Cat owners speak to their cats, attribute many complex emotions to them and chide them when they bring small dead rodents into the house. People don’t pause to ask what is going on in the mind of the cat during these interactions, and perhaps that’s just as well. The role of a pet is to be relentlessly anthropomorphized.
But for any who may wonder what their feline companions are really thinking, “Cat Sense,” by John Bradshaw (Basic Books, $27.99), provides the best answers that science can give for the time being.
Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Bristol in England, has studied animal behavior and cats in particular for the past 30 years. The starting point of his analysis is that cats are still essentially wild animals. Unlike dogs, which have been greatly changed by domestication from their wolf ancestor, cats have seldom been bred for a purpose. They caught mice well enough, and their kittens made attractive companions. So cats have stayed much the same, with any evolutionary trend toward domestication constrained by frequent interbreeding with wild cats.
The result is that when cats interact with people, they have to rely almost entirely on their natural social behaviors, which are not highly developed. The strongest social bond is between a mother and her kittens. Kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, and they knead their mother’s belly to keep the milk flowing.
Also in the cat behavioral repertory are grooming and rubbing against known cats. When cats rub up against you or invite their head to be stroked, they are treating you as a nonhostile cat. An upright tail is a greeting sign between cats and “is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us,” Bradshaw writes.
One of the cat behaviors most disturbing to owners is their habit of bringing dead animals into the house. Cats bring their prey into the house, Bradshaw says, as a side effect of their hunting strategy, which is basically to sniff out the scent marks that mice and other rodents leave to communicate with one another. The cats just sit downwind of such marks and wait for the rodents to show up. Because several cats may congregate where such marks are abundant, it’s better to take any prey to a safe place where it can be eaten in peace.
As for cats’ attitudes toward their owners, Bradshaw thinks they regard them not as kittens but as a combination of mother-substitutes and larger, nonhostile cats.