Tag Archives: cognition

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!

RCRS: Stiles, Part 1

Today is Stiles’s 2nd birthday. I’ve tried so many different times to figure out how to tell Stiles’s story, and how much he has come to mean to me. I touched on his story a bit when I wrote about his mother, Freya, and also when I wrote about Kagetora. But those mentions barely scratch the surface.  I’m going to break this up into several parts since it would make a blog post that is way too long, and there is so much that I think is important to tell you about Stiles because he has taught me more in the 2 years he’s been alive than I learned in the decade before he came along.

I suppose I should begin at the beginning.

On January 27th, 2015, Bunny (AKA Freya, Bun Bun, Baby Bunny) kindly waited for me to wake up until she let me know that it was BABY TIME! Only she didn’t want to have her babies in the box in my closet, nor did she want them in the backup den I’d created. She insisted on having them under the vanity sink in my bedroom. I quickly grabbed a box, swept all the junk under there into it, grabbed a clean blanket (which was my daughter’s Elmo baby blanket), put it down, and Bun Bun got in there without a moment to spare. The babies were coming. I had hoped that, since she had only been 6 months old when she got preggers, that it would be a small litter. 3 or fewer would be ideal, but I thought I could handle 4.

I snapped this picture after kitten number 5 was born (and I was sure, as I had been after number 4, that it was over):

Bunny's Babies: Birthday

But, of course, it wasn’t over. Stiles was kitten #6. Such a huge litter for such a young mama. She handled it like a champ. Although I wanted to name him Spock (since he did a great little Spock impression), my daughter named him. Stiles was the only kitten that I didn’t have a say in the name. I didn’t plan on keeping any of them, so I didn’t think it really mattered.

When the kittens were 3-4 weeks old, Stiles got sick. My daughter and I had to feed him, and Kikiyo (our 11-year-old, who had been a young mother once herself) was happy to help cuddle and bathe him, as was Kagetora. My daughter and I slept opposite each other so that someone was always awake with him to keep him warm, fed, and to keep an eye out for any worsening symptoms. He pulled through, but we had all bonded with him so strongly, especially Kiki and Kagetora, and I couldn’t take him away from them. And, truth be told, I was very attached to him as well.

Kikiyo, Kagetora, and Stiles

A side note on his name: Although he didn’t get the name I wanted for him, I began calling him Mister on those long nights we spent cuddled up together when he was sick, watching Doctor Who. It’s a nod to Mister Spock, and I still call him Mister to this day (so does my daughter most of the time). All our cats have nicknames, so it’s normal for each cat to have several names in our house. Kagetora thinks his name is Baby. Kikiyo (whom we’ve had the longest) responds to Kiki, Kiku, and Baby Squeadle, as well as Squeable and Screeble (these things morph over time, and they tend to be situational as well). Kagome knows her name and she also knows Squeaker (and, of course, Baby Squeaker, even though she was an adult with very firm opinions when we adopted her).

Back to Baby Stiles. We knew early on (before he was 4 weeks old) that he had insomnia. That may sound ridiculous to you, but it isn’t. In fact, that wasn’t even the first time I’d seen a kitten with insomnia. Kiki had it pretty bad when she was young. She grew out of it around 3 years of age, and I hope that happens with Stiles. He gets enough REM sleep, but the light doze NREM sleep is what he misses out on. It’s linked with a fear of missing out (FOMO), and since he is hyper-social like his mama, it’s worse for him than it was for Kiki. He’ll sleep on me while I watch TV, so I now watch TV for a few hours every day just so he gets an extra nap.

Here he is, wide awake while his siblings sleep: Shhhhh

Stiles has always been a special little guy. I knew he was smart early on (Bunny and all of her babies were smart, but Stiles was particularly intelligent, as was Cleo).

After he started recovering from being sick, he had gone from second largest kitten (Bucky was always the biggest) to the smallest kitten. Even smaller than the 3 of his siblings (Steve, Cleo, and Kiri) that were estimated to be 2 full weeks younger than the other 3 (Stiles, Bucky, Juno). When he started feeling good enough to play again, he would hide in my daughter’s lap as she sat cross-legged on the floor, and pop up to ambush his siblings during play time. And if things got too rough, he’d pop back down to safety.

We moved to Michigan when he was just old enough to be away from his mother, but with a strong enough bond with Kiki and Kagetora that I felt that he would be okay learning his manners with them. He was also used to formula by then, and was eating mostly solid food, so it all worked out well.

He did better than expected during the journey from Oklahoma to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In fact, he did much better than the adult cats. He was curious about everything. But he also got a lot of sleep during those 2 traveling days. He curled up mostly with Kiki, but cuddled with Kagetora as well.

Next time, I’ll fill you in on the games he has made up, how he shows incredible empathy and intelligence, and how we bonded with him so strongly.

Read Part 2!

Part 3 (Coming soon)

Q&A How do cats see themselves and us?

Q: Do Cats Think They’re Humans?

A: I’m not exactly sure where you got this idea, but it’s a rather simple answer: No.

So why bring it up? Because there’s this ridiculous related notion that cats think that we are strange-looking cats. By that logic, they would have to think that their dog friends, bunny friends, and other animal friends are also strange-looking cats, but we know they don’t.

Cats are best at reading the body language and faces of other cats, so they recognize cats as being like themselves. They communicate using the same methods (scent and body language mostly) with other cats, but not with animals, including humans, that are not cats.

Cats generally only meow at humans, not at other cats. Meowing doesn’t mean anything to other cats, but we talk to them, so they are trying to communicate with us on our level, which is vocal. They soon learn what types of meows get them what they want. And some cats, like Burmese, “talk” more than others.

Kikiyo has several words for different things, and has names for the other cats, me, and my daughter. She loves to talk with us, and she has about 10 different words for different kinds of water (water in the fountain, water in a cup, water from the sink, cold water, water on the floor, etc.). She does not converse with the other cats.

Cats mostly see us as equals. They are small, and don’t have the ability to get their own treats, water, or food most of the time, so they let us know when they’re hungry, thirsty, bored (and want to play), they want petting or cuddles, or anything else.

And they thank us in so many ways. Whether it’s bringing gifts, comforting us when we are upset, hurt, or down, and so many other ways. Each cat is an individual, just like people. Some are smarter, some are more empathetic than others, some have issues with anxiety, and on and on. They know we are individuals as well.

Where Do Domestic Cats Come From?

SciShow delved into some very interesting cat topics in the past few weeks, and I thought they were worth sharing.

Q&A: How Do I Get My Kitten to Like Petting?

Q: My kitten is 4 months old. She bites me every time I try to pet her. How do I get her to like petting?

A: This is absolutely normal. Kittens do 3 things: eat, sleep, and play. They cannot control any of those things. They need food and sleep to survive kittenhood. Play includes the use of claws and mouths because 1) they need those to hunt and 2) other cats have fur and thick skin that can withstand it. That’s why you don’t use your hand as a toy when playing with a kitten. They must learn to hunt very quickly because, for many cats, soon they will be on their own, and if they don’t learn to hunt, they will die.

So, from an evolutionary perspective, she’s learning to hunt by play. Most kittens this age are learning their independence as well. Depending on the kitten, it is possible to get them to be cuddly, but this is usually when they are too tired to play. And even if you can’t cuddle with your kitty right now, if you bond with her through play, she will repay you later.

My little guy is now 19 months. He’s super empathetic, very smart, and he will cuddle with me when he knows I’m not feeling well (which is often, since I have MS and chronic pain that is unrelated to the MS). He and I have such a close bond that he pets me when he wants to soothe me. It’s adorable! But at 4 months, he only cuddled while sleeping.

Stiles
Stiles in my lap, petting me before snuggles.

So let me tell you how we developed this close bond.

  1. Play is THE key. Play with her several times a day until she starts panting. This fills her need and it gets out all that baby energy. With a kitten this young, I recommend at least 3 play sessions a day. My baby needed 5.If you use a string (elastic string is the most fun, with feathers or other toys at the end) toy and use it to make them do a lot of running and climbing to get it, this wears them out fast. If she’ll chase a toy that you throw, that’s a good way to do it as well. My little guy started playing fetch when he was about 5 months.
  2. Praise, praise, treats. Make sure you praise her when she does things that she’s supposed to, when she gets the toy during play (you should allow her to get the toy frequently, this triggers the reward center in her brain, and that is also key because she will later relate that reward to being with you even without play.) Try to get her to eat a treat or two out of your hand. This is also creating a good association with you, and building that bond.
  3. Eat after play. With play done, and a full belly, she’ll be sleeeepy.
  4. Gently handle her several times a day. Pick her up to carry her to her food (even if it isn’t necessary), to a different room to play with her, etc. They’re wiggly, but if they know you will put them down quickly when they protest, they will start being more comfortable with it.
  5. If you have a plush blanket, put it on your lap, and encourage her to sleep on your lap. Don’t force her. But if she’s wiped out, she’s more likely to snuggle into your warm, inviting lap.
  6. You can pet her head, rub her cheekbones, rub under the chin, but don’t do it too much. You’ll interrupt her sleep, which will make your lap less inviting. Right now you’re just creating the bond.
  7. Never raise your voice to her.  Cats don’t understand the concept of punishment. If she’s somewhere she shouldn’t be, just move her (gently) to someplace where she can be. If she’s climbing shelves that are off limits, you need to provide a cat tree or something else for her to climb on. Always give alternatives. Praise her when she uses the alternatives.

If you keep this up, then once that kitten play stage starts to calm down in a few months, she’ll trust you, she’ll associate you with all things good in her world, and she will be sleeping in your lap and asking for petting in no time.

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.