If Only Cats Would Talk
Susan Bass Marcus
My friend, Lyra, posts photos of her ginger cat, Panni on Facebook nearly every day. She describes his antics, especially whenever she returns home and he greets her at the door. After a day of multiple annoyances at work, Lyra tells her Facebook friends how much Panni’s welcome means to her. I often have wondered if Panni shares her emotions. Who knows how or what cats are thinking, really? If they could tell us, I doubt they would share.
Does Panni notice Lyra’s day-long absence? Does he feel loss? Does 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 Friend to Your Pet,’ Dr. John Bradshaw suggests cats just don’t care. An anthrozoologist who has been studying 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 guardians’ presence or imminent return. Hence, the cat guardian perceives a happy reunion while the feline perceives the presence of an agent for food and cuddling.
Dr. Bradshaw’s studies do not correlate with my own experience, especially regarding our cats’ behavior when we return from a one- or two-week vacation. Although well-tended by their pet sitter, both our cats seem to have missed us, but perhaps outside of time as we perceive it. Some studies show cats not only regard time differently from the way humans do we do; they are indifferent to it. Only cues matter. Cues guide cats through their daily routine.
Sometimes the cues mislead or confuse our cats. For example, the shift to Daylight Savings Time throws them off. In winter, when I emerge regularly from the bedroom—a no-cat zone—at 6:00 a.m., the cats expect me to march immediately to the kitchen to fill their bowl of kibble. 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. Where have I been, they seem to complain. According to Bradshaw, my cues—sounds of my early morning routine like the FM radio switching on, my slippers scuffing the carpet, 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 adjust to Daylight Savings Time. Confusion returns when we shift back to Central Standard Time, which is also tough on humans.
I have learned to read my cats’ cues, too. 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 waits for my exit and I step over him.
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 that they do not miss us. My husband bears witness to a frequent domestic cat phenomenon that contradicts Bradshaw. When the male cat discovers I am not at home, my husband soon hears the cat’s long lament, an aria lasting several minutes, although previously the cat was asleep and unaware of my departure, and, I assume, deaf to the door clicking shut.
That cat’s yowls and moans alternate with trilling glissandos. The rise and fall of his plaintive score appear to indicate his adverse reaction to my absence, reaffirmed by his appearance at the door upon my return. He picks up on some cue, perhaps my footsteps in the corridor, perhaps my voice as I greet a neighbor. I open the door and 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.” As usual, we have a joyful reunion. Something is going on in that cat brain and it’s not indifference. Dr. Bradshaw, please account for that.
March 27, 2017. Revised 5/11/2017