The Mystery Surrounding an Animal Never Fully Domesticated

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MEOW SEPTEMBER 15, 2013

The Mystery Surrounding an Animal Never Fully Domesticated

This piece originally appeared at newstatesman.com.

Earlier this year, the BBC2 programme Horizon affixed “cat-cams” to 50 feline inhabitants of the Surrey village of Shamley Green to learn what the moggies got up to once they had exited the catflap and embraced their inner catness. To anyone who owns—or is owned by—a cat, the results were surprisingly unsurprising. The killer cats of Shamley Green roamed around a bit, carried out some light bin piracy, had remarkably little sex (it was a family show) and engaged in confrontations that were bigger on noise than paw-to-paw violence. In general, they gave the lie to T.S. Eliot’s fantasy of a rich and rumbustious feline underworld. The answer to the question “What is my cat up to right now?” is almost always “sleeping.”

The animal behaviourist John Bradshaw took part in The Secret Life of the Cat and his book promises greater depth than Horizon’s mild night-vision entertainment. Cat Sense is an attempt to dispel the mystery surrounding an animal that has lived alongside us for nine thousand years yet retains much of its wildness. Bradshaw’s goal is that by understanding the cat more fully—and accepting that it is neither completely domesticated nor the finished article in evolutionary terms—we become able to provide it with a better and more fulfilling existence. The home life of many pet cats which Bradshaw describes is stressful, with mismatched or rival animals packed too tightly into the urban setting, or boring. What we consider normal cat behaviour is often the product of status anxiety and a kind of feline anomie. No wonder they bring home dead birds and poo in the shower.

The killer cats of Shamley Green roamed around a bit, carried out some light bin piracy, had remarkably little sex.
 

Bradshaw’s desire for a comprehensive picture works against the book. To reach the juicy tinned meat of cat psychology and sociology, the reader must get over the hump of some numbingly dull opening chapters on feline evolution and domestication; if this is the cat bible, then there is an awful lot of begatting and begetting going on. Bradshaw also has a terrible weakness for digression: the section on the genetic provenance of striped v blotched tabby would try the patience of the most committed cat lover. 

Get past all that, though, and more engaging details emerge. Dr Johnson used to feed his cat Hodge on oysters, not then a luxury food; the ancient Greek word for cat was ailouros, or “waving tail”; and Britain got the orange tabby from the Vikings a thousand years ago. On physiology, Bradshaw goes well beyond charming did-you-knows to provide insights that could transform the average cat owner’s understanding of their pet. Far from an indiscriminate bin-rummager, the domestic cat is a specialised “hypercarnivore” that can no longer obtain certain essential nutrients from anything but meat.

Its senses are even more attuned to balance and hunting than you might expect and much stranger, too. Because the cat processes visual images far faster than we do, it experiences fluorescent light or cathode-ray-tube TV as an incessant flicker (more misery for the housebound puss). It cannot focus its vision at close quarters and relies on its whiskers to sense prey at close proximity. This explains that strange thing a cat does when it moves its head backwards, not forwards, before pawing at an unfamiliar object. Cats can detect ultrasound up to the register of a bat’s call and can differentiate rodent species by squeak. Their olfactory receptors indicate that they can tell billions of odours apart—impressive, considering that there are only so many ways a mouse or bird can smell but, you know, Eskimo words for snow and all that.

What of less palatable feline behaviours? Cat mating is explored in all its horrible, noisy, barbed-penis perversity. So, too, is spraying, which is not as purely malicious as it seems to the human nose. The smellier a tomcat’s urine, the more protein there is in his diet. He is not ruining your carpet out of spite; he is demonstrating his prowess as a hunter and thus his worth as a mate, with a quick spritz of feline Drakkar Noir. As for cats’ notorious cruelty—batting a vole around apparently for fun and then not even having the decency to eat it—Bradshaw explains it as a product of a hunting instinct that is entirely separate from hunger. Even on a full stomach, a cat can’t see a small scuttling object without wanting to kill it, as many a leaf, raindrop, spider, clockwork Dalek and escaped frozen pea in our household has learned to its cost.

It is almost disappointing to learn that these most charismatic animals are not governed by some unknowable and amoral shared spirit as the Egyptians believed and the Vatican feared, but are subject to the same belittling system of rules, reward and reinforcement as the rest of us. Even the most committed rationalist might find it a little sad to have the four-legged mystery of their household explained as an evolved system, however magnificent. Do we want the feline enigma resolved? After reading Cat Sense, you will never look at your cat in the sameway again. You might wish you still could.

Andrew Harrison is a magazine editor and cultural critic.

This piece originally appeared at newstatesman.com. Image via shutterstock.

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