Cat Psychology & Domestication: Are We Good Owners?

Extended book review of Bradshaw 2013 (Cat Sense) on the connections between cat psychology, evolution/genetics, history of domestication or lack thereof, & possible dysgenics, highlighting modern maladaptivity of cat psychology, with fulltext bibliography of key references.
reviews, biology, genetics, cats, bibliography, insight-porn
2018-11-032019-06-14 finished certainty: possible importance: 5


I re­view John Brad­shaw’s book on cat psy­chol­o­gy, Cat Sense, after diffi­cul­ties deal­ing with my own cat. Brad­shaw re­views the his­tory of do­mes­tic cats from their ap­par­ent Mid­dle East­ern ori­gins as a small soli­tary desert preda­tor to their do­mes­ti­ca­tion in An­cient Egypt where breed­ing mil­lions of cats for sac­ri­fice may have played a crit­i­cal role (as op­posed to any unique role as a ver­min ex­ter­mi­na­tor) through to the mod­ern day and psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies of the learn­ing abil­i­ties and per­son­al­i­ties of cats, with par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on cat so­cial skills in “cat colonies” & plas­tic­ity in kit­ten­hood. As Brad­shaw di­ag­noses it, these are re­spon­si­ble for what abil­ity they have to mod­ern pet life, even though they are not bred for this like dogs; every tame cat still has the feral cat in them, and are in many ways un­suited for con­tem­po­rary liv­ing, with dis­turb­ing hints that hu­man lack of se­lec­tive breed­ing plus re­cent large-s­cale spay/neuter pop­u­la­tion con­trol efforts may be pro­duc­ing a sub­tle dys­genic effect on do­mes­ti­ca­tion, and this dou­ble ne­glect & back­fire may be re­spon­si­ble for dis­turbingly high rates of cat mal­adap­ta­tion & chronic stress dis­eases.

Cat re­searcher John Brad­shaw’s 2013 book Cat Sense: How the New Fe­line Sci­ence Can Make You a Bet­ter Friend to Your Pet, Brad­shaw 2013: Pop­u­lar­iza­tion of sci­en­tific re­search on do­mes­tic cat psy­chol­o­gy, start­ing with its his­tory & evo­lu­tion. (Brad­shaw has re­searched cats for decades, writ­ten a sim­i­lar book on dogs called Dog Sense, and co-au­thored in 2016 with El­lis The Train­able Cat.)

While pub­lished in 2013, I re­gret to say that, un­like a hu­man behavioral/population ge­net­ics book like 2014 A Trou­ble­some In­her­i­tance (re­view) or 2018 Who We Are And How We Got Here, which were ob­so­lete ei­ther be­fore they were pub­lished or shortly there­after1, Brad­shaw’s book is, as far as I am aware, a use­ful overview of cat ge­net­ics & psy­chol­ogy re­search, such is the dor­mancy of the field. (I could only point to , Mon­tague et al 2014 or , Ot­toni et al 2017, as be­ing rel­e­vant up­dates—also in­ter­est­ing in their own right.) De­spite their over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar­ity as the #1 pet & in pop­u­lar cul­ture, cats aren’t re­searched much—cat pedi­grees ap­pear to be largely use­less for her­i­tabil­ity pur­poses (un­like dog pedi­grees which are often an­a­lyzed), there is no equiv­a­lent of 23andMe or UKBB for cats the way there is for the dogs (Em­bark, which can do im­pres­sive re­search like Don­ner et al 2018 or ), and large-s­cale dog breed­ing pro­grams or ex­per­i­ments in dog cloning for mil­i­tary use or be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics ex­per­i­ments like & ’s . Cat re­search be­ing such a back­wa­ter, the sam­ple sizes are ab­solutely tiny with scarcely any repli­ca­tion, and I’m sure that a de­cent frac­tion of what Brad­shaw claims or spec­u­lates is wrong (sim­i­lar to how cat­nip was a Mendelian dom­i­nant gene for 50 years based on back in the 1960s, un­til 2 and found it’s just an or­di­nary poly­genic trait), un­for­tu­nate­ly, I don’t know which ones. We must do what we can what with we have.

Far From the Madding Crowd

I picked up Brad­shaw for 2 rea­sons.

First, I’ve been in­ter­ested in for a while, cu­ri­ous how com­mon it is, why it varies from , and what al­ter­na­tives there are, and thought Brad­shaw might be use­ful.

The sec­ond was my cat.

My cat.

Back in 2017, my cat be­gan hav­ing prob­lems, uri­nat­ing bloody urine and then not uri­nat­ing at all; com­ing right be­fore I was about to take a mon­th-long trip and hav­ing some ex­pe­ri­ence as a kid with the swiftly fa­tal con­se­quences of a cat not uri­nat­ing from my pre­vi­ous cat (which killed her on Christ­mas day, just to twist the knife), I rushed him back and forth to the vet’s, a task com­pli­cated by the fact that dur­ing the first trip he was so up­set he uri­nated in the cat car­rier and a urine sam­ple could­n’t be ob­tained, but where the even­tual di­ag­no­sis was 3, tem­porar­ily patched by painkiller in­jec­tions to al­low uri­na­tion, mostly caused by the stan­dard dry cat food I fed him and fixed by never again feed­ing him dry food but wet cat food, and in help­fully spe­cific ad­vice founded no doubt on ex­ten­sive em­pir­i­cal re­search, noted that the cys­ti­tis was pos­si­bly stress-ex­ac­er­bated in some fash­ion or other (maybe by rel­a­tives vis­it­ing & the neigh­bor­ing cat). Thank­ful­ly, switch­ing in the pre­scrip­tion wet food “Crys­tal Diet” did the trick; in time, he re­jected it, re­fus­ing to eat4, so I re­placed it with reg­u­lar wet food which is only some­what more ex­pen­sive (although even­tu­ally he be­gan turn­ing his nose up to some de­gree at that, pre­fer­ring only the salmon pate, so even­tu­ally I gave up and be­gan or­der­ing only that5). I thought I was a good own­er. Given how ex­pen­sive and stress­ful the ex­pe­ri­ence was for the both of us, I de­cided some in­sight into cat psy­chol­ogy was worth ob­tain­ing and Brad­shaw came rea­son­ably rec­om­mend­ed.

Brad­shaw, it turns out, does not once men­tion cat­nip or cat psy­choac­tives. That was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing.

But he does have a lot of ad­vice about how to keep a cat sane. He em­pha­sizes the de­gree to which a cat re­acts to its en­vi­ron­ment and is stressed by it.

As an ex­am­ple of their sen­si­tiv­i­ty, he men­tions (pg134) that cats will no­tice and in­ves­ti­gate any changes in their en­vi­ron­ment. To test this claim, I be­gan mak­ing small harm­less changes while he was out­side, such as mov­ing a box or bowl to the side, and sure enough, upon jump­ing back through the cat flap, much of the time he would look around the room and im­me­di­ately jump down to in­ves­ti­gate the changed ob­ject. I was im­pressed how ob­ser­vant he turned out to be. I would never have no­ticed those changes.

Based on Brad­shaw’s ad­vice, I tried a num­ber of things: I re­placed a noisy box fan & put rub­ber vi­bra­tion-ab­sorb­ing pads on the bot­toms of all the fans/air-filters/dehumidifiers/computers (un­clear effi­ca­cy); I bought a Fe­li­way cat pheromone diffuser spray (no ap­par­ent ben­e­fit and the Fe­li­way-spon­sored stud­ies left me skep­ti­cal); I bought a large wa­ter bowl to en­cour­age drink­ing and even­tu­ally be­gan adding wa­ter to the wet food; moved his feed­ing sta­tion to a more hid­den cor­ner; I bought two ‘puz­zle treat’ balls, sim­ple and com­plex, to put dry food or treat bits in for him to play with (a big hit, al­though use must be strictly ra­tioned to avoid trig­ger­ing cys­ti­tis again, and the sim­ple treat ball, which was an empty sphere, turned out to be far too easy to get treats out of); bought 2 ‘cat con­dos’ which are cubes sim­i­lar to cat perches (which he fre­quently sleeps on al­though again I don’t know how much differ­ence that makes); red/blue/purple/green laser point­ers off eBay to sup­ple­ment the wand for play­ing chase (ini­tially highly effec­tive but he quickly lost in­ter­est & I think lim­i­ta­tions of may make some col­ors much less effec­tive6); a Sphero Mini (cool toy but he re­mained afraid of it so after a year I gave it to my sis­ter for her fer­ret); a re­place­ment cat flap door (pre­vi­ous one was break­ing down & jam­ming & some­times he strug­gled to get in); “oat grass”/“wheat grass” seeds for grow­ing oat/wheat shoots to nib­ble on7 (which he some­times did but it was­n’t worth the trou­ble & I had prob­lems with over-wa­ter­ing caus­ing mold); bought a large shelv­ing unit with ex­tra shelves in the hope that he would find it a use­ful hid­ing-place and would jump up to var­i­ous lev­els (he some­times sleeps at the bot­tom but my efforts to get him to ex­per­i­ment with higher lev­els failed); the vet, dur­ing the next visit which went poorly (as usu­al: /)8, gave me a 3-pill sam­ple of 9 to try dur­ing rel­a­tives’ vis­its or fu­ture ap­point­ments (when I tried one dose, it made a lit­tle differ­ence but not a lot, so I re­served the re­main­ing 2 for the next vet vis­it, and 2×100mg turned out to be much more effec­tive al­though the visit was still diffi­cult for both fo us); and re­placed the opaque cardboard/foam in­su­la­tion around the cat-flap with an acrylic sheet from Lowe’s I cut to fit so he could more eas­ily watch out­side while lay­ing on the win­dow ledge. I also be­gan pe­ri­od­i­cally putting him in the cat car­rier and car­ry­ing him around ei­ther by hand or in my car to try to grad­u­ally re­duce his aver­sion to it. One par­tic­u­lar suc­cess was us­ing : I had a hard time get­ting him to pay at­ten­tion to the com­puter mon­i­tor long enough to re­al­ize that it was dis­play­ing videos of birds, but when I turned on the sound, he no­ticed and in­stantly be­came ad­dict­ed. Of the­se, the most worth­while changes seem to be the wet cat food, puz­zle treats, cat con­dos, videos-for-cats and ex­po­sure ther­a­py.

One case study matched him al­most ex­act­ly, but most of the rel­e­vant so­lu­tions were in­ap­plic­a­ble: he al­ready has his own lit­ter box, wa­ter bowl, food dish, apart­ment, and places to hide, and the out­side was vis­i­ble only from the cat perch & ledge. To do any bet­ter, I would have to elim­i­nate vis­i­tors and nearby cats en­tire­ly—I can’t do much about those ma­jor stres­sors, un­for­tu­nate­ly, and in fact an­other neigh­bor­hood cat has been com­ing around oc­ca­sion­ally at night, which does­n’t help. But while he has taken a dis­lik­ing to the lit­ter box in fa­vor of pee­ing in my bath tub, the cys­ti­tis has not re­peated it­self. I’ll take what I can get.

Egypt

One of Brad­shaw’s most in­ter­est­ing points about do­mes­ti­ca­tion is about Egypt. If wild­cats are so un­tame­able even adopted as kit­tens (as doc­u­mented by case-s­tud­ies like Mary Frances Pitt & Smithers & Tomkin­s’s at­tempts with Scot­tish wild­cat­s), and we have not been do­mes­ti­cat­ing cats our­selves, where does the orig­i­nal do­mes­ti­ca­tion come from? Whose seed-corn have we been eat­ing?

He points to the dizzy­ingly long his­tory of cats in An­cient Egyp­t—in few places other than an­cient Egypt can au­thors so ca­su­ally skip 1000 or 2000 years be­tween ex­am­ples—well dis­played in Malek’s The Cat in An­cient Egypt il­lus­tra­tions, which I have since read & scanned, and does in­clude the hu­mor­ous car­toons of cats Brad­shaw men­tions. Cats back then were, ap­par­ently 15% larger than con­tem­po­rary do­mes­tic cats (one of at least two anom­alous changes in do­mes­tic cat sizes, the other be­ing a “stag­ger­ing and un­ex­plained 70% re­duc­tion in bone-length­s…­be­tween the 11th & 14th cen­turies”), but more in­trigu­ing is the role of cats in Egypt­ian re­li­gion.

The com­mon as­sump­tion I shared, that cats were nat­u­rals for do­mes­ti­ca­tion be­cause they are such good ver­min ex­ter­mi­na­tors, is ap­par­ently not well-sup­ported as there were many al­ter­na­tives, some su­pe­rior to cats in ways. In­stead, the key to their do­mes­ti­ca­tion may be—and this is spec­u­la­tive, I should cau­tion—their es­sen­tially ar­bi­trary role as pop­u­lar sac­ri­fices, re­quir­ing count­less ‘cat­ter­ies’ at­tached to tem­ples, and at least mil­lions of sac­ri­fices on a scale stag­ger­ing to con­tem­plate: “more than 4 mil­lion mum­mi­fied ibis, a medi­um-sized wad­ing bird that the Egyp­tians bred in cap­tiv­i­ty, were re­cov­ered from cat­a­combs at Tuna el-Ge­bel, and an ad­di­tional 1.5 mil­lion from Saqqara.” This is only the tip of a grisly ice­berg:

We will never know how many cats were sac­ri­ficed this way. The ar­chae­ol­o­gists who dis­cov­ered these sites wrote of vast heaps of white cat bones, and dust from dis­in­te­grat­ing plas­ter and linen blow­ing across the desert. Sev­eral other ceme­ter­ies were ex­ca­vated whole­sale, and their con­tents ground up and used as fer­til­iz­er—­some was used lo­cal­ly, some was ex­port­ed. One ship­ment of cat mum­mies alone, sent to Lon­don, weighed nine­teen tons, out of which just one cat was re­moved and pre­sented to the British Mu­seum be­fore the re­main­der were ground into pow­der. Out of the mil­lions that were mum­mi­fied, only a few hun­dred now sur­vive in mu­se­ums, and these come from a mere hand­ful of the many ceme­ter­ies con­structed over a pe­riod of sev­eral hun­dred years.

The ice­berg be­comes even more grue­somely im­pres­sive when you re­mem­ber that cats are ob­lig­ate car­ni­vores (un­able to be fed on non-meat prod­ucts which lack the amino acids they have lost the abil­ity to syn­the­size such as tau­rine which is ), and the Egypt­ian cat mum­mies were kept well-nour­ished & healthy right up to be­ing care­fully stran­gled, im­ply­ing ex­pen­sive meat con­sump­tion, and per­haps most as­ton­ish­ing of all to a cynic like my­self, Brad­shaw specifi­cally notes “al­most all the mum­mies that were pro­duced to look like cats ac­tu­ally do con­tain a com­plete cat skele­ton”. So:

The cat had ri­vals for the role of ver­min ex­ter­mi­na­tor: other car­ni­vores of sim­i­lar size were tamed, in­clud­ing var­i­ous mem­bers of the weasel fam­i­ly, and the genet and its cousin the Egypt­ian mon­goose…Very prob­a­bly, cats did not have the edge as ver­min con­trollers. The an­swer, there­fore, must lie else­where, pos­si­bly in the cat’s bi­ol­o­gy. The con­nec­tion be­tween cats and re­li­gion is un­likely to have been cru­cial, since Egyp­tians some­times ven­er­ated both mon­goose and genet as well.

More like­ly, the cat man­aged to be­come more pro­foundly do­mes­ti­cated than any of its ri­vals. How­ev­er, which was the cause and which the effect? Are cats more “trust­wor­thy” and pre­dictable than fer­rets be­cause they have evolved ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with hu­mans, or is it the other way around? Since we do not know pre­cisely how the do­mes­tic cat’s di­rect an­ces­tors be­haved, such ques­tions are im­pos­si­ble to an­swer. Nev­er­the­less, the cat’s ca­pac­ity to evolve not only into a pest con­troller but also into a pet an­i­mal—its pre­sen­t-day roles—­must have been cen­tral to its suc­cess in the first 2,000 years of its do­mes­ti­ca­tion. So what set the cat apart on its mil­len­ni­a-long jour­ney into our homes?

Here, the cat’s in­volve­ment in Egypt­ian re­li­gion may well have been cru­cial. It is pos­si­ble that the Egyp­tians’ ven­er­a­tion of cats that gave the cat the time re­quired to evolve fully from wild hunter to do­mes­tic pet; oth­er­wise, it might have re­mained a satel­lite of hu­man so­ci­ety and not an in­trin­sic part. It is even pos­si­ble that the fac­to­ries that pro­duced the cat mum­mies forced the evo­lu­tion of cats that could tol­er­ate be­ing kept in con­fined spaces and in close prox­im­ity with other cats, both qual­i­ties that are sig­nally ab­sent from to­day’s strongly ter­ri­to­r­ial wild­cats but that are es­sen­tial to life as an ur­ban pet. Al­though of course most of the cats that car­ried the rel­e­vant genes died young—that was how they were be­ing bred, after al­l—­some must have es­caped into the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, where their de­scen­dants would have in­her­ited an im­proved abil­ity to deal with the close con­fines of ur­ban so­ci­ety. Such changes take only a few decades in cap­tive car­ni­vores, as ex­em­pli­fied by the that turned wild an­i­mals docile in .

Is it pos­si­ble that to­day’s apart­men­t-d­welling cat owes its very adapt­abil­ity to the in­hab­i­tants of those grue­some Egypt­ian cat­ter­ies?

Cats grad­u­ally spread post-E­gypt, par­tic­u­larly by sea (lead­ing to some in­ter­est­ing cases like is­lands of al­l-black cats due to founder effect­s), but with­out any sig­nal events aside from an un­for­tu­nate pe­riod of per­se­cu­tion by the Catholic Church (it­self anom­alous inas­much as cats were long pop­u­lar with ec­cle­si­as­tics) and oc­ca­sional mis­takes like 200,000 cats be­ing killed be­cause of Lon­don’s Great Plague of 1665–66.

At this point, Brad­shaw turns from the his­tory of cats, such as it is un­der­stood, to what sort of psy­chol­ogy we ex­pect from a crea­ture evolved for the cat niche, with its uniquely diffi­cult nu­tri­tional needs, and then the prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions of this psy­chol­ogy for cats as pets. Other re­views of Cat Sense com­plain that it is repet­i­tive, which I did­n’t re­ally no­tice (there is a differ­ence be­tween be­ing repet­i­tive, and re­vis­it­ing a cen­tral point from differ­ent an­gles) or that it fo­cused too much on sum­ma­riz­ing past re­search (a pos­i­tive as­pect for me) or Brad­shaw’s re­search (write what you know, and such crit­i­cisms would be more con­vinc­ing if they men­tioned what key pa­pers Brad­shaw was ne­glect­ing in fa­vor of his own), or that they al­ready knew every­thing Brad­shaw said and were deeply bored by it (in which case they must be far more ex­pert on cats than I am and per­haps should be writ­ing the pa­pers them­selves), or seem to be read­ing the wrong book en­tirely and should be read­ing the later The Train­able Cat.

More

Mis­cel­la­neous points I learned about cat psy­chol­ogy & bi­ol­o­gy:

  • the Greek for cat, aielouros, is lit­er­ally “wav­ing tail”; Egypt­ian girls were be­ing named miw not long after miws started be­ing pets

  • long-haired cats are dis­ad­van­taged less by heat than by fur mat­ting, caus­ing infections/infestations

  • cat fur col­ors are some­thing of a mys­tery; de­spite & pleiotropic as­so­ci­a­tions with var­i­ous phe­no­typic traits, they have lit­tle prac­ti­cal effect:

    • cats ap­pear to have no fur color pref­er­ences in mat­ing

    • there is no known ex­pla­na­tion for why black cats are so com­mon, es­pe­cially given that hu­mans dis­like black coats and black cats are seen as less friendly10

      How­ev­er, this preva­lence of black cats does im­ply that net hu­man con­trol over cat ge­net­ics is near-ze­ro—per­haps be­cause the cats we fa­vor are im­me­di­ately neutered and there­fore we ge­net­i­cally de­stroy the cats we pre­fer (Clark 1975)

  • cats are ob­lig­ate car­ni­vores, un­able, among other things, to make vi­t­a­min A or vi­t­a­min D and need­ing ex­tra niacin & thi­amine, and ac­tu­ally re­quire meat/fat to make hor­mones to re­pro­duce at all, while they can smell tom­cat urine for the sul­fu­ric ‘fe­li­n­ine’ to gauge hunt­ing suc­cess; be­cause of this, it is quite diffi­cult to make a healthy veg­e­tar­ian diet for a cat, and nu­tri­tion­al­ly-com­plete cat food ap­par­ently only be­came “widely avail­able for only 35 years or so” (I won­der how well ur­ban cat’s-meat men com­pare?)

  • due to their desert de­scent, they have small wa­ter-effi­cient kid­neys (though this has un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences like quickly suc­cumb­ing to kid­ney fail­ure and be­ing eas­ily killed by home pol­lu­tants like es­sen­tial oils)

  • kit­tens have a much shorter win­dow of plas­tic­ity than pup­pies, who can tol­er­ate lack of hu­man con­tact for up to seven weeks with any harm, but by that point, kit­tens have al­ready been dam­aged. By seven weeks, a kit­ten should al­ready be learn­ing play sig­nals and mock fights and sig­nals to stop play­ing (ap­par­ent­ly, the ‘stop play’ sig­nal is to “arch their back, curl their tail up­ward, and then leap off the ground”; I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one be­fore). Sim­i­lar­ly, kit­tens raised as lit­ter-mates will get along close­ly, as in­di­cated by things like groom­ing each other or lay­ing touch­ing an­other or hap­pily eat­ing side by side; while cats who met as adults will nev­er, rarely, or never (re­spec­tive­ly) do those be­hav­iors no mat­ter how cor­dial. And kit­tens raised with friendly dogs will be fine with dogs in the fu­ture, which is not some­thing which could be said of all (or even most?) cats who en­coun­tered dogs as adults…

    • Cat re­search has pub­li­ca­tion prob­lems. Of the plas­tic­ity win­dow, Brad­shaw then notes: “Re­mark­ably, this rev­o­lu­tion­ary work has never been pub­lished in peer-re­viewed jour­nals; how­ev­er, no one since has fun­da­men­tally dis­agreed with its con­clu­sions.” On an­other oc­ca­sion, “The late Penny Bern­stein con­ducted a de­tailed study of stroking, de­tails of which sadly re­mained un­pub­lished when she died in 2012.” And Brad­shaw him­self omit­ted the key be­hav­ioral de­tails from his 1999 cat dys­gen­ics pa­per.

      Cat re­search has is­sues with pub­lish­ing & prop­a­gat­ing knowl­edge—a­mong cat­nip re­searchers, con­sider the ig­no­rance of Vil­lani 2011 or the nev­er-pub­lished cat­nip GWAS.

  • the is a quick (and amus­ing) way to im­mo­bi­lize a cat; I tested it my­self on sev­eral cats. (My vet prefers to use a method of wrap­ping the whole cat tightly in a towel so they can’t see any­thing.)

  • ” is one of the ma­jor killers of kit­tens, rather than star­va­tion or ac­ci­dent, es­pe­cially in cat colonies, and a peren­nial prob­lem in an­i­mal shel­ters (get­ting in the way of good so­cial­iza­tion)

  • Mother cats can’t/don’t rec­og­nize their young, and are per­fectly happy to suckle a ran­dom kit­ten qui­etly slipped into their lit­ter. Ap­par­ently cuck­oos are not a prob­lem; any­thing which acts like a kit­ten gets milk. (This sug­gests that cat colonies are rare enough or ge­net­i­cally ho­moge­nous enough to not evolve strong off­spring recog­ni­tion skills as the oc­ca­sional mis­take does­n’t re­duce in­clu­sive fit­ness enough to mat­ter.)

  • in ad­di­tion to the fa­mous re­flect­ing lay­er, cat eyes achieve night vi­sion by hav­ing 10× fewer nerves, each nerve ac­count­ing for a larger bun­dle of rods spread fur­ther out, al­low­ing greater sen­si­tiv­ity to dim light, at the cost of pre­ci­sion in bright light; they see only blue & yel­low but even there ap­pear bad at dis­crim­i­nat­ing. “Any other differ­ence be­tween ob­ject­s—bright­ness, pat­tern, shape, or size—seems to mat­ter more to cats than does col­or.” Pe­cu­liar­ly, lack­ing mus­cles to fo­cus their eyes, they ‘scan’ ob­jects in­stead, and Brad­shaw sug­gests that “per­haps be­cause it is just too much effort, they often don’t bother to fo­cus at all”. The in­abil­ity to see things nearby is pre­sum­ably com­pen­sated by whiskers. This far­sight­ed­ness has a pe­cu­liar psy­cho­log­i­cal con­se­quence: cats ap­pear to have a spe­cial mem­ory sys­tem to mem­o­rize what is in front of them, in or­der to step over ob­sta­cles; if they haven’t stepped over it and are dis­tract­ed, they then for­get (and need to look around be­fore they can start walk­ing again), but if they have stepped over it, they au­to­mat­i­cally re­mem­ber for the next 10 min­utes and their hindlegs will au­to­mat­i­cally step over it. (A de­cer­e­brated cat can still walk, so there seems to be quite a bit go­ing on in the rest of the fe­line ner­vous sys­tem.) I found that quite be­mus­ing. (One thing Brad­shaw does­n’t cover is how cats step in pre­cisely the same place with their back paw as the front paw, which is called “di­rect reg­is­ter­ing” and is use­ful in qui­etly nav­i­gat­ing clut­tered en­vi­ron­ments.)

    On the other hand, they can hear ul­tra­sound and un­usu­ally low-fre­quency noises be­cause of an un­usual dou­ble-cham­bered cham­ber in their head, and lo­cal­ize even ul­tra­sonic sound­s—el­e­gant­ly, if the ears’ re­point­ing does­n’t work be­cause of high fre­quen­cies, the cham­ber then starts to work

  • when show­ing a cat some­thing in­ter­est­ing, like leaves (a much rarer cat psy­choac­tive), I’ve no­ticed them do an odd ric­tus grin to breath deeply; this turns out to be a way of in­vok­ing the for hor­mone smelling, called the re­sponse. Pri­mar­ily used in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, such as the cheek rub­bing, which marks things with the glands in the cheeks. (If you’ve ever won­dered why your cat likes rub­bing its cheeks on you…)

  • cat toys sim­u­late hunt­ing, and bore­dom ap­pears to re­flect a com­bi­na­tion of ha­bit­u­a­tion and frus­tra­tion. Chang­ing color of a cat toy will re­store in­ter­est, and be­ing given a toy they can change or de­stroy also main­tains in­ter­est.

    Com­mer­cial toys do nei­ther. Brad­shaw notes that cats ap­pear to be cau­tious around large toys, and never learn that they are in fact harm­less, which matches my ex­pe­ri­ence with try­ing to get him to play with the Sphero Mini, his great in­ter­est in the puz­zle treats (get­ting a treat after fight­ing with it is iso­mor­phic to hunt­ing, after all, and eat­ing the pel­let defi­nitely changes it), and with be­ing able to re­store his flag­ging in­ter­est in a laser pointer by switch­ing to a differ­ent col­or. It seems like com­mer­cial cat toys may be sub­op­ti­mal. (One ex­cep­tion I haven’t tried yet is the Rip­ple Rug, a 2-layer car­pet, which is rem­i­nis­cent of how cats play with things un­der sheets or be­hind cur­tains and which is in­her­ently scrunch­able & re­arrange­able for nov­el­ty; the pos­i­tive re­views of it de­scribe it in ways which line up with this mu­ta­bil­ity the­ory of cat play.)

  • there are a : do­mes­tic cats can hy­bridize with a re­mark­able num­ber of other species in Fe­l­i­dae, in­clud­ing South Amer­i­can cats with differ­ent chro­mo­some counts (and the do­mes­tic cat × = ‘Sa­fari’ cats are even fer­tile!)

  • cats can be trained, but it is diffi­cult. (Telling­ly, one often refers to ‘un­trained’ or ‘poor­ly-trained dogs’, but never to an ‘un­trained cat’. It is just as­sumed that cats will go along im­pro­vis­ing re­gard­less of how mal­adap­tive a be­hav­ior is, and can­not be taught bet­ter.)

    It is just hard­er: train­ing & re­in­force­ment are in­her­ently ambiguous/under-determined11; un­like dogs, who can be trained with fairly sloppy map­ping be­tween ac­tion and re­ward, are ea­ger to please, and are re­warded just by hu­man praise, cats have no par­tic­u­lar drive to please or hu­man the­ory of mind (peo­ple think that me­ows and other sounds are com­mu­ni­ca­tion but as cat own­ers are un­able to in­ter­pret other cats’ sounds, the me­ows gen­er­ally seem to rep­re­sent an ar­bi­trary lan­guage learned by each cat by tri­al-and-er­ror) and re­quire food treats, must be trained back­wards start­ing from the fi­nal step, and re­quire very tight action/reward feed­back—a re­ward must be pro­vided within sec­onds. As it’s not easy to dis­pense a cat treat within sec­onds of an ac­tion, the eas­i­est way to do this is : use a small gizmo which makes click sounds, and give them a treat every time you click it; after a while, the click it­self be­comes a re­ward, and it’s easy to make a click quick­ly, per­haps at a dis­tance, de­liv­er­ing in­stant feed­back.12

    I found this use­ful to know for how to ‘train’ him but also for how to not train him to do things. One thing peo­ple often do with pets or small chil­dren is ac­ci­den­tally train them to do bad things. The pet/child wants some­thing, makes trou­ble to get it, the per­son gives in and gives the thing, and one it­er­a­tion of train­ing has oc­curred. Dogs bark­ing to get some­thing is one I hear a lot, but cats can do it too—my grand­par­ents have ‘trained’ their cat to wake them up at 6AM so he can go out. The prob­lem, of course, is that they gave in too quick­ly, and he learned the les­son well. Now, when he tries out be­ing a nui­sance (to get some food, usu­al­ly), and it’s a le­git­i­mate need, I avoid re­in­forc­ing him by de­lib­er­ately wait­ing a few min­utes un­til he’s given up and enough time has passed that then giv­ing him what­ever would not lead to any learn­ing.

    • the lack of train­abil­ity ap­par­ently has an ex­cep­tion, Brad­shaw states: food can trig­ger learn­ing of pow­er­ful as­so­ci­a­tions even hours after con­sump­tion. This would make sense as an an­ti-bad-food de­fense, but un­for­tu­nate­ly, this is yet an­other mal­adap­ta­tion in the mod­ern con­text: “…this mech­a­nism oc­ca­sion­ally has un­ex­pected con­se­quences: a cat that suc­cumbs to a virus may then go off its reg­u­lar food even after it has re­cov­ered, be­cause it has in­cor­rectly as­so­ci­ated the ill­ness with the meal that hap­pened to pre­cede it.”13

    • peo­ple as­cribe vague & in­defi­nite men­tal pow­ers to cats and think they are more in­tel­li­gent than they are, sim­ply be­cause cats’ tri­al-and-er­ror can go fur­ther than one thinks (ex­am­ple).

      for ex­am­ple, moth­ers can teach kit­tens sim­ply by in­ter­act­ing with an ob­ject, and then the kit­tens will spend time in­ter­act­ing with it too—not im­i­tat­ing her ac­tions, just act­ing at ran­dom on their own—and may rein­vent a re­ward (in the cited ex­per­i­ment, a food lev­er), while ig­nor­ing un­re­lated fe­male cats. (I’ve long no­ticed that if I want a cat to learn some­thing, putting them into the sit­u­a­tion works bet­ter than try­ing to demon­strate it. To teach him to use the cat flap, I just shoved him through it sev­eral times in both di­rec­tions. He got the idea.) I was amused to re­call some in­stances of op­er­ant con­di­tion­ing: for ex­am­ple, when I ran out of my orig­i­nal blue bot­tle of Pu­rina tuna treats and hap­pened to buy var­i­ous other fish treats, he re­fused them all, in­clud­ing sim­i­lar-seem­ing tuna treats; even­tu­ally I re­al­ized that it was­n’t the fla­vor that was the prob­lem, the prob­lem was that the treats were com­ing out of the wrong con­tain­er! When I dumped them all into the blue bot­tle, he was happy to eat them all. I ex­ploited this to train him to tol­er­ate nail-clip­ping by start­ing with as lit­tle clip­ping as pos­si­ble and re­in­forc­ing with treats within a sec­ond of let­ting go, and pa­tiently ex­pand­ing over a year to clip­ping all of his front claws be­fore treats.

      This use of tri­al-and-er­ror fuzz test­ing leads to a sig­na­ture blend of stu­pid­ity & ge­nius fa­mil­iar to any­one who has spent much time in sta­tis­tics or AI or —I was amused to think while read­ing Cat Sense that, as de­scribed, cats have all the strengths (& weak­ness­es) of con­tem­po­rary AI re­search’s deep re­in­force­ment learn­ing (e­spe­cially DQN): gen­er­al­ized, sam­ple-in­effi­cient, demon­strat­ing the per­verse ge­nius of tri­al-and-er­ror, sleep()s all the time while block­ing (the door), their poor ex­plo­ration ben­e­fits from ex­pert demon­stra­tions, they are re­ward hack­ers (who op­ti­mize for get­ting the treat not what you want­ed), hairy to train, black box­es, who are un­able to gen­er­al­ize, solve short­-term credit as­sign­ment prob­lems on­ly, are un­able to model or plan, and over­ly-a­verse to states which were harm­ful with­out re­al­iz­ing which dis­en­tan­gled fac­tor was re­spon­si­ble (cat/hot stove etc), as put it (ch11 of , 1897):14

      We should be care­ful to get out of an ex­pe­ri­ence only the wis­dom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

  • while cats have few ab­strac­tions or men­tal mod­els of the world (and are merely very good at associations/trial-and-error)15, they do have men­tal maps as they can take phys­i­cal short­cuts which go out of sight of a tar­get or the ‘wrong’ di­rec­tion for a while

  • cats are deeply in­flex­i­ble about their ter­ri­tory and not adapt­able like dogs, deeply anx­ious about es­tab­lish­ing a ter­ri­tory and stop­ping other cats from en­ter­ing their ter­ri­to­ry, and this ap­pears to be a ma­jor cause of cat be­hav­ioral prob­lems and dis­ease like, in­ci­den­tal­ly, cys­ti­tis, and ac­cord­ing to the UK Cat Pro­tec­tion, in­abil­ity to get along is one of the most com­mon rea­sons for a cat to be re­turned to their pounds. (This point made me think back to when I vis­ited the pound and the cat room: fes­tooned in cat trees and shelves and nooks and cran­nies, the ~20 cats there had all care­fully them­selves equidis­tant­ly—which made it easy for me to play with each one sep­a­rate­ly, at least.)

    Fa­mous cat pho­tog­ra­pher needed to ac­cli­mate cats to his pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio over days, and gin­gerly them to strobe lights, while his wife, a ‘cat whis­perer’ coaxed the into re­lax­ing & pos­ing; Chan­doha quit pho­tograph­ing cats after she died. (To high­light how se­vere the con­se­quences of poor adap­ta­tion can be to both the cat and own­er, I would have men­tioned how fre­quently cat bites from even ex­tremely friendly cats will send peo­ple, in­clud­ing my grand­moth­er, to the emer­gency room, due to the nar­row­ness of cat fangs & ease of blood in­fec­tion.) Maren Huck de­scribes her in­for­mal ob­ser­va­tions of her ‘cat­cam’ re­search (Huck & Wat­son 2019):

    Cats are seen as rel­a­tively lazy, es­pe­cially com­pared to dogs. But we saw that when they were out­side, they be­came su­peralert.16 They scanned their sur­round­ings, some­times for a half-hour or more on end. And even though cats are highly ter­ri­to­ri­al, they did­n’t al­ways fight with other cats they en­coun­tered. Often, they just sat a cou­ple of me­ters away from each other for up to a half an hour. They may have been siz­ing each other up. Some­times they would en­gage in a greet­ing, briefly touch­ing noses. When they were in their homes, the cats spent a lot of time fol­low­ing their hu­mans around. They liked to be in the same room. A lot of my stu­dents were sur­prised at how at­tached cats were to peo­ple.

    Brad­shaw:

    …cats’ emo­tional needs are still the cause of wide­spread mis­ap­pre­hen­sions. Cats are widely per­ceived as be­ing far more so­cially adapt­able than they ac­tu­ally are. Own­ers polled for a re­cent sur­vey said that half of pet cats avoid (hu­man) vis­i­tors to the house; al­most all pet cats ei­ther get into fights with cats from neigh­bor­ing hous­es, or avoid any con­tact with them; and half of the cats that share house­holds with other cats ei­ther fight or avoid one an­oth­er.1 Re­search con­firms that cats find such con­flicts highly stress­ful: they ex­pe­ri­ence fear dur­ing the event it­self, and anx­i­ety in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the next en­counter. They are con­stantly hy­per­vig­i­lant through cues we are un­aware of, such as the odor of a ri­val cat. Chronic anx­i­ety can lead to de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health and may re­duce life ex­pectan­cy. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, we do not know enough about how to mit­i­gate this sit­u­a­tion, made worse by the ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of cats kept as pets.

    …Sim­ply re­plac­ing ran­dom-bred cats with cats from to­day’s pedi­gree breeds will not only per­pet­u­ate those ge­netic prob­lems that al­ready ex­ist, it also can­not solve the prob­lems that the cat is fac­ing as a species. A re­duced mo­ti­va­tion to hunt and kill prey is just one of sev­eral fac­tors that will en­able cats to adapt bet­ter to twen­ty-first-cen­tury liv­ing. Al­low­ing a lit­tle an­thro­po­mor­phism: if cats could write them­selves a wish list for self­-im­prove­ment, a set of goals to al­low them to adapt to the de­mands we place on them, it might look some­thing like this:

    • To get along bet­ter with other cats, so that so­cial en­coun­ters are no longer a source of anx­i­ety.
    • To un­der­stand hu­man be­hav­ior bet­ter, so that en­coun­ters with un­fa­mil­iar peo­ple no longer feel like a threat.
    • To over­come the com­pul­sion to hunt even on a full stom­ach.

    The cor­re­spond­ing re­quests from own­ers:

    • I’d like to have more than one cat at a time, and for my cats to be com­pa­ny—not just for me, but also for one an­oth­er.
    • I wish my cat did­n’t dis­ap­pear into the bed­room to uri­nate on the car­pet every time I have vis­i­tors.
    • I wish my cat did­n’t bring gory “presents” through the cat-flap.

    Suffer­ing is all the more cruel when those suffer­ing do not & can­not un­der­stand why.

    A lot of oth­er­wise-a­mus­ing cat be­hav­iors look like hy­per­-ac­tive fear and dan­ger re­spons­es. Con­sider the fa­mous “cats and cu­cum­bers” prank.

  • Cat ter­ri­to­ries do not need to be large: I’ve been sur­prised how rarely I see him ven­ture far from home con­sid­er­ing how much un­de­vel­oped area there is around my house which should be per­fect for exploring/hunting, but small ranges are com­mon for do­mes­tic cats (eg ), and be­ing less than 91 me­ters is the usual even in nat­ural ar­eas, some­thing like 10,000 times smaller than a wild or feral cat’s range, ap­par­ently with­out ma­jor psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sue. (I’ve thought of get­ting a track­ing col­lar be­cause I am cu­ri­ous where he does go, but at >$120/year, I’m not that cu­ri­ous.) Brad­shaw muses of the track­ing data from his own cat that

    Splodge rarely ven­tured be­yond the trees—to my great re­lief, since there was a busy road not far be­yond. He would some­times re­main in the same lo­ca­tion for hours at a time, usu­ally one of a few fa­vored van­tage points such as a branch of a fallen tree, be­fore mov­ing on to an­other site or re­turn­ing home. He rarely seemed to be hunt­ing: oc­ca­sion­al­ly, he caught a mouse or a young rat, but would let birds fly past him with­out bat­ting an eye­lid. I often won­dered, and still do, what was go­ing through his mind as he main­tained his sur­veil­lance of the same small area, day after day, year after year.

    This seems strik­ingly con­nected to the lack of plas­tic­ity out­side kit­ten­hood and in­abil­ity to be­friend other cats as adults. The tragedy of do­mes­tic cats is their minds are as rigid as their bod­ies are flex­i­ble. But per­haps if cats are like hu­mans, for whom an­tic­i­pa­tion is so often bet­ter than re­al­iza­tion, then be­ing safe while watch­ing the world go by is a kind of heav­en.

  • cats pre­fer their food and wa­ter bowls strictly sep­a­rate; this ap­par­ently was well-known among cat re­searchers (although I can’t find any good ex­per­i­ments) and is ex­plained as a an­ti-foul­ing be­hav­ior.

    I had some­how never heard of this! My fam­ily had al­ways put out pairs of bowls for our cats just like our dogs, I’d al­ways put out pairs for my cats & dogs, it seemed to work fine, the cats did­n’t seem to mind…17 I tried sep­a­rat­ing them for my cat, and sure enough, he stopped drag­ging chunks of wet food away to eat and seemed to be eat­ing more as well. I tested this fur­ther: I’d been adding wa­ter to his saucer of wet food be­cause I was con­cerned he was­n’t drink­ing enough wa­ter & adding wa­ter is some­thing some cat own­ers do, and the saucer some­times wound up dry, so I thought it was work­ing. But the separate-food/water claim sug­gests it was ac­tu­ally bad. So, I split his food into two saucers with half each and water/no-water, and put them down si­mul­ta­ne­ously (al­ter­nat­ing left/right); out of 4 tri­als, he showed a strong pref­er­ence for the no-wa­ter one—he al­ways ate the no-wa­ter-added wet food saucer first and left the wa­ter-added saucer for eat­ing only hours later (or not at al­l), drag­ging food away from the wa­ter one or lick­ing the dry saucer in­stead. Thus, I stopped do­ing that too.

  • in­ci­den­tal­ly, here’s one I (re)dis­cov­ered my­self:

Are Cats Domesticated?

“Any­one who con­sid­ers pro­to­col unim­por­tant has never dealt with a cat.”

Robert Hein­lein,

This is all well and good, but what I took away from Cat Sense, which I was not ex­pect­ing, was a deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion of cat prob­lems and a pes­simism. Cats are not ac­cept­able cats. They can be much bet­ter.

on cat hu­mor. “We re­late to this, for it is how we ap­pear be­fore the eyes of God.”18

Brad­shaw’s over­all the­sis is this: think of a cat as a small soli­tary desert am­bush preda­tor which hap­pens to have some lim­ited cog­ni­tive plas­tic­ity in kit­ten­hood and some ba­sic so­cial skills en­abling it to, on rare oc­ca­sions, live in un­sta­ble ‘colonies’ of usu­al­ly-re­lated in­di­vid­u­als fo­cused around a rich food source; this desert preda­tor hap­pens to have be­come in­sin­u­ated through­out hu­man so­ci­ety but it has no real un­der­stand­ing of hu­mans or “the­ory of mind” and to sur­vive, re­lies heav­ily on what learn­ing it man­ages about hu­mans & other cats in that short win­dow of plas­tic­i­ty, the sim­ple so­cial skills of a cat colony, trial and er­ror, and treat­ing hu­mans as ei­ther dan­ger­ously un­pre­dictable preda­tors or large mother cats.

As pet cats are uni­ver­sally ‘fixed’, cat re­pro­duc­tion is now pri­mar­ily done by those feral cats who are able to es­cape the traps and be­ing neutered, with the most se­cre­tive sur­viv­ing toms end­lessly search­ing sub­ur­bia for the rare fer­tile fe­male in heat. To be re­pro­duc­tively fit, a cat must al­ways be able to sur­vive on its own and evade hu­mans, and re­main hy­per­-alert to for­eign cats or preda­tors which might dam­age it (leav­ing it un­able to hunt effec­tively on its own caus­ing a down­ward spi­ral of star­va­tion), sen­si­tive to dan­ger­ous foods & places & peo­ple, pass­ing up nu­tri­tious food if there’s even a small chance of be­ing dis­ablingly poi­so­nous, and is un­able to cope with too much nov­elty and may be en­tirely un­able to un­der­stand hu­mans or other cats if it was not prop­erly ac­cul­tur­ated as a kit­ten dur­ing its win­dow of plas­tic­i­ty.

Brad­shaw re­marks that a cat raised only by hu­mans, with­out ex­pe­ri­ence with kit­tens, re­acts to meet­ing an­other cat for the first time with “a bizarre com­bi­na­tion of fas­ci­na­tion and fear…Other­s…barely seem to re­al­ize they are cats at al­l…Hand-reared kit­tens may de­velop ex­treme per­son­al­i­ties” (pg236; the word ‘fear’ comes up a lot in Cat Sense), which made me re­call that my neigh­bor’s cat, who was found as a tiny kit­ten in a cat nest of 5 kit­tens in a field by a farmer while mow­ing, and then adopted by them when the farmer took them to his vet. Thus, he was raised solely by hu­mans & dogs; he is Maine Coon-ish, and friendly to hu­mans & dogs, and we often re­mark that “he seems to think he’s a hu­man”, just as pre­dict­ed. But he also re­acted as just de­scribed when I brought my own cat home, who seems to have been the first cat he ever en­coun­tered close up, and was an ob­ses­sive bully ini­tial­ly—years lat­er, he still seems to both loathe & be fas­ci­nated by my cat, while he is much less in­ter­ested in dogs. (He also de­clared me dead to him after I brought a new cat home, de­spite our pre­vi­ously ex­cel­lent re­la­tion­ship and, al­most 4 years lat­er, still re­fuses to be pet­ted by me.)

In other words, cats are barely do­mes­ti­cated.

Do­mes­tic cat ad­mix­ture ap­pears to con­t­a­m­i­nate ‘wild cat’ pop­u­la­tions19 and vice ver­sa, which aside from slow­ing any kind of do­mes­ti­ca­tion, also in­di­cates the suc­cess­ful flow of ‘do­mes­tic’ cats back into the wild. We could also note that be­fore the in the 1940s, keep­ing a cat in­doors was chal­leng­ing due to the aw­ful stench of their urine & diffi­culty feed­ing them (where does one get all the meat if the cat is not hunt­ing for it­self and there are no cat’s-meat men?) and most peo­ple had out­door cats, and farm cats were more tol­er­ated than any­thing. Cats don’t ex­hibit a clear ‘’ of small skulls, floppy ears, no longer go­ing into heat, piebald coats, etc. (The do; more ob­scure­ly, may too, with the “dumbo” mu­ta­tion.) Mice may be more do­mes­ti­cated than cats—“to­day’s house mice rarely breed suc­cess­fully away from hu­man habi­ta­tion, es­pe­cially where there are wild com­peti­tors, such as wood mice”! They have no the­ory of mind, and won’t look to a hu­man for help and train­ing must be done with food re­wards. A cat with­out any hu­man con­tact be­fore 10 weeks will be near-feral (ex­cept in the case of se­vere trau­ma, ap­par­ent­ly, where it may bond with its res­cuer, anal­o­gous per­haps with “hit­ting bot­tom”). This is still bet­ter than true wild cats, where even fairly young kit­tens are ag­gres­sive and diffi­cult to han­dle adults, but it is still in­dica­tive of deep fragili­ty, de­pen­dent on just the right rear­ing en­vi­ron­ment else laps­ing back to wild-type. (Pup­pies, in con­trast, are more ro­bust to lack of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.)

On a be­hav­ioral lev­el, cats aren’t very do­mes­ti­cated com­pared to even, say, the Russ­ian sil­ver fox­es. The be­hav­ioral as­say for the foxes was whether they would ea­gerly ap­proach a quiet hu­man; after half a cen­tu­ry, they all do and are very friend­ly. While any­one who has vis­ited many peo­ple with cats knows that the modal re­ac­tion to a stranger in a house is to run away & hide un­til they’re gone (and Brad­shaw cites a sur­vey to that effec­t). While look­ing for a cat after my dog died, I vis­ited the lo­cal an­i­mal shel­ter where most of the cats, per­haps a good 30, were all in a play room, and I spent an hour in­side it, sit­ting & wait­ing for cats to de­cide to come to me; de­spite be­ing the only per­son in the room the en­tire time (and the only per­son to adopt a cat that day)—­sug­gest­ing that they were not ex­actly blessed with a sur­feit of hu­man-recre­ation op­por­tu­ni­ties, un­like the cats in the San Fran­cisco cat cafe I vis­ited in early 2018—of that 30+, only a hand­ful did, and I had to ap­proach them to get any im­pres­sion. I even­tu­ally coaxed my fu­ture cat out of his hidey-hole to try him, upon which he was very friendly & starved for affec­tion (but in ret­ro­spect should’ve been a warn­ing sign to me that I was not pick­ing a bold cat which was well-e­quipped to deal with the stresses of the mod­ern world).

I also note that most peo­ple are bad at deal­ing with cats, mak­ing what should be clear er­rors (a­gain, de­spite cats be­ing the #1 or #2 most com­mon pet in the world & so ig­no­rance should not be a prob­lem): I don’t know how many times I have seen some­one try to touch a cat’s bel­ly, start pet­ting it with a ful­l-body stroke rather than a chin or head scratch, in­sist on scratch­ing them at the but­t-tail point, in­ter­pret tail-lash­ing (the op­po­site of dogs, ‘tail wag­ging’ is a bad thing!), or ears pinned back as good things, try to pick them up, or star­tle them by abrupt un­telegraphed move­ments. In con­trast, while I have seen many peo­ple with poor dog man­ners (such as not pre­sent­ing their hand to be sniffed or even peo­ple obliv­i­ous enough to at­tempt to pet a growl­ing dog with teeth bared), peo­ple gen­er­ally seem to make fewer mis­takes, the dogs more clearly com­mu­ni­cate with the hu­mans, and the dogs tol­er­ate the in­evitable mis­takes bet­ter (rather than run­ning away or bit­ing).

Apro­pos of vet vis­its & dogs vs cats, Kirk 2019 in­ves­ti­gated the long-s­tand­ing dis­par­ity in spend­ing on cats & dogs’ care & med­i­cine, and in her sur­vey ex­per­i­ments, found that the ‘will­ing­ness to pay’ for dogs but not cats is not be­cause own­ers just like dogs qua dogs but the differ­ence is me­di­ated largely by a sense of con­trol20—which may sound bad (“hu­man own­ers are pow­er-mad nar­cis­sists!”) but makes per­fect sense if we think about the point of this con­trol. It would be ir­ra­tional to try to take cats to the vet as often as a dog given that we can’t con­trol them & the visit may be com­pletely wast­ed. We need that con­trol for their own good in a mod­ern con­text.

So, ‘do­mes­ti­cated’ might not be the right word. Per­haps it would be more ac­cu­rate to de­scribe cats as ‘half-do­mes­ti­cated’, or mere­ly, ‘tame’. (I in­creas­ingly think of cats as act­ing like small chil­dren—with PTSD & autism, es­pe­cially given how much vets re­strain­ing cats by ‘squish­ing’ them un­der a blan­ket looks like . Or would work bet­ter?)

Dysgenics

The cat sta­tus quo.

In , one of the de­fi­n­i­tions given of do­mes­ti­ca­tion is a crea­ture whose re­pro­duc­tion is con­trolled by hu­mans; Brad­shaw points out that hu­mans have never ex­er­cised con­trol over cat re­pro­duc­tion any­where like we do over dog or cow or sheep re­pro­duc­tion, and what con­trol we did ex­er­cise (thereby se­lect­ing for do­mes­ti­ca­tion), we have wasted on cat-fancier frip­peries & fol­lies like coat col­ors, or for­feited by our oth­er­wise-suc­cess­ful pop­u­la­tion con­trol mea­sures—ab­di­cat­ing cat re­pro­duc­tion to the worst pos­si­ble cats, the cats so fear­ful and averse to hu­mans that they are feral strays who can’t be caught (but which we feed lav­ishly any­way be­cause when it comes to pets, we “love not wisely but too well”), cre­at­ing what we might call ‘fe­line dys­gen­ics’:

We must also ask whether the cat is be­ing in­ad­ver­tently and sub­tly al­tered by those who hold cat wel­fare clos­est to their hearts. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, the drive to neuter as many cats as pos­si­ble, with its laud­able aim of re­duc­ing the suffer­ing of un­wanted kit­tens, may be grad­u­ally elim­i­nat­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the very cats best suited to liv­ing in har­mony with hu­mankind: many of the cats that avoid neu­ter­ing are those that are most sus­pi­cious of peo­ple and the best at hunt­ing. The friend­liest, most docile cats are nowa­days neutered be­fore leav­ing any de­scen­dants, while the wildest, mean­est fer­als are likely to es­cape the at­ten­tion of cat res­cuers and breed at will, thus push­ing the cat’s evo­lu­tion away from, rather than to­ward, bet­ter in­te­gra­tion with hu­man so­ci­ety.

…The tom­cats must there­fore roam as widely as pos­si­ble, end­lessly strain­ing their senses for the yowl and odor of the rare fe­male that is com­ing into sea­son. Such toms are shad­owy an­i­mals; some are the­o­ret­i­cally “owned”—though their own­ers rarely see them—and many fer­al. Be­cause they make them­selves in­con­spic­u­ous ex­cept when they have lo­cated a prize fe­male, there are prob­a­bly far more of them than most peo­ple re­al­ize. When it first be­came pos­si­ble to ob­tain a cat’s DNA fin­ger­print from just a few hairs, my re­search team at­tempted to lo­cate every lit­ter born in homes in a cou­ple of dis­tricts of Southamp­ton, UK. From what we’d read, we ex­pected to find that just a few “dom­i­nant” tom­cats had sired most of the lit­ters in each dis­trict; in­stead, we found that out of more than 70 kit­tens, vir­tu­ally all lit­ters had differ­ent fa­thers, only one of which we were able to lo­cate.21

…the wide­spread adop­tion of early neu­ter­ing by the most re­spon­si­ble cat own­ers risks push­ing the do­mes­tic cat’s ge­net­ics back grad­u­ally to­ward the wild, away from their cur­rent do­mes­ti­cated state. A study that I con­ducted in 1999 sug­gests that such ex­trap­o­la­tion can­not be dis­missed as sci­ence fic­tion. [See also Clark 1975.] In one area of Southamp­ton (UK), we found that more than 98% of pet cat pop­u­la­tion had been neutered. So few kit­tens were be­ing born that po­ten­tial cat own­ers had to travel out­side the city to ob­tain their cats. This sit­u­a­tion had clearly ex­isted for some time: from talk­ing to the own­ers of the older cats, we cal­cu­lated that the cat pop­u­la­tion in that area had last been self­-sus­tain­ing some 10 years pre­vi­ous­ly, in the late 1980s.

We lo­cated 10 fe­male pets in the area that were still be­ing al­lowed to breed and tested the tem­pera­ment of their kit­tens after hom­ing, when the kit­tens were 6 months old. Our hy­poth­e­sis was that feral males must have fa­thered many of these kit­tens, since so few in­tact males were be­ing kept as pets in the area, and all of these were young and un­likely to com­pete effec­tively with the more wily fer­als. We found that on av­er­age, the kit­tens in those 10 lit­ters were much less will­ing to set­tle on their own­ers’ laps than kit­tens born in an­other area of the city that still had a sig­nifi­cant num­ber of un­doc­tored pet tom­cats. There was no sys­tem­atic differ­ence in the way these two groups of kit­tens had been so­cial­ized, and the mother cats in the two ar­eas were in­dis­tin­guish­able in tem­pera­ment. We there­fore de­duced that even if only one of the two par­ents comes from a long line of fer­als, the kit­tens will be less easy to so­cial­ize than if both par­ents are pets. The study was too small to draw any firm con­clu­sions, but in the years since it was car­ried out, blan­ket neu­ter­ing has be­come more wide­spread, and so the cu­mu­la­tive effects of this on the tem­pera­ment of kit­tens should be be­com­ing more ob­vi­ous. Neu­ter­ing is an ex­tremely pow­er­ful se­lec­tion pres­sure, the effects of which have been given lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion. At pre­sent, it is the only hu­mane way of en­sur­ing that there are as few un­wanted cats as pos­si­ble, and it is un­likely ever to be­come so widely adopted that the house cat pop­u­la­tion be­gins to shrink. How­ev­er, over time it will likely have un­in­tended con­se­quences.

A sim­i­lar set of ob­ser­va­tions is made about dogs as well, by .22

Where do cats come from? Given that we ster­il­ize al­most all our pet cats and hardly buy from cat breed­ers, pedi­gree or oth­er­wise, they must come from some­where.

I don’t know where my fam­i­ly’s two cats or my cat came from, be­yond “the an­i­mal shel­ter”; my neigh­bor’s cat was defi­nitely a feral cat’s off­spring; my aun­t’s cat was from a pet cat’s lit­ter but al­most cer­tainly had a feral fa­ther; on the other side, my un­cle’s farm cat was defi­nitely a semi­-feral cat tol­er­ated for its as­sumed pest hunt­ing; more point­ed­ly, as far as I know, no one within two de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion of me has ever bought a pure­bred or pedi­greed cat, while just off the top of my head I can name 10 dogs which were bought specifi­cally from dog breed­ers and 3 or 4 of which were even reg­is­tered. (I even­tu­ally asked my grand­moth­er, “has any­one in our fam­ily ever bought a pedi­gree cat, or from a cat breeder at all?” She could think of no ex­am­ples ei­ther and agreed that there were at least a dozen dogs bought from breed­er­s.) Those dogs defi­nitely were not ac­ci­dents or fa­thered by stray feral dogs. I do not know how much re­pro­duc­tion feral cats ac­count for or how much de-do­mes­ti­ca­tion it is re­spon­si­ble for, but it does seem like it could be a lot, and could be enough to dras­ti­cally slow any do­mes­ti­cat­ing process or even re­verse do­mes­ti­ca­tion. Brad­shaw’s es­ti­mate of only 15% be­ing “planned mat­ing” (ap­par­ently in­ferred from ‘to­tal cat­s—­cat breeder sales’ es­ti­mates, which is, if any­thing, a loose up­per bound as cat breed­ers do not nec­es­sar­ily breed for much or well) seems rea­son­able to me, which al­lows great scope for bad effects. (In­deed, given the neu­ter­ing & lack of breed­ing, how could there not be dys­gen­ic­s?)

How would we know if cat do­mes­ti­ca­tion was re­vers­ing? Vet­eri­nary med­ical sci­ence has ad­vanced enor­mously over the past cen­tury and spend­ing on pet med­ical treat­ment in­creases even faster than hu­man med­ical treat­ment (dou­bling since 200023) so we would not ex­pect any clear long-term trend (per­haps the health gains are eaten by cat dys­gen­ic­s), the en­vi­ron­ment has changed enor­mously (con­sider ur­ban­iza­tion or the sev­er­al-fold in­crease in sub­ur­ban house sizes) which makes com­par­isons hard­er, and no one main­tains sys­tem­atic records of cat be­hav­ioral prob­lems or health to do such com­par­isons in the first place. Pedi­gree cats are pre­sum­ably im­mune if breed­ers are be­ing hon­est and not en­rolling half-stray mat­ings as pure­bloods, and there is sta­bi­liz­ing se­lec­tion for all pedi­gree cats in the sense that cat breed­ers will not breed or buy cats which can­not en­dure be­ing trans­ported to cat shows & sit­ting in a cage in the mid­dle of thou­sands of cats for hours & be­ing judged. (Are the an­cient city cats of Is­tan­bul, re­cently made fa­mous by the 2016 doc­u­men­tary , so friendly to strangers be­cause they are rarely neutered and to a con­sid­er­able ex­tent hand-fed by locals/tourists & do not sub­sist purely on hunt­ing?)

So there should be a slowly grow­ing gap over time—but no one is for­mally mea­sur­ing pedi­gree cats against reg­u­lar pet cats or feral an­ces­try ad­mix­ture, and some pedi­gree cats are crazy them­selves (eg Siamese cat­s). And there are no large cat ge­netic datasets which could be ex­am­ined to see if the do­mes­ti­ca­tion PGS has been de­creas­ing re­cently or is lower than in an­cient cat DNA (of which there is a smidgen).

We are now will­ing to put up with far more than our an­ces­tors just a cen­tury ago will: only a mon­ster would eu­th­a­nize their fur-baby rather than spend $5k on med­ical treat­ment or ther­a­py. (‘fur-baby’ here is not a joke and $5k is not a hy­po­thet­i­cal but based on a real case: that is the to­tal spend­ing of my neigh­bor on her Labrador’s last 2 years, who had ter­mi­nal can­cer, whose treat­ment in­volved, among other things, am­pu­tat­ing her leg to buy a few months; after she fi­nally died, my neigh­bor was so dis­traught she was pre­scribed seda­tives. And as men­tioned, my aunt for years spent $1k a month on drugs for her dog, so the life­time to­tal there scarcely bears think­ing on.)

So in other words, if cats were steadily de-do­mes­ti­cat­ing and be­com­ing sick­er, be­tween all the en­vi­ron­men­tal in­ter­ven­tions and ad­di­tional spend­ing & tol­er­ance for crazy cats, the world would look… much as it does now.

What is to be done?

The sim­ple an­swer for fe­line dys­gen­ics is to sim­ply se­lect the other way. There’s no ca­nine equiv­a­lent be­cause we con­trol their re­pro­duc­tion and get all our dogs from ei­ther breed­ers or from do­mes­tic dogs be­ing per­mit­ted to mate by lax own­ers, both of which in­her­ently se­lect against neu­rotic or un­friendly dogs; in most places in the West, there are no strays to speak of and they cer­tainly don’t make up the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of re­pro­duc­tion. (Dogs have other ge­netic is­sues, largely stem­ming from re­cent pop­u­la­tion bot­tle­necks, which would ben­e­fit from bet­ter & more sys­tem­atic breed­ing, but there is no threat of them de-do­mes­ti­cat­ing.)

We are not try­ing to se­lect on sub­tle or hid­den traits here—it is clear to own­ers how fear­ful of strangers or affec­tion­ate a cat is, and those traits are defi­nitely her­i­ta­ble (Braas­tad et al 1999, among oth­er­s).

Brad­shaw notes that one way to get started would be to more de­lib­er­ately aim for : choose an al­ready highly do­mes­ti­cated breed, such as the or or /, the last of which, per­haps be­cause of pleiotropy or per­haps be­cause Raga­muffin breed­ers say “The only ex­treme al­lowed in this breed is its friend­ly, so­cia­ble and in­tel­li­gent na­ture”, are so friendly Brad­shaw men­tions they aren’t al­lowed out­side (be­cause they will be too naive & be at­tacked by other more aggressive/territorial/paranoid cat­s); an­other point in Raga­muffins’ fa­vor is their many coat/eye col­ors, and their large size, which might be use­ful for fix­ing their kid­ney vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. An­other in­ter­est­ing pos­si­bil­ity is to tap into the many fe­line hy­brids, to greatly in­crease the amount of ge­netic di­ver­sity avail­able to se­lect on—prob­a­bly more use­ful for health is­sues than do­mes­ti­ca­tion it­self.

Pedi­gree cats some­times have health prob­lems24, but they ap­pear un­re­lated to the do­mes­ti­ca­tion per se, and due to in­breed­ing & pop­u­la­tion bot­tle­necks (eg Makino et al 2018; many pedi­gree breeds trace back to a hand­ful of cats or just one cat), and lim­ited use of more ad­vanced breed­ing tech­niques like di­rect ge­netic test­ing; all of this could be avoided by start­ing with a large di­verse found­ing pop­u­la­tion of a few hun­dred cats, and fo­cus­ing their se­lec­tion on the im­por­tant things like health.

An­other ob­jec­tion peo­ple raise against this is that they don’t want cats who are too “dog-like”. I sym­pa­thize with this and ac­knowl­edge that Raga­muffins might be too dog-like for many peo­ple, but I do not think that things like stress­ing one­self to death via cys­ti­tis or be­ing ter­ri­fied of strangers are in­trin­sic to cats’ ap­peal, nor do I think any owner ac­tively de­sires those things, and it should be pos­si­ble to im­prove so­cial skills & plas­tic­ity & anx­i­ety while pre­serv­ing the things we value about cats, like their peren­nial cu­rios­i­ty, watch­ful­ness, clever tri­al-and-er­ror, en­joy­ment of play­ing chase, purring etc with­out hav­ing to keep their prob­lems like ex­plod­ing kid­neys or adult cats’ in­abil­ity to be­friend.

com­ments on cats and men.

Brad­shaw is pes­simistic that the cul­tural norm of get­ting cats for free and not pay­ing for them like we do dogs will be im­pos­si­ble to break. How can high­-qual­ity cats out­com­pete ‘free’ kit­tens (even ones which are tick­ing time bomb­s)? How can we get peo­ple to see that there is any prob­lem, or even that there might be a prob­lem & we need to re­search cats more rather than leav­ing cat re­search the crumbs from dog re­search? While it may be diffi­cult to change cul­tural pat­terns, it is not im­pos­si­ble: the so­cial stigma among the middle/upper-class of buy­ing from “puppy mills” did a num­ber on them and suc­cess­fully shifted the West­ern norm to buy­ing ei­ther di­rectly from the dog breeder when a spe­cific breed is de­sired (eg for hy­poal­ler­genic) or get­ting pets from the pound; ad­mit­ting to peers that your new puppy was bought from a ‘puppy mill’ will earn one the sting­ing re­buke of glances askance, shuftis, and raised eye­brows. Many other prac­tices were changed for rea­sons like their pur­ported en­vi­ron­men­tal friend­li­ness, and I see no rea­son why one could not breed a bet­ter more do­mes­ti­cated cat which hunts less and, en­tirely truth­ful­ly, flip the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist an­ti-cat nar­ra­tive on its head. One could with­out much trou­ble work out how long a breed­ing pro­gram would take given the pre­lim­i­nary ob­served her­i­tabil­i­ties and be­hav­ioral dis­tri­b­u­tions (eg for cat­nip re­spon­se, I es­ti­mate it ought to take un­der 10 gen­er­a­tions in the worst case of ran­dom ini­tial se­lec­tion of cats in or­der to make cat­nip re­sponse es­sen­tially uni­ver­sal, which since cats ma­ture sex­u­ally at ~1y, means hardly a decade).

Rather, the prob­lem is no one con­sid­ers it a prob­lem. Read­ing Cat Sense, I was re­peat­edly struck by a dou­ble-s­tan­dard: “if cats were the size of large dogs and acted like nor­mal cats do now25, they would be con­sid­ered more dan­ger­ous than Rot­tweil­ers or Dober­manns and feared & out­lawed” (in­deed, many hy­brids are out­lawed in many places); “if a dog breed were as un­healthy, neu­rotic, un­able to adapt, and stressed out by in­ter­ac­tion to the point of rou­tine life-threat­en­ing kid­ney fail­ure, as nor­mal cats are now, buy­ing such a dog would be con­sid­ered more im­moral than buy­ing a pug or Eng­lish bull­dog is now”; and so on. But be­cause they are cats, it’s taken for granted and just the ‘catus quo’. (“Oh cat­s—is­n’t it so funny how cats spend all that time star­ing out the win­dow? Or won’t stay in the same room as the fam­ily dog? Or hide when­ever some­one vis­its? Or pee in your bed? Or bite you for no rea­son? Adorable!” No. No, not re­al­ly.)

Over­all, I learned much more than I ex­pected from Cat Sense, and while much of it was not good news, some of it was use­ful, and I now find it eas­ier to un­der­stand & for­give cats. I truly be­lieve, that, in the strange ar­ti­fi­cial (often all too small) worlds in which they have been brought, so far from their an­ces­tral land, filled with con­fus­ing clam­orous clumsy gi­ants, whether bit­ing the hand that feeds them or lolling in the light or pa­tiently ob­serv­ing, they, to the ex­tent a breast filled with the furry heart of a small soli­tary desert preda­tor lit­tle meant for such things can, love us. They are not at fault; we are.

Bibliography

Rel­e­vant cites in rough or­der of ap­pear­ance in Cat Sense:

Fur­ther read­ing:

Appendix

Fuzz Testing

“If builders built houses the way pro­gram­mers built pro­grams, the first wood­pecker to come along would de­stroy civ­i­liza­tion.”

(at­trib­uted in Con­rad Schneiker 1975)

Things my cat has done walk­ing across my key­board:

  • or­dered ex­tra socks from

  • ‘fa­vor­ited’ tweets or deleted draft tweets on Twit­ter

  • clipped whole pages in Ever­note

  • deleted a dozen pho­tos

  • turned off sound

  • chat­ted on IRC

  • killed Emacs

  • killed Fire­fox

  • crashed R in­side Urxvt

    • crashed Stan in­side R in­side Urxvt
  • made Urxvt un­us­able (ter­mi­nal es­capes?)

  • deleted di­rec­to­ries of docs (but for­tu­nate­ly, ver­sioned)

  • hard-locked XMonad (by open­ing ar­bi­trar­ily many win­dows)

  • per­ma­nently dis­abled weather fore­cast wid­get in MATE sta­tus bar, which re­mained bro­ken even after be­ing man­u­ally re-added

  • crashed X (the Synap­tic dri­ver for my Acer lap­top would seg­fault when­ever he stepped on the track­pad; I never fig­ured out why but chalk it up to per­haps he was touch­ing it in too many spots and trig­gered bugs)

  • turned off mon­i­tor via key­board (repli­cat­ing this, I dis­abled my mon­i­tor a sec­ond time but it did­n’t come back up when I pushed the hotkey ap­par­ently re­spon­si­ble; I had to push the power but­ton on the PC it­self to bring it back up, and net­work was dis­abled after­wards; a check of dmesg sug­gests that the sys­tem had fully sus­pended and ap­par­ently that can’t be un­done from the key­board?)

  • made ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor a mir­ror dis­play

  • turned off ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor, forc­ing re­boot of MATE to re­store ac­cess to both ex­ter­nal & lap­top mon­i­tors

  • shut down lap­top

Things other peo­ples’ cats have done:

  • crashed a dat­a­cen­ter:

    In March 2012, Google re­sponded to an un­usual power out­age at one of its Bel­gian dat­a­cen­ters that ul­ti­mately led to lo­cal data cor­rup­tion. In­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that a cat had dam­aged a nearby ex­ter­nal power sup­ply, trig­ger­ing a se­ries of cas­cad­ing fail­ures in the build­ing’s power sys­tems.

    Eaton’s Black­out Tracker An­nual Re­port for 2013 notes ad­di­tional pow­er-re­lated ex­am­ples:

    On Jan. 20, a cat shorted out a Philadel­phia trans­former. The four-legged fe­line caused power to go out in all three build­ings of the West Park Hous­ing Com­plex…On Nov. 11, a cat got into a place where it should­n’t have been and caused an equip­ment fail­ure, knock­ing out power to 1,800 in Harper’s Fer­ry.

  • broke Mac­book lap­top screen by lay­ing on it

  • dis­abled Mac, Win­dow & Ubuntu OSes by ap­par­ently press­ing & hold­ing the “Print Screen” but­ton long enough

  • Twit­ter thread: 1 ex­am­ples in­clude: printed 58 pages of a Twit­ter feed; flipped lap­top dis­play & changed lan­guage to Ara­bic; delete every­thing on desk­top, open YouTube to cat videos, & texted mother via What­sApp; broke a brand­new printer

Stan seg­fault­ing. Some­how.

This , aside from demon­strat­ing that the first AI with the in­tel­li­gence of a cat will take over civ­i­liza­tion (crashes like Stan/R/X sim­ply should not hap­pen in the first place much less be trig­gered by le­gal in­put like ran­dom key­press­es), also shows a lot of bad user-ex­pe­ri­ence (UX) de­sign in FLOSS pro­grams. Here, the prob­lem­atic soft­ware in­cludes Emacs, Urxvt, MATE shut­down in­ter­face, MATE ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor han­dling, and the Twit­ter UI. De­struc­tive ir­re­versible op­er­a­tions like shut­ting down a com­puter should re­quire prompts which can­not be faked by a cat sit­ting on a key­board; in the case of MATE’s ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor han­dling, it is re­versible by the same key pressed—but only par­tial­ly, as MATE for­gets the ex­ter­nal dis­play set­tings like the ori­en­ta­tion & rel­a­tive po­si­tion­ing of the two mon­i­tors, re­quir­ing me to again man­u­ally set all the op­tions.

Per­haps more tech com­pa­nies & soft­ware de­vel­op­ers should do fuzz test­ing.

Toys

Are we do­ing cat toys wrong? Some re­search sug­gests that cat play is in­her­ently about hunt­ing sim­u­la­tion, and us­ing a sta­tic toy fails to im­i­tate the con­sum­ma­tion of a suc­cess­ful hunt, and is un­sat­is­fy­ing. , Hall et al 2002:

We have in­ves­ti­gated the role of ha­bit­u­a­tion and dis­in­hi­bi­tion in the con­trol of ob­ject (preda­to­ry) play by adult do­mes­tic cats Fe­lis sil­vestris catus both with and with­out prior ex­pe­ri­ence of hunt­ing. We hy­poth­e­sised that ob­ject play is ter­mi­nated by rapid ha­bit­u­a­tion to the sen­sory char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ob­ject played with, and there­fore should be dis­in­hib­ited if the sen­sory char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ob­ject are changed. Three se­quen­tial ses­sions of play with an un­chang­ing ob­ject (a toy) caused al­most com­plete ha­bit­u­a­tion of the play re­spon­se; re­plac­ing the toy with one of con­trast­ing colours in a fourth ses­sion elicited in­tense dis­in­hib­ited play, sug­gest­ing that mo­ti­va­tion for play it­self had not di­min­ished sub­stan­tially dur­ing the first three ses­sions. The time in­ter­val be­tween ses­sions affected the ex­tent of dis­in­hi­bi­tion. After a long de­lay (25±45 min) be­tween each ses­sion play was less in­tense in the fourth ses­sion than in the first; if the in­ter­val was 5 min, it was more in­tense, in­dica­tive of post- in­hibitory re­bound, pos­si­bly caused by ini­tial pos­i­tive feed­back of play on its own per­for­mance. We sug­gest that ob­ject play by adult cats is con­trolled by two mech­a­nisms de­rived from preda­tory be­hav­iour: one re­sponds to prey-like stim­u­lus char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as tex­ture and small size, which elicit play, while the sec­ond de­tects change in the toy. The be­hav­ioural de­fault to­wards any ob­ject is ini­tial in­ter­est if it pos­sesses rel­e­vant stim­u­lus char­ac­ter­is­tics, fol­lowed by rapid ha­bit­u­a­tion un­less these stim­u­lus char­ac­ter­is­tics change.

Ex­tended dis­cus­sion by Brad­shaw from Cat Sense 2013:

My grad­u­ate stu­dent Sarah Hall and I found that ha­bit­u­a­tion is the main un­der­ly­ing rea­son for this ap­par­ent bore­dom. We pre­sented cats with toys—­mouse-sized, fake-fur-cov­ered “pil­lows” tied to a piece of cord—and at first they usu­ally played in­tense­ly, ap­pear­ing to treat the toy as if it was in­deed a mouse.

How­ev­er, many cats stopped play­ing within a mat­ter of a cou­ple min­utes. When we took the toys away for a while and then pre­sented them again, most of the cats started play­ing again, but nei­ther as in­tensely nor for as long as the first time. By the third pre­sen­ta­tion, many of the cats would scarcely even be­gin to play. They clearly be­came “bored” with the toy.

If we switched the toy for a slightly differ­ent one—a differ­ent color (say, black to white, since cats’ per­cep­tion of col­ors is differ­ent from ours), tex­ture, or odor­—al­most all of the cats would start play­ing again. Thus, they were “bored” not by the game, but by the toy it­self. In fact, the frus­tra­tion of be­ing offered the same toy re­peat­edly ac­tu­ally in­creased their de­sire to play. If the in­ter­val be­tween the last game with the orig­i­nal toy and the first game with the new toy was about five min­utes, they at­tacked the sec­ond toy with even more vigor than they did the first one.26

To un­der­stand why play­ing with a toy would make a cat frus­trat­ed, we con­sid­ered what might mo­ti­vate cats to play in the first place. Kit­tens some­times play with toys as if they were fel­low kit­tens, but adult cats in­vari­ably treat toys as if they were prey: they chase, bite, claw, and pounce on toys just as if the toys were mice or rats. To test the idea that cats think of toys in the same way they think of prey, we tried differ­ent kinds of toys to see which ones cats pre­fer. Our find­ings showed that, un­sur­pris­ing­ly, they like mouse-sized toys that are fur­ry, feath­ered, or mul­ti­-legged-toy spi­ders, for ex­am­ple. Even in­door cats that had never hunted showed these pref­er­ences, so they must be hard­wired in the cat’s brain. The cats played with rat-sized toys cov­ered in fake fur in a sub­tly differ­ent way from the mouse-sized toys. In­stead of hold­ing them in their front paws and bit­ing them, most cats would hold the rat-sized toys at ar­m’s length and rake them with their hind claws—just as hunt­ing cats do with real rats. The cats were ap­par­ently think­ing of their toys as if they were real an­i­mals, and as if their size, tex­ture, and any sim­u­lated move­ment (such as our pulling on the toy’s string) had trig­gered hunt­ing in­stincts.

We then ex­am­ined whether a cat’s ap­petite has sim­i­lar effects on the way it hunts and the way it plays with toys. If cats play with toys just for their own amuse­ment, as many peo­ple as­sume they do, then they should be less in­clined to play when they are hun­gry, since their minds should be fo­cused in­stead on how to get some­thing to eat. Con­verse­ly, as a hunt­ing cat gets hun­gri­er, it will hunt more in­tensely and be­come more in­clined to take on larger prey than usu­al. We found ex­actly the lat­ter when we offered toys to our cats. If their first meal of the day had been de­layed, they played more in­tensely than usual with a mouse-sized toy—­for ex­am­ple, bit­ing it more fre­quent­ly.

More­over, many of the cats that nor­mally re­fused to play with a rat-sized toy at all were now pre­pared to at­tack it. 6 This con­vinced us that adult cats do think that they are hunt­ing when they’re play­ing with toys.

Cats don’t eas­ily get “bored” with hunt­ing, so we were still puz­zled as to why our cats stopped play­ing with most toys so quick­ly. In­deed, they ap­peared to get “bored” with most com­mer­cially avail­able toys and with the kinds of toys we made for our first ex­per­i­ments. The few toys that sus­tained our cats’ in­ter­est all shared one qual­i­ty: they fell apart as the cat was play­ing with them.27 Al­though we had to aban­don ex­per­i­ments that in­volved these toys, which came apart at the seams as our cats bat­ted them about, we no­ticed that sev­eral of the cats were ex­tremely re­luc­tant to give them up. We then re­al­ized that our orig­i­nal swap­ping ex­per­i­ments mim­ic­ked one as­pect of what hap­pens when a cat rips a toy apart: when we ex­changed the toy for a slightly differ­ent one, the cat’s senses told it that the toy had changed. It did­n’t seem to mat­ter to the cat that it had not caused the change it­self; what was im­por­tant was that a change seemed to have oc­curred.

We de­duced that not only do cats think they are hunt­ing when they’re play­ing with toys, but their be­hav­ior is be­ing con­trolled by the same four mech­a­nisms whether they’re hunt­ing or play­ing. One of these mech­a­nisms is affected by hunger, and the same one that makes a cat more likely to play with a toy makes it likely to make a kill when it’s hun­gry.8 The sec­ond is trig­gered by the ap­pear­ance—and pre­sum­ably the smell and sound—of prey, and cer­tain spe­cific fea­tures, such as fur, feath­ers, and legs, that the cat rec­og­nizes in­stinc­tively are likely to be­long to prey an­i­mals. The third mech­a­nism is affected by the size of the toy or prey. At­tack­ing a mouse puts the cat in much less dan­ger than at­tack­ing a rat, so the cat at­tacks the rat much more care­ful­ly; like­wise, cats treat large toys much more cir­cum­spectly than small toys, as if they were ca­pa­ble of fight­ing back. Even though cats should quickly learn that the toys are un­likely to re­tal­i­ate, most cats don’t seem to do so. The fourth mech­a­nism is the source of the cat’s ap­par­ent frus­tra­tion: if all that bit­ing and claw­ing does­n’t seem to have any effect on its tar­get, then ei­ther the tar­get was­n’t a meal, or if it is prey, then it’s prov­ing diffi­cult to sub­due. A toy that starts to dis­in­te­grate, or is taken away but looks differ­ent when it comes back (as in our orig­i­nal ex­per­i­men­t), mim­ics the early stages of a kill, thus en­cour­ag­ing the cat to per­sist.

Most cat toys don’t change. Is this a se­ri­ous prob­lem? What about a col­or-chang­ing mov­ing ball? It could change col­ors and turn red when it ‘dies’. It could then fol­low a differ­ent move­ment pat­tern when it comes ‘back to life’, cy­cling through a bunch of pro­ce­du­ral­ly-gen­er­ated pat­terns… Maybe some­thing like a Sphero with differ­en­t-col­ored LEDs in it? When we use a laser point­er, should we al­ways end the game by putting a treat on the floor and lead­ing the cat to it?


  1. Par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in Re­ich’s case as his book sent pop­u­la­tion ge­neti­cists into a frenzy by re­veal­ing un­pub­lished se­crets of the Re­ich lab, but such is the pace of an­cient hu­man ge­net­ics re­search 2010–2020 that by 2019, it was al­ready… an­cient his­to­ry.↩︎

  2. Bonus nom­i­na­tive de­ter­min­ism: the grad­u­ate stu­dent in ques­tion worked at the lab of Leslie Lyons.↩︎

  3. Where ‘uri­nary’ means ‘pee’, ‘cys­ti­tis’ mean ‘swollen blad­der’, and ‘id­io­pathic’ means ‘dunno why’.↩︎

  4. Given Brad­shaw’s com­ment about cats go­ing off their feed due to mis­at­tribut­ing a health is­sue to the food they eat, I won­der if there was a hid­den re­cur­rence of cys­ti­tis?↩︎

  5. To rant a lit­tle about this top­ic: Puri­na’s salmon pate turns out to be oddly hard to get at a rea­son­able price, de­spite be­ing in­cluded in their stan­dard “Seafood Va­ri­ety” pack.

    I can buy the seafood va­ri­ety pack lo­cally no prob­lem, but not an al­l-salmon pate. On­line, al­l-salmon packs ex­ist but are eas­ily 2–3x the cost—u­nac­cept­able.

    Fi­nal­ly, after a good deal of hunt­ing on­line for al­ter­na­tives, I found Pet­co.­com offered them (batches of solely salmon pate) at hardly a 15% markup and as a monthly sub­scrip­tion as well—per­fect! I was pleased with my­self. I signed up, set up a sub­scrip­tion, and got a ship­ment once a month with no ad­di­tional effort, my cat was much hap­pier, less food was wast­ed, and it cost about the same. And it did in­deed work per­fect­ly. For about 3 months.

    Yu know what Petco de­cided to do? They banned all Pu­rina prod­ucts from their store, on the grounds of ban­ning “all dog and cat food and treats that con­tain ar­ti­fi­cial in­gre­di­ents”. So in­stead they shipped me a pack­age of ‘or­ganic’ salmon pate which cost like 50% more and my cat in­stantly hated and would eat only after starv­ing overnight. (Yeah, screw you and your virtue-sig­nal­ing pseudo-science bull­shit too, Pet­co. Is there even a sin­gle real study demon­strat­ing al­l-cause mor­tal­ity changes? I doubt it. And you know what’s worse for my cat than ‘ar­ti­fi­cial in­gre­di­ents’? Eat­ing food he hates.)

    So after all that, it wound up be­ing an al­most to­tal waste of time: I then had to go and can­cel, and find some al­ter­na­tive. I haven’t found any al­ter­na­tives, so as of June 2019, I sim­ply go to my lo­cal Wal­mart and buy­ing every sin­gle salmon pate they have in stock.↩︎

  6. Judg­ing from de­scrip­tions, prob­a­bly a blue or pur­ple laser pointer is best. I did get a pur­ple one, but it was not as bright as the oth­ers and less re­li­able. Brad­shaw notes that in ex­change for the loss of col­or, cats ap­pear much more at­tuned to shapes—so per­haps what laser point­ers need is to be able to change the shape of the dot, with a ro­tat­ing filter/cutout?↩︎

  7. Why do cats & dogs eat grass or other plants, and oc­ca­sion­ally barf? Are they sick, or their diet nu­tri­tion­al­ly-d­e­fi­cient? The best the­ory so far is that it’s sim­ply : leaves & grass help phys­i­cally push any in­testi­nal worms out.

    See , Huff­man et al 1996/, Huff­man & Caton 2001; , Sueda et al 2008/, Hart 2008;, Hart et al 2019; , Hart & Hart 2018. ( tests out a ri­val ex­pla­na­tion for plan­t-eat­ing, that it helps ex­pel hair­balls, and finds lit­tle rel­e­vant cor­re­la­tion in snow leop­ard­s.)↩︎

  8. A pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal vet­eri­nary med­i­cine class hand­out sum­ma­rizes cat han­dling for vets:

    The cat is faster and has sharper teeth and nails than you do. It has no ‘code of ethics’ or con­sid­er­a­tions for its own fu­ture. In a fair fight it will win.

    1. DON’T FIGHT A CAT
    2. USE YOUR BRAIN
    3. USE DRUGS
    ↩︎
  9. Sug­ges­tions to use gabapentin on cats ap­pear to be based on van Haaften et al 2018 where the gabapentin re­duced a mean “fear­ful” re­sponse to merely “very tense”, al­though I was par­tic­u­larly struck by how they note—which ap­par­ently is just as ex­pected to them & merely a de­tail—that a fifth of the pet cats could not be ex­am­ined by the vet with­out be­ing drugged, so trau­ma­tiz­ing is the ex­pe­ri­ence:

    The vet­eri­nar­ian was able to com­plete the phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion on at least 1 visit for 19 of the 20 cats. One cat could not be re­moved from the car­rier after ei­ther treat­ment be­cause of ag­gres­sion. For 4 cats after placebo ad­min­is­tra­tion, the ex­am­i­na­tion could not be com­plet­ed; how­ev­er, after gabapentin ad­min­is­tra­tion, the ex­am­i­na­tion could be com­plet­ed.

    ↩︎
  10. Per­haps re­lated to emo­tion read­ing: finds sub­jects who rate black cat pho­tos as be­ing hard to emo­tion­ally read also rate them as be­ing less friendly & more ag­gres­sive, and less ‘adopt­able’.↩︎

  11. Sup­pose I come across him pee­ing in my bath tub and spritz him with a spray I have in the bath­room. What would he learn? poses a sim­i­lar ques­tion ():

    A cer­tain mother ha­bit­u­ally re­wards her small son with ice cream after he eats his spinach. What ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion would you need to be able to pre­dict whether the child will:

    1. Come to love or hate spinach,
    2. Love or hate ice cream, or
    3. Love or hate Moth­er?

    If I spritzed him would he learn to: fear & avoid the spray bot­tle, fear & avoid the bath tub, fear & avoid the bath­room, fear & avoid me, fear & avoid uri­nat­ing—or all of the above?↩︎

  12. I have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with clicker train­ing for get­ting him into his cat car­rier with mixed suc­cess. (He is not a smart cat.)↩︎

  13. This phe­nom­e­non ap­par­ently can cause some odd mar­ket dy­nam­ics:

    But some­times the Ama­zon app, act­ing as a Geiger counter of con­sumer de­mand, will light up on some­thing strange, and it’s time to chase a prod­uct. [Free­lance prod­uct buy­er] An­der­son re­cently hit half a dozen Wal­marts buy­ing Game of Thrones Ore­os. Baron dis­cov­ered the Ore­os, too: “We had to hus­tle re­ally hard, just dri­ving from city to city, fill­ing up the ve­hi­cle with every one of these Oreos we could get.”…Dis­con­tin­ued nail pol­ish, Pop-Tarts, hair curl­ing prod­ucts: An­der­son has chased them all when the scan­ner has shown them fetch­ing mul­ti­ples of their nor­mal price. He once hunted a par­tic­u­lar brand of dis­con­tin­ued den­tal floss across the Big Lots of Amer­i­ca, buy­ing six-packs for 99 cents and sell­ing them on Ama­zon for over $100 apiece.

    He has no idea why some­one would pay so much for such things, but the scan­ner tells him peo­ple do. His best guesses are melan­choly ones. Dis­con­tin­ued cat food is a big sell­er, which he did­n’t un­der­stand un­til his mom’s cat grew old and se­nile and re­fused to eat any of the new fla­vors. He once saw a post from a par­ent whose son was autis­tic and drank from the same plas­tic cup every day for 20 years. The cup even­tu­ally dis­in­te­grat­ed, and he did­n’t want to drink from any other ves­sel. “I’ve al­ways won­dered if it’s some­thing like that”, An­der­son says.

    ↩︎
  14. If you’re won­der­ing about the ex­act ci­ta­tion for this fa­mous and oft-misquoted Twain quote and you dili­gently checked Fol­low­ing the Equa­tor and noted that it ac­tu­ally as­cribes the chap­ter epigraphs (of which the cat/stove quote is one) to a Pud­dn’­head Wilson’s New Cal­en­dar, fear not—Pud­dn’­head Wil­son was just a pseu­do­nym for Mark Twain for pub­lish­ing a few pop­u­lar col­lec­tions of folksy al­manac-style wis­dom, and this ‘new cal­en­dar’ was ap­par­ently only in Fol­low­ing the Equa­tor.↩︎

  15. I no­ticed it seemed to take him a long time to re­al­ize I con­trolled the laser point­er’s dots, and I’m not sure how much he grasps that the laser pointer causes the dot across the room.↩︎

  16. I can con­firm that while I have seen many cats do­ing many things out­side, whether rolling around or lay­ing down or rub­bing their backs on the ground or hid­ing in tall grass or stalk­ing me, I have yet to see one ac­tu­ally asleep.↩︎

  17. Which il­lus­trates the prob­lem. To para­phrase a Wittgen­stein anec­dote:

    Wittgen­stein: “But what would it have looked like if it had looked as if cats were un­happy with wa­ter bowls near their food or wa­ter be­ing added to their wet foods?”

    Me: [sad puppy dog eyes while whim­per­ing at him]

    Wittgen­stein: “Ex­act­ly!”

    ↩︎
  18. “Cats: A Sci­en­tific In­ven­tory”↩︎

  19. Brad­shaw’s list: 8 of 24 in cap­tured South African wild­cats ge­net­ics; 10 of 12 with sus­pi­ciously do­mes­tic be­hav­ior in zoos; 5 of 7 in Mon­go­lia; & a third of French wild­cats.↩︎

  20. See pre­vi­ously Jones & Hart 2019 on emo­tion read­abil­ity & adopt­abil­i­ty.↩︎

  21. This ap­pears to be fur­ther un­pub­lished re­search, as Brad­shaw gives no foot­note or ref­er­ence to it, and Google Scholar turns up noth­ing which looks rel­e­vant.↩︎

  22. Daw­son et al 2019a note that cur­rent prac­tices are po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous on the ge­netic lev­el: com­mer­cial & hob­by­ist dog breed­ers tend to se­lect dogs for fu­ture breed­ing when quite young (when be­hav­ioral mea­sures are even more un­sta­ble & un­re­li­able than usu­al, see also ) and neuter the rest, while many of the rest of dogs are bred by am­a­teurs in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion who se­lect even more hap­haz­ard­ly. Even on an en­vi­ron­men­tal lev­el, pup­pies (like kit­tens) are heav­ily in­flu­enced by their rear­ing en­vi­ron­ment and need the proper stim­uli to de­velop their ge­netic po­ten­tials (as demon­strated by var­i­ous be­hav­ioral ge­net­ics re­search, par­tic­u­larly ), which may not be ad­e­quately pro­vided by ei­ther com­mer­cial or hob­by­ist breed­ers as com­pared to be­ing reared in or­di­nary house­holds sim­i­lar to the ones they are des­tined to live in as pets.↩︎

  23. If this seems im­prob­a­ble, think about the greatly in­ten­si­fied med­ical care and the in­creas­ing will­ing­ness of peo­ple to pay lux­u­ry-prices for pets. My aunt once men­tioned that the drugs for her lit­tle dog, who de­spite com­ing from a breeder had al­ways been messed up with a num­ber of prob­lems, cost $1k—per month; I was flab­ber­gasted that even if she could eas­ily afford it, she would.↩︎

  24. For ex­am­ple, I no­tice in one of the few large datasets of cat sur­vivals by breeds, a Swedish pet life in­sur­ance data­base for pre­sum­ably mostly pedi­gree cats, Ragdolls/Persians/Siamese ap­pear to have the high­est mor­tal­ity rates: “Mor­tal­ity of Life-In­sured Swedish Cats dur­ing 1999–2006: Age, Breed, Sex, and Di­ag­no­sis”, Egen­vall et al 2009. Did their se­lec­tive breed­ing from a hand­ful of in­di­vid­u­als come at a steep ge­netic cost for over­all health?

    On the other hand, the au­thors note that it’s hard to be sure what the num­bers mean—the Maine Coons/Norwegian For­est Cats in their dataset live longer but then often die from falls/accidents, con­sis­tent with be­ing more likely to be out­doors cats, and as al­ready not­ed, Ragdolls/Ragamuffins aren’t sup­posed to be al­lowed out­side (and Persians/Siamese pre­sum­ably are much more likely to be kept in­doors as well), so per­haps the real mean­ing is that liv­ing in­doors is bad for cats (due to overfeeding/lack of ex­er­cise)?↩︎

  25. Al­though cats of more leo­nine pro­por­tions might act even more ag­gres­sively than they do now—how much of the modal cat re­ac­tion of ‘run­ning away’ is sim­ply be­cause they re­al­ize how much smaller they are? They’re still highly ter­ri­to­ri­al…↩︎

  26. Sarah L. Hall, John W. S. Brad­shaw, and Ian Robin­son, “Ob­ject Play in Adult Do­mes­tic Cats: The Roles of Ha­bit­u­a­tion and Dis­in­hi­bi­tion”, Ap­plied An­i­mal Be­hav­iour Sci­ence 79 (2002): 263–71. Com­pared to “clas­sic” ha­bit­u­a­tion as stud­ied in lab­o­ra­tory rats, the timescale over which cats re­main ha­bit­u­ated to toys is very long-min­utes, rather than sec­onds. We sub­se­quently found that the same ap­plies to dogs.↩︎

  27. Com­mer­cially avail­able toys don’t come apart for a good rea­son: oc­ca­sion­ally a cat can choke on a piece of toy, or get frag­ments lodged in its gut.↩︎