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Ask Not What Your Cat Can Do for You

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A big-selling book, "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet," helps cat lovers understand what is going on in the hearts and brains of their kitties. Sadly, not nearly so much as they thought and hoped.

I'm pretty sure what my former cat was thinking: "What's the least I can possibly do and still get her to feed me liver patties and otherwise leave me alone?" I'm not far off, author John Bradshaw seems to confirm.

One can guess from the title which partner does the heavy lifting in this relationship. For the human half, "owner" is not the appropriate descriptor, according to Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist. This is a common misbelief and one that buyers of the Fancy Feast variety pack should get over quickly.

But while brutally direct about how little cats worry about your welfare, Bradshaw is also a celebrant of cats and defender of them against environmentalists -- like me -- who complain that they are decimating populations of birds and small mammals. Bradshaw questions whether pet cats, as opposed to the feral kind, have contributed significantly to this slaughter.

Thing is, cats are hunters, as we all agree. (Humans first took them in as pest controllers, killing mice in the barn.) Daily servings of liver patties did not stop my cat from depositing birds on the doorstep.

Not that I didn't like her. Not that I wasn't fascinated by her. Not that I can resist petting a fluffy kitten -- even as I prefer puppy videos.

"Cat Sense" is thick with biological explanation. And from that jungle emerge some interesting feline facts:

Did you know that one of the largest populations of black cats is in Denton, Texas?

Did you know that for a kitten to become a suitable companion for us, it has to encounter people by its ninth week?

Did you know that cats don't require vitamin C, which is why they flourished on ships as sailors suffered from scurvy?

Did you know that dogs are much more interested in pleasing you than cats are?

Of course you did.

The dog's ancestors, wolves, were already social creatures. Cats have always been loners. People who bring in a second cat to keep their pet company are just stressing out the first one, according to Bradshaw.

Humans, meanwhile, are altering cat evolution. The policy of neutering pet cats is shrinking the population of the more docile and friendly ones, leaving the mean ferals to breed at will. (Feral cats are not wildcats but the descendants of domestic cats living in the wild.)

Now for the bad news on what you may think is evidence that your cat loves you.

Purring. "Long assumed to be an unequivocal sign of contentment," Bradshaw writes, purring "is now known to have more complex significance."

Whether it's a kitten suckling from its mother or it's a pet being stroked by its person, a cat purrs "not to show that it is contented, but instead to prolong the circumstances that are making it so."

The bottom line is that by purring, a cat gets the human to give up whatever he or she is doing and attend to its pleasure. The ancient Egyptians didn't create Bastet, the cat goddess, for no good reason.

Those wanting an honest relationship should recognize that unlike dogs, cats are "elusive." "We accept them on their terms," Bradshaw writes, "but they in turn never quite reveal what those terms might be."

Take it from there. The best news for cat fanciers is this: Ask not what your cat can do for you and you may get along fine.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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