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 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 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 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 become 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 .

      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

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’ pop­u­la­tions18 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 con­trol19—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.20

…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 .21

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 200022) 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 prob­lems23, 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 now24, 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.25

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.26 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. 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.↩︎

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

  20. 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.↩︎

  21. Daw­son et al 2019 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.↩︎

  22. 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.↩︎

  23. 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)?↩︎

  24. 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…↩︎

  25. Sarah L. Hall, John W. S. Brad­shaw, and Ian Robin­son, , 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.↩︎

  26. 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.↩︎