Friday, October 17, 2014

"The Mind of a Cat"

I was in the check-out line at the grocery store the other day when a magazine caught my eye: "The Animal Mind:  What They're Thinking and Feeling, and How to Understand Them."  I grabbed the book edited by Jeffrey Kluger and published by Time magazine and perused the Table of Contents.  The subjects were varying, scientific, but, better yet, offered answers to questions I've had about animals all my life.  I had to buy it.

This is a "must-buy" for all animal lovers.  Among lots of subjects are "Do animals have minds, as well as brains?" The book discusses grief in animals, their social behaviors, ways animals talk to each other and to us, animal rights, mental illness in animals, and why people feel the way they do about some species of animal.  For example, why do most people dislike rats but love dogs?  This is a scientific, enlightening book for everyone with a questioning mind and a cat in one's lap, or a dog, or a lizard, or a bird.  Or a rat.

One of the reasons people seem to prefer dogs over cats is because dogs have been selectively bred by humans for a longer time than have cats, which have only been bred for the last 150 years.  Instead of being bred for their work ethic or productive exploitation, as with farm animals, cats have been bred mostly for their looks.  Perhaps this is why cats seem wilder to us than dogs.

Anyway, as I read further into the chapter entitled, "Inside the Mind of a Cat" by Temple Grandin, she claims that cats are harder to train because, not only are they further down the list on those species most domesticated by man, but they have retained most of their wild nature, in contrast to the dog, for example.  So, a cat in one's house behaves similarly to a lion in the wild.  Cats, therefore, can only be trained using positive reinforcement, not negative.  Using negative reinforcement on a cat will make them fearful and respond by attacking.  Being more wild, however, doesn't preclude cats' social natures, for, indeed, cats are quite social amongst themselves and persons they live with.  Wild animals are the ultimate existentialists: behaving and doing things because it's "the nature of the beast," or simply because they feel they need to do something in order to exist.  Therefore, when they act existentially, which most do, people interpret that behavior as stand-offfish or independent.  Rather than their making a concerted effort to be contrary, however, cats are independent because of their wild streaks. 

Another point Grandin makes is that people are socially closer to the species of dogs: dogs create families as humans do, and they communicate like people with facial expressions and through the visual.  Their "speech" is variable, too--sound that people can easily interpret.  Not only can people "read" dogs, but dogs can "read" people well, too.

I disagree with Grandin when she says cats do not have expressive faces, largely because they lack eyebrows used for expression.  My cats all had and have expressive faces; one just had to recognize the glint of happiness in the eye, the drop of moisture on the grinning lips.  But such ability to interpret cats comes naturally to cat ladies like me and people who keep close company with the feline.  Grandin recommends that the novice of cats look more at the body stance of a cat than at his or her face in order to discover meaning and feeling.

Grandin gets a few things wrong in this article--from my perspective.  And I'm not an animal behaviorist--just a cat lady with a few thousand cats trying to occupy my lap at any one time.  I'm kidding.  I have just a few hundred, at most.  Kidding again. :).  She claims that cats seem like autistic children because they are not very sociable and because they have blank faces.  She also says that cats don't "read" people well.  Mine read me just fine--like a book, in fact. 

Grandin says cats have just as good a sense of smell as dogs and so a cat's preferred method of communicating is through smell: peeing on things and making more subtle smelly deposits from the paws and the glands along the jaw--smells we humans can't detect. 

What I found most interesting in this article is that coat color can be associated with purr-sonality in the cat.  Actually, it's probably true with horses, as well: black horses are widely known amongst horse trainers as being spookier and harder to deal with.  Having said that, however, my black horse, Lola, is more level-headed than my spotted horse, Bo.  Go figure.  But, with the cat, a black coat is more laid-back, friendlier, better able to deal with city-life, and can play well with others in a cattery.  Overall, black cats are more social.  In contrast, Grandin says the orange male cats are more aggressive and shier.  Orange cats are scaredy-cats.  Of course, Grandin offers a disclaimer that individual cats can be bolder or shier, social or unsocial, regardless of color. 

When adopting a cat, look for a black one, one that approaches you when you appraoch its cage. If the cat allows a person to hold him, that's a winner, and if he plays, he's good, too.  If someone acqures a tiny kitten, it's imperative to begin petting and holding him or her by two weeks of age because the best period for socialization of a kitten is week two to week seven.  After this the kitten is more likely to be feral.  Being handled a lot by different people will cause a kitten to be very friendly toward people.

So, here's the information I found useful from this chapter by Temple Grandin.  I can't wait to read more of this book and share my thoughts with you again.

I just wanted to mention that black cats, as well as black dogs, are those that are put to sleep first in shelters because people aren't attracted to them,  Perhaps more people ought to read Grandin's article because she says black cats are the best choices.  Interesting.

Does anyone have any thoughts on the black cat thing?  I'd love to have feedback on this subject.


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