Tag Archives: intelligence

RCRS: The World’s Only Feline Astronaut

Real Cats, Real Stories is back with a blast from the past. Did you know that a cat went to space? Félicette, a beautiful black and white stray, underwent training along with 13 other cats in France.

In the late 50s and early 60s, the space race was starting to heat up. And although we often think of this as a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, there were other players in the race.

After the Soviets sent Laika, a dog, into space on November 3, 1957 aboard Sputnik 2 (poor Laika did not survive), NASA sent Enos, a chimpanzee, into space on November 29, 1961. Enos landed safely after orbiting the Earth for one hour and 28 minutes. Many other animals were sent to space during this time, but showing that you could send an animal to space and safely retrieve it was the first big step toward human spaceflight.

Following on the heels of NASA’s success, France’s  Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) was training 14 cats for similar missions. As you might remember from this article on cat’s brains, they are similar to ours in structure and function. They also have a highly sensitive vestibular system.

They finally narrowed down the pool to one cat, Félicette, to be the first cat in space. On the 18th of October, 1963, the cat, safely secured inside a special capsule on top of a French Véronique AG1 rocket, and launched from the Colomb Bacar rocket base at Hammaguir in the Algerian Sahara desert.

She didn’t go into orbit, but in a flight lasting altogether less than 15 minutes travelled some 100 miles (160 km) into space, where the capsule separated from the rocket and descended by parachute.

Throughout the flight the electrodes implanted in her brain transmitted neurological impulses back to Earth, and the French CERMA, which directed these flights, stated afterwards that the cat had made a valuable contribution to research. The capsule and cat were safely recovered and she was photographed with the team afterwards.

The British press of the time called her the ‘Astrocat’; but at some point and from an unknown source — possibly journalists — she gained the name Félicette.

Wacky Wednesday! If My Cat Were Bigger, Would He Kill Me?

Q: If my cat, who is a gentle house cat, suddenly became as big as a lion, would he kill me?

A: That depends on a lot of factors like age, activity level, if he’s neutered, how he plays with you, his personality, and your bond.

If he’s young, and very exuberant about play, and is serious about his aggression toward toys, then it’s a possibility. If he was taught (or not corrected—gently and positively—when he has attacked your leg or something) when young that human hands or other body parts are toys, then the answer is almost certainly yes.

I actually use this example as a thought experiment a lot when I’m talking about why big cats do not make good pets. Think about a young cat, maybe a year old. At that age, you can see how intent the kitty is about attacking and “killing” a toy, which is a thing it just perceives as being something fun to maul, not even real prey. Then imagine that he was the size of a medium-sized dog, and ask yourself what kinds of things he might think look like fun things to attack. A little kid would be fun sized then. Then imagine the kitty is the size of a tiger, and you should get it right away. It would be a disaster for everyone.

Make no mistake, there are fundamental differences (at the genetic level) between domestic cats and wild cats (big and smallish). Domestic cats have changes on genes dealing with aggression and learning. They are less aggressive and are able to learn more and learn faster than their wild cousins.

However, older cats, especially neutered cats over the age of 7 or 8, wouldn’t necessarily pose a deadly risk if you magically scaled them up. By that time, they don’t see you as a plaything (again, unless you have encouraged them to play with your hand or not corrected them—gently and positively—when they have attacked you), and are usually more interested in naps, food, watching Cat TV (AKA the window), and other things.

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.

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.

Why Cats vs. Dogs Is a Stupid Debate

Since long before the internet became a thing we all depend on, there has been this debate raging. Every time I think maybe we’ve all gotten over it, it comes up again: Which is better, cats or dogs?

I explained in my last post why this debate isn’t helpful:

Asking which one is better does not give us knowledge. It confuses the issue, and the facts get lost in the fog. And because there is no logical, objective answer to this question, it leaves people feeling vulnerable, and thus they are likely to get overly emotional (also because we love our pets a great deal). When has a lack of logic, plus overly emotional people, ever equaled positive discourse on the internet?

And now I would like to address people who hate either dogs or cats because they love the other one. If you are not one of these people, you are excused, and may go on with your day. I’m not talking about personal choice of pet. If you want to say you prefer to have a dog, or you prefer to have a cat, or hamster, or ferret, or skunk…whatever it is, that’s okay. I’m not talking about you.

I am so, so tired of people having these stupid debates about which one is better. If you’re one of these people, let me ask you something: Do you like elephants? Does that make you hate zebras? When you go to the zoo, do you go and look at just one animal? Does seeing meerkats frolic and play somehow diminish your enjoyment of cheetahs? If so, you might have a problem. A problem with logic, surely, but possibly a mental one as well.

I like dogs. I like cats. I understand cats and dogs for the most part. Cats can be harder to understand if you aren’t in the habit of thinking too deeply about pets. I get that. You actually have to try to think like a cat, to empathize with them. Most people can’t even put themselves in another human’s shoes, much less empathize with another species. I get that. But they are very social, highly intelligent creatures that can show just as much (and sometimes more) affection as our canine friends.

So, just understand that when I see you talking about how dogs are better than cats or cats are better than dogs, I see an imbecile talking about how hamsters are THE BEST! THE BEST! AND THAT’S WHY FERRETS SUCK!!!!

Do you have cats and dogs? How do they get along? Tell us your stories! Leave a comment or email us at stories at littlecatdiaries dot com!

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.