How Cats Think

Cat be­hav­iour ex­perts de­vot­ing them­selves to how cats think and the emo­tions cats ex­pe­ri­ence are help­ing to im­prove our re­la­tion­ships with our cats

Modern Cat - - Contents - BY TRACEY TONG

Cat be­hav­iour ex­perts ex­plain how cats think and the emo­tions cats ex­pe­ri­ence.

If you’ve ever won­dered what your cat was think­ing as she gazes out the win­dow, or why he sits on your news­pa­per when you’re try­ing to read, you’re in good com­pany. “I find that cat own­ers al­ways want to know why cats do what they do,” says Mieshelle Nagelschneider, cat be­haviourist and founder of The Cat Be­hav­ior Clinic in Port­land, Ore­gon. They’re cu­ri­ous for good rea­son—cats have long had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing aloof, self-re­liant, and mys­te­ri­ous. They’ve been do­mes­ti­cated for thou­sands of years, yet still re­main enig­matic to their hu­man com­pan­ions today. En­ter cat be­haviourists like Mieshelle and Pam John­son-Ben­nett, a pi­o­neer in the field of cat be­hav­iour con­sult­ing. They’ve helped tens of thou­sands of cat own­ers around the world un­der­stand what makes their cats tick. Ask both be­haviourists and they’ll tell you that the need for peo­ple in their pro­fes­sion is there. Pam is the au­thor of seven award-win­ning books on cat be­hav­iour and train­ing—dubbed the “cat bibles” of un­der­stand­ing fe­lines—and one of the most sought-af­ter cat be­hav­iour ex­perts in the world. Nashville-based Pam be­gan her con­sult­ing ca­reer in New York in 1982 back when there was no such thing as a cat be­hav­iour con­sul­tant. “When I started it was lonely and I was ridiculed. Now the field is re­spected,” she says, “which is won­der­ful be­cause many cats’ lives will be saved.” In the past, cats were viewed as low-main­te­nance pets peo­ple ei­ther adopted on a whim or got be­cause they didn’t have enough time to de­vote to a dog, says Pam. Cats were largely con­sid­ered un-train­able, which is a false no­tion Pam has de­voted her ca­reer to cor­rect­ing.

Cats can be trained

“You can train them to do all the fun things that dogs do— fetch, roll over, give me your paw… cats are bril­liant,” says Pam. “But first, you have to find out what the cur­rency is for the cat. What mo­ti­vates a cat is dif­fer­ent from what mo­ti­vates a dog.”

Cats and love

Com­par­ing cat and dog be­hav­iour is one of the mis­takes that lead many peo­ple to be­lieve that cats are not af­fec­tion­ate an­i­mals, that they don’t love us, or that they are aloof when the op­po­site is true. “Cats show their af­fec­tion dif­fer­ently than dogs, and they show it in many dif­fer­ent ways,” says Pam. “They butt their heads up against you or lay on the pa­per you are read­ing. They’ll go to where your fo­cus is.” One com­monly mis­in­ter­preted sign is when a cat lays near you with its back to you, says Pam. “Peo­ple get of­fended, but cats are preda­tors, so they need to look out on their en­vi­ron­ment. They know you’re safe, so they can put their backs to you.” Cats are both preda­tor and prey, says Mieshelle, who has been work­ing with cat own­ers around the world for 20 years. Her best­selling sci­en­tific and schol­arly-cited cat be­hav­iour book, The Cat Whis­perer, has been pub­lished in mul­ti­ple lan­guages and is used by pro­fes­sion­als around the world. “Be­cause cats are both preda­tor and prey, they are ex­tra cau­tious and re­ac­tive. They don’t have a pack like dogs do for pro­tec­tion so they have to be more cau­tious,” she says. Grow­ing up on a farm, Mieshelle spent a lot of time ob­serv­ing feral cats. “I had all th­ese cats to watch their nat­u­ral body lan­guage, mov­ing freely, in na­ture where they are meant to be.” And although they aren’t pack an­i­mals, cats aren’t as soli­tary as many peo­ple think.

So­cial crea­tures

“They hunt alone—they are soli­tary eaters—but they are so­cial an­i­mals,” says Pam. Still, that’s no guar­an­tee that cats will get along when placed in a house­hold with other cats. Just as not all hu­mans get along, “cats may not be the best of friends if we made the pair­ing,” she says. How cats feel about dogs works on a case-by-case ba­sis. “Dogs and cats don’t speak the same lan­guage,” says Pam. “Dogs play by chas­ing, but cats feel like they’re fight­ing for their lives.” Pet own­ers need to make sure all house­hold pets feel safe, go­ing at the pace of the one who is most stressed out, she says.


Once firmly es­tab­lished at home, cats are very loyal, says Pam, dis­pelling another myth that cats are not as loyal as their ca­nine coun­ter­parts. We think a dog is more loyal be­cause it fol­lows us around, she says, “but cats are ter­ri­to­rial, so they don’t want to go in the car with you or on va­ca­tion with you.” This de­sire to stay put is not an in­di­ca­tion of a lack of at­tach­ment.

Anger and grudges

Force an un­will­ing cat into a sit­u­a­tion and you may make him mad: cats do feel anger. “If a cat doesn’t feel that he has

a choice, you have to take a step back,” says Pam. Hu­mans may have the best in­ten­tions—“We see a gor­geous cat and lum­ber on over and pick the cat up with­out ask­ing it”—but may end up cor­ner­ing and of­fend­ing the an­i­mal. Not all is lost, as cats don’t hold grudges or have puni­tive thoughts, says Pam. “Cats don’t plot ways to get even. Their be­hav­iour is driven by re­sult and we mis­un­der­stand the cats’ mo­ti­va­tion for the be­hav­iour” as re­tal­i­a­tion.

Guilt Nor do cats ex­pe­ri­ence guilt.

That look you get when your cat pees on the floor and you bring the cat over and pun­ish him isn’t guilt, it’s fear, says Pam. “It’s a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The cat is ter­ri­fied be­cause it doesn’t know how to read you.” The cat only knows you’re an­gry and re­sponds cor­re­spond­ingly by shy­ing away, a ges­ture of­ten in­ter­preted as guilt.


Cats do get jeal­ous, which goes back to ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity. “Un­like dogs which have one al­pha, cats have a flex­i­ble so­cial hi­er­ar­chy,” Mieshelle says. “They time­share, or take turns own­ing im­por­tant re­source lo­ca­tions, like food lo­ca­tions and wa­ter lo­ca­tions in their en­vi­ron­ment.” Cats may feel jeal­ous if they feel those re­sources to be scarce. To curb jeal­ousy, Mieshelle sug­gests hav­ing mul­ti­ple re­source lo­ca­tions to make it eas­ier for mul­ti­ple cats to share.

Joy and sad­ness

Like hu­mans, cats ex­pe­ri­ence joy and sad­ness. Cats suf­fer from lone­li­ness when they aren’t get­ting enough at­ten­tion, says Pam. “A lot of peo­ple think cats are low-main­te­nance. “We come home from work and check our email and make din­ner and don’t in­ter­act with the cat. The cat thinks, “why should I greet you if you’re not go­ing to re­spond to me?’” Cats feel happy when they are re­laxed, eat­ing, hunt­ing, be­ing groomed and get­ting at­ten­tion, says Mieshelle. Pro­vid­ing in­ter­ac­tive toys and puz­zles and trig­ger­ing your cat’s prey drive a cou­ple of times a day will make for a joy­ful cat. “Cats in cap­tiv­ity get stressed from boredom,” she says. Boredom is the last thing on a cat’s mind as it gazes out the win­dow. As an am­bush preda­tor, the cat is ly­ing in wait for some­thing—a but­ter­fly, a bird, or a squir­rel—to come within am­bush dis­tance, says Pam. “That’s kitty TV. They are look­ing for stim­u­la­tion and all the ac­tion is out­side.” Keep in mind, though, as Mieshelle notes in her ar­ti­cle for Mod­ern Cat, “How to Stop Your Cat From Urine SprayMark­ing," (mod­ern­­ing) a cat that can see a neigh­bour­hood out­door cat through the win­dow may feel his ter­ri­tory is be­ing threat­ened, which can lead to urine mark­ing in your house. But as much as cats ex­pe­ri­ence hu­man-like emo­tions, own­ers should still treat them like an­i­mals in or­der to have a suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ship with them. “Love your cat as a mem­ber of the fam­ily, but re­mem­ber that they are cats and not fur-cov­ered chil­dren,” says Pam. For her part, Mieshelle thinks there might be more to cats than we think. “I like to think that cats are higher-think­ing an­i­mals and they could be think­ing more com­plex and in­ter­est­ing things than we could ever imag­ine,” she says. Cer­tainly, there’s much more left to dis­cover. Even af­ter more than three decades of work­ing with cats, Pam keeps learn­ing and find­ing more to write about. “That’s what’s fas­ci­nat­ing about this field—cats aren’t giv­ing up all their se­crets.”

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