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What's Mittens Thinking? Make 'Sense' Of Your Cat's Behavior

Cats have come a long way from being animals charged with catching mice to treasured, adorable creatures that snuggle with us in our beds. But this relatively new arrangement is creating issues for cats and the people who live with them.

John Bradshaw has studied the history of domesticated cats and how the relationship between people and cats has changed. He's the author of the new book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, which is a follow-up to his book Dog Sense.

Bradshaw is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England. As an anthrozoologist, he studies the interactions between people and animals. He's also the former science chairman of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations. He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about how our relationship with cats has evolved over time and how toning down cats' hunting instincts will ensure them a future on an increasingly crowded planet.

Interview Highlights

On cats' social behavior

"I think cats are much less demonstrative animals than dogs are. It's kind of not their fault; they evolved from a solitary animal that has never had the need for a sophisticated social repertoire in the way that the dog — having evolved from the wolf — had that ready-made. So their faces are just not terribly expressive, and some people read into that, that they're kind of cynical and aloof and those sorts of things. But I don't believe that for a moment. I think cats show, by their behavior, even if it's a bit more subtle than a dog's, that they really are fond of their owners."

On the purpose of purring

"The purr is popularly thought of as ... indicating comfort and contentment. And it can be that, but signals like the purr — because it is a signal, it's giving out a message and it's trying to get you to do something. They don't evolve just to convey emotions, not in the animal world, anyway. What we think cats are doing here is just trying to reassure their person — or [another] cat — who is hearing the purr that they are no threat, and ideally they'd like them to stand still and help them do something. So it starts off with kittens purring to get their mother to lie still while they're suckling, and it goes on into adulthood. ... It's a signal to the animals, [and] the people around them to pay attention and try to help them."

On how our relationship with cats has changed

"There are so many cats around the world that are kept for their mousing abilities, their abilities to keep farmyards free of mice and rats. And then, suddenly, in the last 50 or 60 years or so ... we've started having our own methods of keeping mice and rats out of cities. We don't need the cat to do it anymore."

John Bradshaw's other books include <em>Dog Sense </em>and <em>In Defense of Dogs.</em>
Alan Peters / Courtesy Basic Books
Courtesy Basic Books
John Bradshaw's other books include Dog Sense and In Defense of Dogs.

On the connection between playing and hunting

"The research that we've done suggests that it's almost indistinguishable, that everything that a cat does when it's playing seems to be a part of its normal hunting behavior.

"You kind of see dogs do this a little bit, but a lot of dog play and a lot of play between dogs and people is a much more social thing. ... The dog is using a toy as a way of interacting with a person and the toy in some sense is irrelevant — it's just a piece of equipment that the dog uses.

"In the case of a cat, we've never really found any particular significance to the human being. If you're holding a piece of string with a mouse on the end, the cat isn't so much interested in you (which the dog probably would be), but interested in the mouse on the end. So, for example, cats prefer to play with toys that in some way look like prey: They've got feathers on them or they're furry or they're about the right size for the kind of thing that a cat would safely be able to prey on. ... And cats play more intensely when they get hungry."

On toning down cats' hunting instincts

"Nobody has really focused on the idea of breeding a cat [to be] a good companion. Some of that has happened in dogs, but most of our cats are descended from hunters and animals that we encouraged to hunt, that we kept for their very hunting ability.

"So we need to, somehow, tone that down a little bit. Some of it can happen by ... giving them other outlets for their hunting. But ultimately I suspect that the cat will only be ensured a future in an increasingly crowded planet if we can generate an animal [that] really doesn't feel the need to hunt. ...

"In a way, we almost have to start again. We have to think about the cat in the 21st century. What do we want cats for? What kind of cats do we want?"

On declawing

"The operation involves essentially taking the ends of what we would call our fingers off. I had a personal experience of this. I had the end of one of my fingers crushed in an accident many, many years ago, and for years afterward ... I got phantom pains in that finger. I'm a human being and I could look at my finger and say, 'That's a phantom pain. I know it's not real pain. It's annoying and distracting, but I can live with it.' ...

"I think [if I had] eight of those going and I was a cat and I couldn't really understand what had happened to me, I suspect I would have not been happy about it. ...

"Surgically, it's more than [just taking out the nail] because you have to take out the whole bit where the nail grows from. ... There's an ethical issue as well, I suspect, which is reflected in the codes of practice over here in Europe where declawing is illegal. ... It's regarded as being a mutilation of the animal."

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