of the hunt in an organized fashion.
Cats don’t do that. They don’t need that kind of organization, since they hunt different animals. In general, cats hunt prey smaller than them (rodents, mostly), use stealth instead of brawn, and compete instead of collaborate for prey. They don’t form packs, but cats do form societies.
Myth 6: Dogs are smarter than cats.
This one is hard to prove or disprove because it’s not clear what “smarter” means. Both species are very specialized in their intelligence and will find tasks outside their specialization incredibly tricky, while those that are aligned with it come easy. Humans, of course, evolved to have generalized intelligence, which makes us universal tools (pun intended).
In general, I find that the variation within the species is much, much larger than between species. I have known incredibly smart dogs and incredibly dumb ones. Same with cats. In fact, as much as I loved Mondo, he was by far the dumbest cat I have ever met. Constantly got in trouble and looked totally befuddled when he needed rescue. Shasta (who is not genetically related) is the exact opposite and will require play that challenges her intelligence.
You could easily see the difference in their intellect by the way they watched TV. Mondo would sit in front of it fascinated for hours. Shasta would look for two minutes, try to jump and grab something that was moving, and from then on declare there was nothing to be had from the plastic thing and move on.
I think that’s something that should be used as a general IQ test in humans, how long one of us can sit in front of the TV screen and not get bored.
Myth 7: Dogs follow the direction of a pointing finger, cats follow the finger
This one is a mix of “dogs are smarter than cats” and “dogs make eye contact, cats don’t.” The idea is that cats are simply too stupid to follow the direction of a pointed finger, while the much smarter dogs know what that means.
Again, as in the general case above, dogs hunt in groups and signal prey to each other. Cats don’t. A cat wouldn’t know why I am pointing a finger in a specific direction by instinct, because cats just don’t do that. While the behavior is not instinctual and hence not automatic, it can be learned.
For instance, one of the games I play with Shasta is to throw the rolling kind of cat treats on the stairs. She loves to hunt for them and runs the stairs up and down following them (she is a sound hunter, where Mondo was a motion hunter).
Once in a while, a treat stops moving and Shasta can’t see it. She looks at me (yes, making eye contact) to see if I know where it is (or if I still have it). It took her a long while, but she finally understood that my arm will point in the direction of the treat. Actually, she seems to have figured out that the angle at which I hold the arm indicates the step on which the treat is lodged, since she doesn’t actually look at the location I am pointing at, but at the whole step.
Incidentally, it is true that a cat’s instinctual reaction to a pointing finger is… to sniff the finger.
Myth 8: Cats are cruel by nature
Hard to argue with that when the cat drags in a butterfly she killed for what you know is no reason, since she’s not going to eat it. Cats love hunting and they are solitary hunters. In the end, they will hunt like I go to the gym, just to have a workout.
This training is essential to cats. They hunt because not hunting means losing muscles and coordination. They will hunt anything in an attempt to keep their skills sharp. I remember the time I had the sniffles and, being a slob, threw the discarded paper tissues to the floor. The cat would use the “mounds” to “hide” behind them and attack the next tissue I would throw down. It looked really weird, since Shasta is much too big to actually hide behind a paper tissue. But she was training for when she would actually hide behind a bush.
In conclusion: yes, cats hunt even when they don’t want to eat the prey they catch; no, they are not having “fun,” they are training for when they will need the skills required.
Myth 9: Cats don’t love humans, while dogs do
This myth is grounded on the fact that many of the cat behaviors that we perceive as show of affection actually have a deeper, non-emotional meaning. For instance, when a cat rubs on a person, she is placing her scent on the human. That is a form of territorial marking (with the other one that drives me nuts, spraying). It’s a warning to other cats that they are in someone else’s home.
Cats, unlike dogs, have evolved a very specific signal for affection: purring. When a cat purrs, she is generally happy and wants to signal it. The exception is indicative: cats also purr when they feel threatened by another animal (generally a cat) and want to signal that they mean no ill. When your cats jumps in your lap and purrs, that’s a signal of love and trust.
Also, cats don’t love humans unconditionally. Dogs give their humans much more latitude when it comes to non-reciprocity. A dog will even love a human that mistreats him for a long period of time. That’s of course an evolutionary response to the need of pack animals and the packs themselves. Since you, as a human, are mostly the top dog, your submissive follower will need to put up with abuse.
I am not sure, though, that it’s a good thing to find the response to abuse a good quality in dogs. It is true that a cat will avoid you like the plague if you are mean to her, while your dog will stick with you under the same circumstances. But isn’t it indicative of poor human character to think that’s a good thing? “I love my dog because he loves me even if I kick him every day.” Really?