Way back in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church promoted the idea that cats were allied with Satan and with witches. As a result, millions of cats were beaten, flayed, drowned, or burned alive, drastically reducing the population of cats and almost undoubtedly making the plague years much worse than they might have been, given that the areas affected by the plague were overrun by disease-bearing rats with relatively few cats to kill them.
While no such cruel and brutal anti-cat pogrom is going on at the moment, there is nevertheless a shrill group of anti-cat folks who decry the toll domestic cats take on so-called “natural” fauna. It should be noted that by “natural” they mean either a long-time native mammal, bird, or reptile, or, more rarely, one which evolved right here from the beginning and didn’t migrate here at some point in the long-distant past.
Many familiar species migrated here from elsewhere. Others came along with human immigrants and have become accepted. Horses and dogs most obviously. Cats came with immigrants, too, probably as seafaring vermin killers. Cats were welcome on the sailing ships of the time.
The problem is that the domestic cat, like the North African/Eastern Mediterranean wild cat from which it is descended, is a phenomenally proficient predator, especially on prey that didn’t evolve defenses by evolving alongside it. Almost every sense a cat has is keener in some other animal, but no predator other than the cat has such an arsenal of keen senses and killing tools and skills overall. Dogs smell better, but cats smell very well. Hawks and owls may have better vision, but the cat’s vision is among the best in low light. They are unbelievably athletic, able to leap high, quick at the sprint, and with climbing and balance abilities no other predators can match. They have strong jaws (largely due to their short mouth). And then…you have the claws.
Cats are so familiar to us that we don’t think about how unusual their retractable claws are. Only a few other mammals have them. Just a couple mongoose species and the mysterious cat-like fossa of Madagascar fall into that class. Its keen senses help the cat locate, follow, and pounce on or chase prey, but once the cat gets a front paw on the prey item, it’s generally show over. It’s been said that the domestic cat (and its wild cousins) are the top land predators in the world based on their kill rate and allowing for their size.
Recently, I saw The Secret Life of the Cat by anthrozoologist Dr. John Bradshaw, which showed that feline pets who were also outdoor cats do remarkably little killing of local fauna. He demonstrated this because a substantial number of the subject cats were fitted with critter cams. It must thus be the feral cats who do the bulk of the damage to local fauna which can be laid at the cat’s doorstep. While some cats might have caught one or two prey items a week, others hardly hunted at all.
Furthermore, cat critics citing declining fauna populations almost always ignore other causes, the leading one being the increasing loss of habitat caused by humans.
Undoubtedly, feral cats are doing damage, but the answer isn’t to eradicate pet cats or legally require them to remain indoors (though that is often advisable for their safety). Rather, it’s to do something effective to control feral cats. Rounding them up and euthanizing or neutering and housing them in feral cat shelters will get the quickest results, although as one expert has pointed out, by rounding up the easiest cats to capture, as is likely, we may inadvertently be selectively breeding a tougher and more elusive feral cat.
Lately, I’ve been reading Dr. Bradshaw’s best-selling book, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, which covers many topics. I’m only about halfway through it, but so far it’s a riveting read. It addresses how the cat became a pet, for example. Of course, it’s often said that the utility of the cat was to kill the mice, rats, and other critters who threatened grain stocks, but that doesn’t explain why we find them in our homes purring on our laps, more popular now than even dogs. After all, wild cats will kill grain store vermin just as effectively as pet cats, and probably better. We aren’t brought together with cats by mutual or one-way need. We don’t need cats and they certainly don’t need us. Feral cats do very well between hunting and scavenging. They’re the ultimate survivors.
It’s been thought that cats are less intelligent than dogs, but that comparison is apples and oranges. Dogs depend upon people and have evolved skills facilitating the dog-human relationship and bond. Cats have some remarkable skills and can even learn by observation. My own cat, I just noticed, has learned to turn on a battery-operated toy. Either she saw how I turn it on by stomping on a button or she did it by accident and a light bulb lit up over her head.
So, back to that question, why do we keep cats as pets when they are simply not interested in pleasing us. The answer, I think (and for me at least), is that we respect them for their independence and self-sufficiency. Yes, we feed them, but if we didn’t they’d simply hunt. Beyond that, they are cute when kittens and very pretty when mature.
Bradshaw refers to scientific experiments and studies to support his statements and conclusions. For many years it was in dispute whether animals could think abstractly, at least below the level or humans and primates. But we now know that animals can, indeed, form abstract concepts. Some parrots have learned to speak in novel grammatical sentences. Now, cats can learn to order similar objects by size such as very small mouse, average mouse, large mouse. But once they learn that, they can apply this concept of relative size to other objects: small bird, medium-sized bird, big bird; small bowl, medium bowl, big bowl. That’s actually pretty amazing because that implies thinking conceptually.
I’m a photographer and back when photography was done on film, being able to look at a negative and be able to instantly recognize the subject was very hard to do and not a skill many people could even learn with practice. To a cat, however, there seems to be no difference between a picture of a chickadee, for example, and a negative of the same image.
Cats have remarkable intelligence when their skills are related to their natural view of the world and their hunting needs.
Bradshaw discusses many of the myths we humans have about cats, often based on anthropomorphism. For example, many people think “My cat is bored and lonely. I will get him/her a companion.” Well, as Bradshaw reveals, this is as often as not at least a stressor for one or both cats, and frequently is a disaster. As a solitary and territorial hunter, it’s unlikely your grown up kitty is hoping you’ll bring another cat into his/her territory. Introductions are sometimes done successfully, but not often enough that one can depend on it being a success. If your cat is bored, play with it. Set up a bird feeder near the window. Two adult cats sharing a space is unnatural and usually works best with cats raised together.
Perhaps the most interesting thing Bradshaw discusses for people faced with brand new kittens is the very small window during which cats need to be socialized to humans to become pets. Kittens 3 to 9 weeks old who get 30 to 60 minutes of stroking and talking interaction a day fare best, especially if the stroking and talking are done by several people. Less positive human contact than that and/or outside that narrow 6-week window and the kittens may become incapable of being pets. They will be shy and fearful of humans.
Well, I realize I’m probably rambling. If you love cats or simply want to understand this remarkable species better. I highly recommend the video and book I’ve linked to above.