It has been a running joke at our house for many years. Our cats think we are giant, oddly shaped cats with an unfortunate fur deficiency. They also think that we are the dumbest cats they’ve ever known. Sometimes it seems like more than a joke. We often wonder what our cats think of us. Do they recognize us as another kind of animal? Or, since they are “part of our family” do they think of us as weird, lumbering cats?
We can only observe how cats behave. As to what they think, we can only speculate. That is why it is unfortunate when media reports such speculation as if it were science. Time magazine recently reported on John Bradshaw, an English biologist and author of the fascinating book Cat Sense. In the article, named Actually, Your Cat Thinks You Are a Giant Cat, the author quotes Bradshaw as saying, about your cat, that it actually thinks you’re a “larger, non-hostile” cat.
Is this a true scientific theory of how cat’s think? Of course not. Such a theory could never be verified scientifically. It could never even be falsified. It is not scientific. It sound humorous and Bradshaw no doubt meant it to be tongue-n-cheek, and not as putting forward theory. Yet, the Time article quoted him as if it were just that: A serious statement by a scientist.
The article mentions a number of other statements that Bradshaw makes about why cats behave the way they do. There are many such books about cat behavior, and Cat Sense is an entertaining and fascinating one, but one thing that we must be aware of is that books that are meant to be entertaining and popular often skirt the line between what is known and what is only theory, or mere speculation. Bradshaw does have an unfortunate tendency to present theory as if it is unassailable scientific fact. He makes several such statements, for example, about a cat’s increased dietary need for protein. There are several theories as to precisely why cats need more protein than dogs and most other carnivores. Bradshaw states these as fact. Stating facts simply sales more books than saying “the prevailing theories are…”
If we ask why a cat does a certain thing, we can come up with a dozen very plausible seeming explanations. Some of these may be close to the truth, but those that are closer to reality need not seem more plausible than fanciful explanations. Although we can closely observe how cats behave, any theory we put forth about the cause of their behavior is filtered through a uniquely human lens. Nobody wants to read articles or books that say “we may never know,” but at least we should feel free to admit that as of now, we do not know.
You Do Not Amuse Me, You Poor Stupid Giant Cat
You may read about explanations of cat behavior, but in all cases, it is simply an attempt to explain theories that attempt to explain cat behavior. Sometimes, when cats behave in certain ways, such as aggressively, cat behaviorists, often through trial and error, are able to redirect this behavior, or calm the aggressive cat in some way. Often, it is based on a combination of anecdotal experience, post facto explanations, and behavioral theory. What we should realize is that just because we can change the way a cat behaves by modifying the environment or our own behavior, it doesn’t mean that we have proven we know the exact cause of their behavior. Perhaps we do, but we just cannot really know.
Does Your Cat Think You’re a Cat?
It is funny to think about it, sure, but there is little logic in it! Do you think a cat thinks that a dog is a big weird looking cat that makes funny sounds? What about a dog that a cat is close to, and gets along with? Although it is possible that our cats “think” we are a cat, it is also possible that they give it no thought at all, nor assign any importance to “what” we are. People speak of anthropomorphising our pets. Well, to categorize creatures into a taxology is certainly a very human thing to do, but why in the world should it be a cat thing to do? A cat may instinctively know its enemy, but it relies on its finely honed senses to respond to threats, or to friends. It probably doesn’t “reason it out” like we humans.
So a Cat Doesn’t Think?
This is not to say that cats have no cognitive ability at all. Of course they do. Cats were one of the earliest non-primate animals to have their intelligence investigated, and there is much debate around this subject. Early on, experiments such as the “A-not-B task” seemed to indicate that an adult cat was at least as intelligent as a 1.5 to 2 year old child. However, there is debate as to whether these types of tests even measure intellectual development in children, let alone in cats. Cats show an ability to learn and to solve problems, and to adapt to new situations. Their curiosity alone should be enough to convince us that something is going on between those two pointy ears!
However, it is fair to say that cats, like most other mammals, rely greatly on their refined senses and instincts, and navigate their world in a way much different than we do. Knowing whether a cat thinks is difficult enough. Knowing what a cat thinks, may never be possible. Perhaps someday!