Category Archives: Intelligence

Q&A: Are Cats Underrated or Misunderstood?

Q: Are cats the most underrated pet?

A: I don’t think they are underrated per se, but they are the most misunderstood pets. When you regularly hear veterinarians and other animal experts repeating myths about cats, it is a sign that those of us who have dedicated our lives studying the little floofy predators have our work cut out for us.

I’ve had to correct my cats’ veterinarians on several points. Most don’t take kindly to being corrected, and that’s how you know it’s time to find a new vet. (Pro tip: that’s also how you know you need to find a new anything. Those who are not curious and eager to learn more about their area of expertise, and are comfortable in their ignorance, should never be trusted with matters of any importance.) Thankfully, the vets we have now are always interested in new findings, and we share information we come across and discuss it.

Common misunderstandings

  • Many people think cats are solitary by nature. This isn’t true. They are solitary hunters (they hunt small prey, usually only enough of a meal for one, although some males do bring larger or excess kills to the colony for the kittens and lactating females), but they form matriarchal colonies, and have very complex social hierarchies and territorial rules. Cats have best friends, and it can be another cat, a human, a dog, or another animal.
  • Some people think cats are aloof, when in fact they are merely wary of people they don’t know. Kittens and young cats are much more focused on play, and are not generally into cuddling. As the cat ages, and its bond with you grows stronger, it will begin to seek out more physical contact and become more cuddly.
  • People are always wanting to compare cats with dogs. I’ve explained before why this is fallacious reasoning at best, I still see people beating this horse that isn’t even dead, it’s mythical. It makes no more sense than comparing a shark to an octopus.

I could write a book on the subject. But if you read this blog, hopefully we can dispel most of the myths about cats.

Is there a myth about cats that you’d like us to cover? Leave a comment below, or email us at stories(at)littlecatdiaries(dotcom)!

Q&A: Do cats have language?

Q: Why does my cat understand so many of the words that I say and I understand almost none of his vocalizations?

A: There are a lot of factors at play here, so if you want a TLDR answer, you’re out of luck.

First, some basics:

Some cats are smarter than other cats. And there is a lot we don’t know about animals and cognition. And because cats in particular can’t be bribed reliably with food or a toy, it’s often difficult to do some classical kinds of tests to study how they think, so the research we do have on cats is severely slanted toward cats who are empathetic (they understand that you want something from them, and they want to please you) and very smart (they understand that you want something from them, and that makes them curious about it). So there is a lot we just don’t know about how they think.

But there are several things we do know. I’m up with new research on cats and cognition, and it’s some amazing stuff.

So here are some basic factors that will change how much of your language your cat understands and how much of his language there is to understand.

Some cats are more vocal than others. Cats that were strays or feral for their formative years (before age 2), will likely never meow. Meowing is a holdover from kittenhood, when it was important for them to vocalize when they were hungry, in danger, etc. because they don’t have control over the classic ways cats communicate (body language and scent). Once older kittens realize that these vocalizations work on humans too, they have made the connection, and will likely meow at least a little when they want something.

There are generally three types of cats: talkers, non-talkers, and learned talkers.

Non-talkers are cats who either don’t vocalize at all or vocalize very little. A cat that doesn’t really vocalize much isn’t likely to be putting much thought into it other than the fact that you sometimes do a particular thing if he makes a noise.

Talkers, like Burmese, can vocalize a lot. I have an Abyssinian-Burmese, Kikiyo, who will carry on entire conversations with me, and she has actual words for several things. She has a large vocabulary. Kiki has words that are very like our words. For instance, I call my daughter “Bonna”, and Kiki calls her “Waah’Wah”, my daughter calls me “Mom” and Kiki therefore calls me “Waaw”, outside is “Aw-Why” and so on. So, since she is a very talkative cat, and listens to us, and understands hundreds of human words, she does often have words that are similar-sounding to ours. But some of her words sound nothing like our words. She has at least 10 words for different kinds of water. She has a word for water in a cup (Awak – the k is almost silent, it’s like a glottal stop), water in a glass bowl (Araah), water in a plastic bowl (Araaaaaya – she doesn’t like it in a plastic bowl, so this comes with a fussy tone), and the water in the fountains (Nawa – her favorite).

I’ve only been documenting her language for the past two years. Before I became disabled, I worked a lot, so I didn’t spend as much time at home. I knew she had some words and names, but it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated how much of an effort she makes to communicate.

There are talkers who only say a few things, but they are meaningful to the cat. Sometimes it’s not so much about words, but about the tone.

We talk to our cats a lot. That, I think, is a big factor in how much a cat predisposed to vocalize a lot builds an actual vocabulary. Our 8-year-old male was a stray for his formative years, and he just recently started meowing a bit.

Learned talkers, who are generally very smart, and were raised from kittenhood with a talker cat, learn the importance of verbal communication with humans. So it’s a learned behavior. They don’t talk as much, but they can learn what works on humans. So it’s mimicry. Our 2-year-old (his birthday was January 27th) mimic is a smarty pants. He’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known. And he does want to communicate, so he borrows words from the 11-year-old. So it’s part nature, part nurture.

So, to sum up and answer your question, if you talk to your cat a lot, and your cat makes all kinds of conversational sounds at you, it may be that he does have at least a rudimentary language. Try to keep notes if you aren’t sure.

Most cats usually understand several words we say, especially ones that are most important to them, like treat, food, walk (if you walk your cat). play, bed time, etc.

Some cats understand a whole lot more of our language than you might think. They are also able to process both the word you are saying and the way in which you are saying it, so simply saying in a light, chirpy voice that it’s bath time will still send your cat running to hide under the bed.

WW Q&A: Are Cats Plotting Against Us?

It’s another Wacky Wednesday, so here’s our wacky question of the week:

Q: Do cats plot to overthrow their human masters?

A: This is a fun question, and I do appreciate the fun/silly factor. However, I’m going to answer this one factually, since that’s what I do.

Cats generally see as as equals, not superior (like dogs see us) or inferior (like 80% of cat memes would have you believe).

Cats are highly intelligent, empathetic beings. Cats have best friends. The best friend can be another cat, a human, a dog, or another animal the cat is close with. If the cat is your only pet, and you are its only/favorite human, then chances are that you are the cat’s best friend. If not, you are probably in what it considers its family group, which is its best friend as well as others who live in its territory that it likes to hang out with.

Cats can be very protective of their friends/family. There are thousands of examples of cats risking life and limb to try to save a friend/family member (human, cat, or other animal).

They realize that there are things that they can do that we cannot. They also realize that we can do things that they cannot (such as opening cans, getting treats, etc.), and they are able to appreciate the mutual benefit that occurs between themselves and humans.

So, to sum up, cats don’t think we’re their masters, so there is no one to overthrow.

RCRS: Stiles, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, where I explained how we came to keep Stiles, and his relationships with our other cats…

Kiki loves elephants and whales, and especially loves watching them if David Attenborough is narrating. She taught Stiles this love of whales, elephants, and David Attenborough from an early age.

He’s particularly fond of baby elephants. He hops up on my desk to watch the You Tube videos (I made a playlist for him), and he has one favorite that is a minute long, and he makes this urgent fussy noise when it ends, and makes me start it over, and over, and over…

He plays fetch and catch, and has since he was big enough to fit a toy in his mouth. And he’s also learning to fly.

He loves all sorts of games, and his intelligence never fails to impress. But even more astounding is his capacity for empathy. Just like his mother seemed to know how to get along with each one of our cats, as well as how to win over humans, Stiles has shown those abilities and more.

If anyone in the house is upset, Stiles must investigate. Whether it’s a human-cat interaction, a cat-cat interaction, or someone is just upset, he wants to make it better.

Kagetora is terrified of men. If my brother is coming over, I try to remember to put Kagetora in my room so that he doesn’t get upset. It doesn’t matter that my brother is a cat lover, and wouldn’t even raise his voice to a cat. Kagetora’s fear was learned during those years he spent as a stray.

Once, I didn’t put Kagetora in my room before my bro stopped by. I went into the kitchen to get something and heard a hiss. I looked over, and Stiles was already there. Stiles saw that Kagetora was upset, but also understands that my brother is a good human, so he simply put himself between Kagetora and my brother so that Kagetora wouldn’t feel so threatened. It worked.

But he doesn’t just understand cat behavior and emotions, he has shown an amazing understanding of human emotion as well.

If I cry, he comes running, jumps in my lap, licks my face, and then, depending on if they are happy tears, sad tears, in pain tears, angry tears, frustrated tears, or fake tears, he will respond in different ways.

He’s the most amazing cat I’ve ever known. Here’s how he reacts depending on my mood:

  • Pain: He’ll start purring really loudly and lay on my abdomen (I have chronic pain due to abdominal adhesions, and the warmth and vibration of his purring is better at relieving my pain than any drug).
  • Sad: He’ll make these little consoling noises, and then he’ll cuddle up on my chest, purring. He’ll watch me very closely. As soon as I calm down, he’ll tuck his head under my chin and stay there for as long as I need him.
  • Frustrated: After licking my face, he’ll lean back and look at me, then he’ll hop down and go get one of his toys, then drag it into the room and place it at my feet so I will play with him. It really does make me forget about my frustrations.
  • Angry: He does the lean back, then he starts chattering at me, hops down, and starts acting like a total goofball, doing flips, jumping, and just being hilarious. It always works.
  • Fake: I have tried doing fake crying to see what he’ll do. Once he licks my face, he sighs, hops down, and goes back to whatever he was doing before.

All that had been going on since he was about 6 months old. When he was about 15 months old, I was binge watching one of my shows, and I got all emotional during a particularly poignant scene.  Next thing I know, Stiles had jumped in my lap, did the tear sniff, the face lick, but then he did something new.

Sitting in my lap, he tilted his head, raised a paw, pressed it against me just above my clavicle (collar bone) and slowly let it rub against me as it lowered about 3 inches, then he lifted his paw and pressed it against me just above the clavicle again, let it slide down, then he did it again. And again. He watched me very carefully as he did this. At first, I just smiled.

It took me a minute to figure out that he was petting me.

It was so amazing! I started laughing and telling him what a good boy he is. He has since worked the petting into his routine for when I’m sad or in pain. Every time he does it, I feel like I’ve just seen a dancing unicorn or had a conversation with a dragon.

He is so insanely smart and empathetic. He isn’t just highly empathetic with me. He’s like this with my daughter and our other cats as well. We’ll get into more specifics about feline empathy later. For now, just enjoy the AWW!

Here he is petting me:

That’s all for this week!

Q&A: Does the cat remember me?

Q: I’ve moved, and my new church has got a church cat. I’ve met him a few times, had some nice interactions. But I wonder. He must see a lot of humans at the church. How many of us can he actually fit into his tiny little kitty brain? Does he remember me meeting to meeting?

A: Cats have fantastic memories. Their brain structure is much more similar to ours than a dog’s brain. If you have a cat that spent its formative years (2–7 years) in a particular place, then you move, then you take the cat back to that place a decade later, it will remember all the paths it used to walk, where to get food, whom to avoid, and whom it can sweet talk (or meow) into giving it last night’s chicken leftovers.

To learn more about cats’ memory, read my post on the topic here.

Cats have an advantage that we don’t: they rely on smell (which is closely tied to memory, even in our minds, though we don’t use it when we meet people), as well as body language, the sound of that person’s voice, facial recognition, and other distinguishing characteristics to remember individuals. It doesn’t matter if it’s another cat, a dog, a possum, a human, or a goat. They use all those things to remember each individual. Every time. We rely heavily on sight coupled with a short word (the person’s name) to try to remember the people we meet.

A cat is much better equipped to remember you as an individual than any other person in that church.

What do cats think about?

Q: What do cats think about? They don’t have to hunt for food, and humans take care of all of their needs, so what’s left?

A: Just because there is no need to hunt doesn’t mean that the drive to hunt is gone. Cats retain their drive to hunt, which is why it’s not necessary to starve a cat for it to be a good mouser. In fact, cats hunt better when well fed.

Cats sleep (usually a light doze) most of the day, and are active at dusk and dawn, which makes them crepuscular (not nocturnal as some believe). Most people who have a very adorable kitty alarm clock are being awoken by their kitty because it craves stimulation. Sure, the cat will eat if you want to feed it and go back to bed, but what it really needs is play.

Even if it’s an indoor kitty, it will dream of the birds and squirrels it watches from the window. If there is more than 1 cat, kitty will probably spend quite a bit of time thinking about the other kitty (or kitties). It also thinks about its human friends, as well as any other animal friends. Cats have best friends, and that can be another cat, a human, a dog, or any other creature it has strongly bonded with.

If it’s a very lucky kitty, who has a thoughtful owner who takes it on daily walks, it has a whole lot more to dream of. So many scents with so many meanings. So much flora and fauna to ponder.

Cats are very intelligent, and have much longer memories than dogs do, so there is a great deal going on in kitty’s head.

How Are Domestic Cats Different From & the Same As Big Cats

Cats of all sizes are remarkably similar. They are all obligate carnivores, they like cardboard boxes, enjoy chasing the evil little red dot, enjoy catnip, and all sorts of other things.

The main thing that makes them different is that domestic cats like hanging out with people. Big cats don’t. But in almost all other ways, cats of all sizes are extremely similar. They like catnip, they like boxes, they sleep a lot, they like unrolling toilet paper, they are obligate carnivores, they have better sight than other carnivores, a great sense of smell, and some big cats even knead (making biscuits), etc.

Domestic cats are social, and (females especially) live in colonies when they are feral. But lions are also very social, and live in groups.

The biggest differences are that domestic cats have more mutations on genes involved in mediating aggressive behavior, forming memories, and controlling the ability to learn from either fear or reward-based stimuli. This means they have longer memories, more capacity to learn, and are far less aggressive than their wild relatives.

Further Reading:

Cat Genome Reveals Genetic Signatures Underlying Feline Biology and Domestication

Kagetora’s Story: Male Cats Aren’t Always Dangerous to Kittens

Of all the myths spread about cats, one of the most tragic is that most people believe that all male cats will kill kittens if given an opportunity. This is absolutely untrue.

Cats are very social, empathetic creatures. Males often help with the kittens in feral populations, as well as when the male lives in the same house with the female and kittens. The reason we don’t see it a lot when our own cats have kittens is because the male isn’t able to get near them if he is a feral, stray, or lives in another home.

In fact, the male doesn’t even need to be related to the kitten(s) in order to want to protect and nurture it.

This isn’t conjecture or wishful thinking or anthropomorphism. The literature is full of studies and observational data that back this up. I have seen it many times.

In fact, I have seen many males, both feral and house cats, help to take care of kittens. I’m not saying all male cats are completely safe, and that there’s no need to worry. What I’m saying is that it’s not set in stone, and you also need to be aware that mother cats sometimes kill their own kittens, and at a higher rate than males. This remains true even when you factor in access.

Several years ago, there was a cat I saw quite a bit while I was in a rural town in Oklahoma. He was very friendly, so we were able to get him neutered, and then released him. We called him Kagetora (shadow tiger; because he followed my daughter around all the time).

He was about 7 months old when he first started following my daughter around. Back then, in 2008, we had a Samoyed-Chow Chow mix named Alaska, and Kagetora loved her. When my daughter took her outside, Kagetora would rub against her, trotting between her legs as she walked, and he would cuddle up close to her when she would nap on the lawn.

LCD Alaska and Kagetora, January 1, 2009
Alaska and Kagetora January 1, 2009

When he wasn’t following my daughter and Alaska around, his favorite napping spot was the place where the feral females would have their litters, and he loved helping with the kittens. He’d protect them while mom was away, groom them, play with them, and even share his food.

This is altruism in action. For a very long time, we didn’t believe that animals could behave altruistically. But anyone who studies animals will see it. The smarter the species, the more often we see altruism. I’ll discuss the topic of altruism—both within a species and interspecies altruism—more in the future.

Kagetora got attacked by a coyote one night while protecting the kittens. He managed to scare off the coyote, but he was in bad shape. We nursed him back to health, got the kittens to the Humane Society, and trapped the females and got them spayed. I decided it was time for him to retire, and we adopted him.

Fast-forward to November of 2014. We were fostering a young cat, Freya (AKA Bunny), who was pregnant. (See her story here.) She was only 6 months old when she got pregnant (before we took her in), and she had 6 kittens, so it was a bit much. Kagetora and our then 10-year-old female cat, Kiki (who had kittens before), loved taking care of the kittens. Our older female, who was 17, had never had kittens, and wanted nothing to do with them.

The wonderful thing about Bunny was that she established close and trusting relationships with our 3 cats while she was pregnant, so she not only had help with the kittens, but she had a lot of moral support for herself as well.

LCD: Kiki bathes Bunny while Bunny bathes Kiri
Kiki bathes Bunny while Bunny bathes Kiri

One of the kittens, Stiles, got really sick, and we had to bottle feed him and carry him around with us to keep him warm. My daughter and I slept opposite each other so someone was always awake with him. During this time, Kagetora and Kiki bonded with Stiles very strongly. By the time he was old enough to be adopted, they were convinced he was theirs, and I couldn’t take him away from them.

Here’s Kagetora with his baby (he was SO happy to have his own kitten):

Kagetora and Stiles

And here are Kagetora and Kiki with their baby, Stiles:

Kikiyo, Kagetora, and Stiles

Q&A: Do Cats Understand Right from Wrong?

Q: There is a room that my cat isn’t allowed to go into. I keep the door closed, but when I do leave it open she goes in there. When I catch her, she looks ashamed. Does she understand that what she’s doing is wrong?

A: First, some semantics:

  • Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
  • Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.

She isn’t displaying shame, that’s a purely human construct, but let’s explore if she should.

It depends on what your definition of right and wrong are. Do you truly believe that going into a room, that is usually inaccessible to you, in the house that you live in is wrong? Even if you never agreed not to do it? Even if it makes no sense to you? It isn’t a broken social contract, so it isn’t wrong.

Doesn’t sound wrong from the cat’s point of view, so let’s look at your actions. It’s only wrong if you believe yourself to be superior to the cat. In that case, it’s just a misunderstanding, so you aren’t that wrong.

To understand your cat, you must first understand this: Your cat is smarter and has a much longer memory than a dog. Unlike what many people choose to believe, she also doesn’t consider herself to be better than you are. She considers you to be her friend, her equal, her ally. She doesn’t think you’re her boss or her slave.

All you have to do to remain in the right is to keep the door to the room closed, and don’t ever punish a cat. She will think you’re insane and you will lose more of her trust each time. That includes scolding in this case.

So, in the end, she would have every right to feel shame for your ridiculous behavior in this matter, but she’s above all that. She’ll still think of you as her friend, even if you’re a little odd.

Lucky you!

How Good Is a Cat’s Memory?

Cats have excellent memories. A lot of research has been done on cats’ memory. This body of research shows that there is little difference between reference material stored in the cats’ brains and humans’ brains. When compared to dogs, research has proven that cats have close to 200 times more retention.

Neurons are important in memory and learning, and cats have nearly twice the number of neurons that dogs have. The way that memories are encoded means that each neuron stores a part of a memory, and when the right combination of neurons is activated, the cat will recall a memory.

In the short-term, cats can remember things for about 16 hours. If it’s important enough for the cat to remember it later, the memory can last the rest of its life. Cats do a great deal of learning and remembering from 2–7 years of age, much like children and teenagers are learning machines. Cats must be socialized before they are 2. Just like humans, these early stages of life determine a great deal about what the cat will be like when they’re older.

For instance, if a cat isn’t around humans a lot when it is young, even if it is friendly and likes humans, it will not meow or vocalize to humans the way that kittens who are raised with humans will. I have a super cuddly cat who was a stray for his formative years, and he is just like our other cats except that he doesn’t meow.

Our 11-year-old female has lived with her littermate on and off over the years (he belongs to my sister, and we have shared houses on and off). Even when it’s been several years since they’ve seen each other, she and her brother always act like they were never apart. Cats seem to be able to remember their friends, whether it is another cat, a human, a dog, etc. for many years.

They also remember paths they have walked a lot in the past. They remember where to find food in a place where they have not been in 10 years. If it’s important to a cat, whether emotionally or a necessity, they will remember it.

Unfortunately, with a similar brain structure to humans comes the pitfalls. Elderly cats can be prone to dementia, as well as other neurodegenerative diseases. So it’s important to keep a cat active, and keep its mind engaged to guard against such ailments.

Side note: Although we sometimes compare qualities and physiology of cats to that of dogs, they are completely different animals, and it’s a lot like comparing an elephant to a giraffe. We here at LCD love dogs as well, and nothing we say should be used to try to prove that one is better or worse than the other. We are only using these comparisons to demonstrate that you can’t view cats and dogs the same way. They are very different.