Saturday, February 1, 2014

Book Review: Cat Sense

A few weeks ago I saw a review in the New York Times for John Bradshaw's Cat Sense: How the Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.  This sounded like the perfect book for me.

I have two handsome cats, Seamus and Liam, whom I adopted while living in Phoenix.  My roommate Erin brought Seamus, a sleek black kitten, home from work one day during our second year of teaching.  He had been following students to school each day, climbing onto the roof, and proceeding to meow.  From the time Mr. Mus moved into apartment his personality was akin to that of Jekyll and Hyde.  One minute he was snuggling in your lap and purring voraciously, the next he was biting you or wrestling our first cat, Caisista, to the ground.  His moods could not be predicted, and it became a joke that every story involving Mus ended with "and then he bit me."  Since moving to Boston with me, Seamus' personality has not changed one bit, and probably has become amplified since the apartment is much smaller than the living arrangements in Phoenix.  Mus loves to curl himself up in a blanket, chase his laser pointer, and watch birds from his cat perch.  He is friendly towards guests and enjoys showing off his tricks, which include jumping into the air and using his front paws to hit a toy which has been thrown.  On the other hand, he frequently paces the apartment howling and pins his little brother down whenever he gets bored.  Oh, Mus.

Liam is a quite fluffy and  affectionate buff tabby cat.  He is very afraid of strangers and runs to hide under the bed whenever there is a knock at the door.  I adopted Liam during my fourth year in Phoenix after Casista and Erin moved out and Seamus became depressed.  Liam is a very vocal cat who frequently "talks" to me.  He loves sitting in my lap and licking my hand.  What a love bug.  He's a clever cat who knows how to play fetch and often takes my socks out of the laundry basket and carries them around the apartment.  Each morning he is captivated by the birds outside the window.  Although he is often the target of sneak attacks from Seamus, he can frequently be found snuggling with Seamus and licking his brother's head.  So sweet.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I read about animal welfare quite a bit.  I also have done a fair share of reading about cats, particularly because it bothers me that Seamus seems unhappy much of the time.  Last spring I did lots of research on the dietary needs of cats, hoping that making some changes in this area would help to calm Mr. Mus.  Besides that, I also spruced up my balcony when the weather was warm so that the cats could bask in the sun, as they had enjoyed doing in Phoenix.   I even hung a bird feeder outside my window, but had to remove it when approximately one hundred sparrows showed up on my balcony.  I figured Cat Sense might give me more insight on the psychology of my kitties.

I learned a few things from this book.  First of all, the personality of a cat is determined by a number of factors, including genetics and learned behaviors, but most notably the experiences the animal has within the first eight weeks of its life.  A cat that is not exposed to humans at the start of its life will always fear humans, for example.  I have always thought that Seamus' personality was largely shaped by his early experiences.  He was living on the street, so he had to scavenge for food and schmooze with people in order to survive.  He probably had to be a tough cat, as well.  We didn't adopt him until he was six months old, so he had plenty of time to experience fending for himself.  I don't know much about Liam's background because I adopted him from the Humane Society when he was four months old.  He might have been separated from his mom too early because from the time I adopted him he licked my hands incessantly.  It's obvious that the two cats had very different "kittenhoods."

Another part of the book I found interesting was a section that explored the purpose behind cats' playing.  The main premise of the book is that cats have not evolved far enough beyond their basic hunting instincts to be truly suited for a domestic lifestyle.  This definitely makes sense in terms of my Seamus.  If I put him outside at this point he would not have a fun time.  However, he is obviously restless and discontent at times, confined to the apartment.  Bradshaw explains that when cats play, they are mimicking aspects of hunting.  Apparently cats become bored with toys that do not change as they are played with, because this would indicate that there is something wrong with their "prey."  Cats like to play with toys that are small and which change, or come apart, as they are played with, because this is what would happen if a cat had caught a small mouse.  He recommends feeding your cats with interactive puzzle toys, which I plan on trying.

While overall my understanding of cats did grow from reading this book, I read a lot of it with a grain of salt.  I was really surprised that there has not been much research done in this subject - somebody get on that!  Some of the "research" was actually based on studies of less than ten cats done over the course of a few weeks, and since there is not much data in this field, a lot of the chapters seemed incomplete.  Also, some of the behaviors I have seen in my own cats contradicted the points Bradshaw was making.  He states several times that cats from different litters will avoid each other and that cats who are introduced to each other after the first eight weeks won't get along.  Sure, my cats wrestle, but I often come home and find them laying right beside each other on the couch.  Maybe Seamus and Liam have evolved further than the average cat.  I thought the book was a worthwhile read, but it seems like more research is required in the field to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of cats. 

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  1. I love reading your blog, especially the cat posts! I share my home with five felines currently; it was six, but we had to put our senior down last wknd (RIP shnoogies). I first adopted two kittens who were litter mates almost 9 years ago; they are not the closest of friends. Our fur family has continued expanding over the years... Some of them met when one was a kitten and the other an adult, but these pairings are now actually the least friendly. The ones who met when both were adults are much better friends on the whole. Our most recent addition was an intact adult male balinese that our cats basically adopted and we rehabilitated (that story could be its own blog). I agree with the author that the first few weeks are the most formative, but definitely disagree about adult cats not being able to bond: I've seen it happen time and again. Our oldest cat, ~10 yo, brings home buddies all the time... Though they might just want to find his food source and/or can sense my weakness for wanting to rehome them. I'm sure he forgets to mention that I will take away their baby making parts...

    Have you read anything on Jackson Galaxy's page? He is an expert feline rehabilitator, and I use a lot of his tricks/techniques not only to keep a happy pack but also to rehab strays who reverted to feral behavior. I am not sure what his techniques are based on in terms of research, sample size, etc, but they have worked really well for us in a multitude of different situations.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Becky! I'm glad you enjoy the blog - sometimes I wonder if anyone is actually reading this, but I have a good time writing it, nonetheless. I'm sorry to hear about your cat. I come from a family of "cat people"- my parents/grandmother currently have 20 cats that they care for, counting indoor and outdoor cats (they would kill me if they saw that posted online). I haven't heard of Jackson Galaxy's page, but I will definitely look into it! :)

    2. If I had to count the neighborhood/feral cats outside that I care for, my number would be much larger! Definitely check Jackson out; he is the cat whisperer. His tv show is called "My Cat From Hell," and he completely transforms the lives of the felines as well as the humans.