If Only Cats Would Talk

One of my friends used to post photos of her orange cat on Facebook nearly every day.  She enjoyed describing his antics, especially at the end of the day when she would return home to his enthusiastic greetings. She confided to her Facebook friends that the cat’s shin rubs and vocalizations comforted her after a day filled with annoyances. I often wondered if that cat shared her emotions. Who knows how or what cats are thinking, really; and if they had a way to share their thoughts, I doubt they would want to do so.

Did that orange cat notice her cat mama’s day-long absence? Did he feel loss? Did he anticipate her return as an end to his solitude? My own male cat rarely misses a chance to meet me at the door–actually any door in the house, even the bathroom–with an effusion of joy more characteristic of long and despair-inducing separations. Where does he think I have been? I know he feels my absence, but is he aware of its duration? I am reluctant to anthropomorphize my cat’s mental processes, but sometimes he responds so…so humanly.

In his break-through tome on cat behavior, “Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friends to Your Pet,” Dr. John Bradshaw suggests cats just don’t care. An anthrozoologist who has studied cats for more than a quarter century, Bradshaw suggests our cats do not think about us when we are not with them. Rather, he says, a cat’s behavior is merely a response to cues alerting them to their human’s presence or imminent return. Hence, the human perceives a happy reunion while the feline perceives the presence of an agent for food and other comforts.

Dr. Bradshaw’s studies do not correlate with my own experience, mainly regarding our cats’ behavior when we return from an extended trip. Although well-tended by their pet sitter, both our cats seem to have missed us, but perhaps outside of the time frame as we perceive it. Some studies show cats not only regard time differently from the way humans do. They also are indifferent to it. Only cues matter; they guide cats through their daily routine.

Living with humans can confuse a cat, however, mostly when cues arise unscheduled. For example, the shift to Daylight Savings Time throws off our feline friends. In winter when I emerge more or less regularly from the bedroom (a no-cat-zone) around 6:00 a.m., the cats expect me to march immediately to the kitchen to fill their bowl of kibble, dish out the moist food, and refresh their water. Spring ahead to late March when 6:00 a.m. becomes 7:00 a.m. and the cats have been pacing the floor for an hour, if not pawing at the bedroom door. Where are you, they seem to complain. According to Bradshaw, my cues–sounds of my early morning routine pre-emergence like the FM radio switching on, my slippers scuffing the floor, and water running in the sink–should have determined their behavior, not the clock change. I think they have, instead, an elusive inner rhythm governing their daily set of behaviors. Anyway, they eventually adjust to Daylight Savings Time. Confusion returns when we shift back to Central Standard Time, a change also difficult for humans.

I have learned to read my cats’ cues. I used to trip over the male cat waiting for me just outside the bedroom door. Now I anticipate his body draped across the threshold as he awaits my exit. I step over him. Other cues alert us to the cats’ mood, health, and demands. Nevertheless, some streams of meows are incomprehensible, as is a lot of what humans say to their pets.

Do cats watch for or miss our cues when we’re not around to supply them? Does a tree make a sound in the forest if it falls and no one is there? Does my cat lie at my bedroom door when I am not at home? Does he experience object permanence, which is, according to Wikipedia, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled, or sensed in any way).” Dr. Bradshaw says no. He insists they do not miss us. Nevertheless, my husband bears witness to a frequent domestic cat phenomenon contradicting Bradshaw. When the male cat discovers I am not at home, my husband soon hears the cat’s long lament, an aria of meows lasting several minutes, although previously the cat was asleep and unaware of my departure and, I assume, deaf to the door clicking shut.

My cat’s yowls and moans alternate with a trilling glissando. The rise and fall of his plaintive score appear to indicate his adverse reaction to my absence, reaffirmed by his greeting me happily upon my return. He picks up on some cue, perhaps my footsteps or my voice for when I open the door, there he is. His tail vibrates madly and his purring resonates as his flank brushes my legs as if to say, “Long time no see. Welcome home.” He is not indifferent. Dr. Bradshaw, please account for that.


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