Skip to main content

Darren Hubley/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Even after 10,000 years of sharing space with humans, cats remain a mystery. Dogs make their feelings obvious, but cat owners (what a misnomer!) can never be sure what cats are thinking.

In his wide-ranging new book, Cat Sense, English anthrozoologist John Bradshaw calls on all his scientific resources to interpret our enigmatic felines for the 21st century – a restrictive era far removed from the predatory instincts of these not-quite-domesticated animals. While he admires the highly complex personalities of these tiny companions who can never bring themselves to be quite as uncritical as dogs, he also wants us to understand how different they really are – from dogs, from humans, from the judgments and expectations that have been forced on them throughout history. Cats are now getting a bad rap for being mass killers of wildlife, a charge that Bradshaw disputes but still recognizes as a motivating force in the cat's transformation from fully preoccupied outdoor hunter to docile indoor pet. He wants us to understand that even though cats are highly social creatures, they're not well-prepared to meet modernity's needs and demands.

You cite the saying, "Dogs have owners, cats have staff." I recognize the truth in my own life, but is there any scientific basis to it?

Cats are descended from a territorial and fairly solitary species, and their survival instincts take priority. The cynical view is that the cat's owner is merely someone who provides their feline essentials – enough to eat and drink, a safe place to rest – and the cat isn't giving back very much.

But there's more to it than that. Once their priorities are satisfied, they can form strong social bonds. You see this in the way they lick us, rub against us, meow at us, have affectionate relationships with some people and not others. It's too much to claim that cats are as affectionate as dogs, but the image of the grumpy cat exploiting its owners while laughing behind its paws is taking things too far.

Still, we accept that cats are going to be more aloof than dogs. Why do you think some of us prefer them as companions?

People often say they appreciate that cats are such individuals and they admire their independence. Some people find dogs to be too subservient and too attentive to them. And because dogs are emotionally needy, they're also needier in the amount of time they demand. A dog is a manufactured, artificial construction of domestication, whereas a cat is an animal that's kind of domesticated itself while retaining the appeal that we get from watching a wild animal. I don't think we have any other animal that can combine the domestic and affectionate qualities of a pet with this slightly wild and independent side.

You write a lot about how we treat our pets as little humans and don't always resist the anthropomorphic urge. Does this become a problem in our relationship?

This is a common issue with dogs. For example, is it wrong to dress dogs in devil costumes for Halloween? Cats are not so easy to anthropomorphize because they're less responsive and their behaviour is less human-directed than dogs. But it's a problem when people are overeager to interact with a new cat because its priority is adjusting to its physical surroundings and making sure it gets fed. Some owners almost subjugate cats into accepting affection. Because we are a social species, we believe a species that consents to live with us is equally sociable. And a lot of people will conclude that if one cat is good, two cats are better. But in fact it's probably worse if the situation isn't managed carefully. When a cat sees another cat, it doesn't know if that cat's a rival for its resources.

There's growing pressure for cats to become indoor animals. Can this be good for an animal that retains its wild side?

There's a balance to be had. We think that cats do not need to roam in the sense of travelling a long distance. We have no evidence that an apartment with three or four rooms is too small a space for a cat. But the quality of that space is important – cats need to feel secure and they need to explore. So if you keep a cat indoors, I think that you need to keep changing the cat's environment in subtle ways so that there's something to explore every day.

There's one crucial caveat: Cats that used to be allowed to roam outside can go stir-crazy if they're kept confined. They have this expectation that what's beyond the glass is something they should go find out about. When they can't get at it, I suspect there's a lot of frustration.

I'm always struck by the huge differences in my cats' personalities. Where do these differences come from?

The whole idea that animals could have a personality is relatively new in biology – it's only been around for 20 years. We know that cats are flexible animals, but they're particularly flexible in their early development. You've got this period between four and eight weeks when kittens learn an awful lot about their environment and can adopt any one of the different lifestyles from wild and feral to total lapcat.

Species encountered in a benign way during that period are likely to be accepted. Cats that don't meet children during that four-week window can show considerable nervousness toward them later on.

But it's important to say this is only a beginning. Cats' personalities are still quite fluid within those constraints. There's lots of flexibility and change within the first year of life. Because we don't train cats as a general habit, we don't think of them as teachable. But cats are very good learners.

This interview has been condensed and edited.