They Could Not Please Me More

I was reading in bed with Ollie in my lap. Ollie is a tail-thumper anyway, but because he and Harvey had argued, his thumping turned to thrashing. I grabbed his tail and distractedly started slapping him in the face with it. When he threatened to bite me, I apologized. Prior to my interaction with Ollie, I had been pondering cat behavior for much of the day. Here are some conclusions:

Covid isolation has reinforced my observation that the more love I give to cats, the happier they are and the more love they give back. While it is true that cats are independent, it would be tragically wrong to imagine that they don't need the love of the people upon whom their lives depend.

Obedience. Cat-haters insist that cats are too stupid to learn commands, yet my cats will seldom jump onto countertops if I ask them not to, assuming that I ask it while standing three feet away and pointing a squirt bottle. They also obey me when my wishes are consistent with their wishes. For example, if I call Ollie when I'm sitting in bed reading at 10:00 p.m., I can hear him galloping from two rooms away because he anticipates sitting in my lap, but if I call him at 10:00 a.m., he won't come because he doesn't know what I want. 

How cats regard humans. Some people say that cats consider us equals while others argue that they regard us as inferiors. When I ask cats about this, they go to sleep. I have no idea what this means.

Why do cats give us dead things? Possibilities: (1) They hate us; (2) They have a twisted sense of humor; (3) Corpses are to cats what chocolates are to us; (4) They regard us as failed hunters and are trying to inspire us. Finis. Because option four is the only option that accords with cat behavior, researchers favor it, although it would suggest that our cats view us as morons. Being indoor-only, my cats have nothing to present me with aside from beetles and spiders, and they usually eat them, proving that they don't care if I starve.

Burying poop. Until several months ago, Scully buried her poop. She now climbs onto the lid of the box and scratches as if she is burying her poop. The next cat into the box sees the poops, appears disgusted, and buries it. The sheen on Scully's jet black fur, her pristinely groomed white legs and chest, her gorgeous white whiskers, and the perfect symmetry of her markings put me in mind of human females who look like goddesses but have the IQ of rocks. Then again, maybe Scully's problem is emotional. 

Mental illness. As our other cats admit, Ollie has "issues." When he's stressed, he vomits and his hair falls out. Everyday for the four and a half years since he moved in, he has nursed on Brewsky. While the rest of the family relaxes together in bed at night, Ollie stalks the darkened house yowling loudly. When we hear him, we stop what we're doing and stare down the dark hallway in fear that this will be the night he loses his mind. If Ollie were human, I might conclude that he's afflicted with existential angst, but because he's a cat, I don't know what his problem is, and the other cats don't either.

Intelligence. Due to their resourcefulness in achieving private goals, I have concluded that my cats are reasonably intelligent. Yet, the human tendency to judge our pets according to what we value can result in a skewed assessment. For example, many people regard cats as intellectually inferior to dogs simply because dogs are better at learning things that interest us. These people are oblivious to the fact that cats excel at teaching us things that interest them. For example, when I throw his ball, Sage runs to it and stares at me. After awhile, I understand that he wants me to go to the ball, pick it up, and throw it again, which I do, at which time he runs to it and stares a second time. When I am able to perform the trick flawlessly, Sage takes a nap. The next day, he has me practice some more.

"When I play with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me rather than I with her?" Montaigne

Emotions. Another example of people judging cats by human standards is the common conclusion that cats are unemotional based upon their relatively unchanging facial expressions. However, researchers have determined that, although cats do form expressions, they lack the musculature to form a great many of them. Another mistaken anthropocentric judgment is that cats' habit of capturing and releasing the same prey proves that they are sadists (they actually do it to instruct their young and to hone their hunting skills). Still another mistake occurs when people interpret as disgust the strange expression that some cats make after washing their butts, sniffing urine, or paying attention to the fragrance of a female in heat (they are instead wafting odors past something that scientists call a vomeronasal organ). How, then, given the ease with which we make mistakes, might a person know what a cat is thinking and feeling? Through patience, humility, voluminous reading, and hundreds of hours spent observing cats' body language, vocalizations, and eye movements. 

When to observe cats. All day everyday is best, but I especially enjoy doing it when they're stretching, playing together, sleeping in acrobatic postures, bathing one another, rolling in catnip, purring in my lap, chittering at birds, cuddling with one another, chasing laser lights, and requesting cuddles. A less pleasant—but very important—time to observe a cat is during those periods when he or she is vomiting frequently (as one wit put it, Dogs bark. Cats vomit). Because their vomiting often results from stress, it is my responsibility to make their home peaceful.

Us comforting cats. Rapidly-moving men with loud voices cause my cats to make like little Houdinis and disappear. If one—or more—of them remains disappeared hours after the person has left, I drag them from their hiding places and attempt to comfort them. If I succeed, they remain in the open. If I fail, they go back into hiding. Another time that I try to comfort cats is when I take them to the vet, and they push their heads into my abdomen. Although my ability to comfort a stressed-out cat is limited, I have the same problem with dogs and humans.

Cats comforting us. Peggy spent part of yesterday in bed with a stomach ache. When I went to check on her, all five cats were lined up against her sides. Were those cats acting as compassionate beings who were doing their utmost to comfort a loved one, or were they selfish jerks who found Peggy's bed soft and the heat from her body restful? People who wouldn't dream of interpreting every human act as selfish make such a claim about cats. 

There was a famous 1995 incident in which a homeless calico—whom the firemen later named Scarlett—was severely burned when she repeatedly dodged rescuers in order to save her kittens from a burning warehouse in Brooklyn ( While many people praised Scarlett's courage, others dismissed her behavior as the product of mindless instinct. What, then, of human mothers who risk their lives for their children, such as the woman who recently tackled a man whom she caught looking through her daughter's bedroom window?

How can so timid a species be capable of love, and how can I love it? Despite being superb athletes, cats' small size and thin bones make them highly susceptible to injury, and so it is that facing avoidable threats is not within their value system (the exception being mother cats who act in defense of their kittens). This causes some humans to hold cats in contempt. To bring this part of the discussion closer to home...

Three-year-old Sage is my smallest and most timid cat. If I bend over to pet him while he's sitting on the floor, his big eyes get even bigger; he meows fearfully; and he runs away. Sometimes, he doesn't stop until he's under a chair. Other times, he only runs a few feet before rolling onto his back so I can pet him. I interpret his behavior as a struggle between trust and fear. While I know I'm making progress with Sage, I also know that I can never allow myself a moment's un-mindfulnesssuch as when I slapped Ollie in the face with his tail. 

Each morning, Sage asks Peggy to pick him up so he can sit on her shoulder, something he has never done with me. Sage also likes to sit in Peggy's lap, which is also something that he has never done with me. Researchers have found that it's simply easier for women to win the trust of cats, dogs, and even wolves. During the many decades that I walked dogs, I often met women whose adopted shelter dogs would either growl at me or hide behind the woman's legs. In almost every instance, these women had concluded that their shelter dog had been abused by a man. When I asked how they knew this, they would make the circular argument that their dogs were afraid of men.  

Why do I believe that intimacy with my cats continues to grow with every passing year? I believe it because of how pleased they are when I join them for a cuddle, and because of the liberties they allow. I can rough their fur, kiss their noses, squeeze them firmly, sweep them off the floor, flip them onto their backs, and rub their bellies, and I can even do these things with Sage most of the time. If you adopt an emotionally healthy dog, that dog will quickly reach a plateau of intimacy. By contrast, I still see signs of growing intimacy in all of my cats except for ten year old Brewsky, whose boldness approaches that of a dog. But how can I ever really know who my cats are within their deepest selves? I cannot. I can allow myself to interpret their behavior as love.

Isn't it unnatural to force a cat to live indoors? Here's what a natural lifestyle would entail: breeding freely; fighting competitors; killing their own food; suffering from climatic extremes, having their blood sucked by fleas, ticks, and mosquitos; being deprived of medical care; and starving when they become too old, sick, or wounded to hunt. Here's what a natural lifestyle would not entail: cuddling with humans, sleeping on soft pillows, eating Meow Mix, killing for fun, and staying indoors in inclement weather. No loving person would allow his or her cat to live naturally, and I resent being referred to as my cats' jailer. The person in my life who has given me the most grief about this has had two cats since I met him. One left home one morning after breakfast and was never seen again. The other came home with a broken leg, and he had her euthanized. Early death is often the fate of cats who are allowed to come and go.

But is it possible for indoor cats to be happy? My cats are well-loved; well-fed; well-protected; never alone; show no interest in going outdoors; and own a bucketful of toys, a commodious window shelf, multiple cat trees and lots of scratching posts. Their lives are as predictable as I can make them, and cats adore predictability. Although they're less adaptable than cats that face outdoor challenges, they're also healthier and can expect to live twice as long. They're also peaceful and content, properties that are surely more important than happiness.

But are they happy? Perhaps, the question can be more easily approached by asking whether they are satisfied, the reason being that happiness is a fluctuating mood boundaried by extremes. It is also a mood that I feel unqualified to judge. Yet, I have observed my cats closely their whole lives long, and I strongly believe that they're  satisfied. Just as the man I mentioned pitied my cats for staying indoors, I pity his cats because he somehow imagines that it's kindly to allow them to kill countless birds and mammals and to have their young lives end violently. The only good that comes from letting cats outdoors is that it allows their humans to evade the responsibility of providing for their physical and emotional welfare indoors. 

Should cats be worshiped? If, as Keats wrote, beauty is truth and truth beauty, then the spirit that embodies catdom deserves worship. People generally believe that the ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, but what they actually worshiped was the spirit embodied by cats, a spirit that found its ultimate expression in Bastet, a goddess who made cats her earthly representation. I own but one religious symbol, and that symbol is Bastet. Because Jehovah was a "jealous God," his chosen people prophesied the destruction of her holy city, Bubastis: 

"The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will die in battle, and the women will be taken away as slaves." Ezekiel 30:17

These events never occurred, although murderous persecution by Christians finally put an end to Bastet worship. Then came the Dark Ages out of which little good came, among it a 9th century poem by an Irish monk. Because this poem was written on the back of a Bible text, a thousand years passed before its discovery in the recesses of a monastic library. Its anonymous author named the poem after his cat, Pangur Bán (which means A Fuller White), and its sentiments echo my own. A sampling...

Tis a merry sight to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.