A Post About Pussies

I’ve had all sorts of animals as pets over the years. As a boy, I had dogs, lizards, turtles, fish and birds. The birds were rescues that my dog would find. Every spring he would find at least one baby bird that fell from its nest and stand over it, howling until I helped save the bird. We raised quite a few birds that way. One of them became my father’s Woodstock. The stupid thing would follow him around outside and sit on his shoulder. Most times, the bird would get healthy enough and we would let it loose.

The main pet was always a dog and I’m still partial to dogs. The trouble is that I travel enough that owning a dog is difficult. About 25 years ago a woman I was seeing suggested I try a cat. I did not think I’d like a cat, but the first one turned out to be a good pet. It was some sort of Siamese hybrid thing that had very long legs and could jump about eight feet in the air. I was surprised to learn that you can train a cat and it is not all that difficult. Me and the cat leaned a bunch of tricks to keep us both entertained.

As a result, I have had cats for going on three decades. The upside is I don’t have to worry about walking them so I can keep odd hours and go away for a few days without a problem. Shoveling litter is not much fun, but picking up dog crap is no better, so that’s a wash. Otherwise, cats are like any pet, in that they are what you make of them. I enjoy having pets so I invest in the cat and I get a decent return on the investment. That’s why you can tell a lot about someone by watching their pets.

Unlike dogs, cats have a greater range of behavioral traits. By that I mean a dachshund is going to be a dachshund. There are some quirks, but otherwise all dachshunds are the same. Cats, on the other hand, can have wildly different temperaments within the same littler, much less the same species. The most likely reason is humans have had less of a hand in developing the traits we associate with a cat’s personality. We literally created the dogs we have, but cats are more of an accident.

One thing I’ve noticed about the cats I’ve owned is they seem to create a mental model of their environment. Whenever I’ve moved, the first thing the cat would do is walk the perimeter of the new place. Not just the outer walls, but all of the furniture and closets too. Just for the hell of it, I have moved furniture around while the cat was locked in another room. Sure enough, he re-maps the room to account for the new arrangements. I suspect it is why they investigate every new box or parcel that comes home. It’s being inventoried.

Having a mental map of the territory would be a useful thing for a predator. Cat eyesight is not very good in the daylight. Their night vision is well known, but it is gray-scale and mostly for detecting movement. Having a mental model of the hunting grounds would be a low cost way for the animal to have an edge on its prey. It would also come in handy for detecting threats. Any change in the environment would be noticed and that would signal danger.

There’s research that the human mind creates a representation of the world which makes it easier for us to navigate. It’s sort of our own private matrix. This may be why we always feel at home back in the area where we were raised. That mental model of the world was imprinted on our minds and is never fully erased. The model could also allow us to delude ourselves in order to make life more bearable, by filtering out things that are particularly vexing.

The other thing I have noticed about cats over the years is they seem to have a linear memory. Hiding the mouse always results in the cat going from one place to the next in the order it found the mouse in previous games. The words “where’s your mouse” starts a process in which the cat starts at the first hiding spot, then the second and third and so on. That could be some sort of subtle training on my part, but maybe there’s something else. I’ve noticed this with multiple cats.

Humans do this to some extent when we lose something. We rewind our timeline and retrace our steps. It reduces the number of possible places to look to a manageable number. Perhaps a small predator like a cat does something similar to locate possible prey and water. There’s also the possibility that the cat is just trained to think this is a game. It does appear they are built to appeal to us in many subtle ways, so the cat could just be humoring me when I ask about the mouse.

Keeping any sort of animal in the house is a strange thing, when you stop and consider it. This is commonly explained on utilitarian grounds. Dogs make good hunting companions and good sentries. Cats keep rodent populations down. But, there’s something else. We make strong emotional bonds with our pets and anthropomorphize their behavior. Pets have no utilitarian value to modern people, but we have more of them than ever, spending billions on them.

It is another reminder that economic man is a nonsense idea made up by dull-witted people to make life seem simpler. We are motivated by more complex forces. Spiritual belief is one of modern man’s oldest traits, perhaps the oldest behavior trait. It most likely co-evolved with language. A desire to be on the right side of whatever it is behind the world has been at the heart of all of man’s endeavors. Our pets are most likely some part of that desire.

Now you have it, a post about cats and yes, it is an extended metaphor for something else. In America, Thanksgiving is upon us and I will be taking a much needed break from life’s travails. For those in the states, Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading. For my international readers, enjoy another day at the salt mine and thank you for reading.

38 thoughts on “A Post About Pussies

  1. I have a 106 lb Pointer dog and a seven pound cat. The cat is very clearly the boss, The cat is the one responsible for the perpetual lacerations on my left arm which is the one she attacks when she wants something.
    In the near future there’s a hundred mile car trip.

    I’ve pretty much always had bulldogs, the last one of which damn near killed me when I was walking down the stairs with a laundry basket and she decided she needed to get down first. Her center of gravity: the head of course, was exactly knee high from the stair above me so gravity was on her side.

    Three broken ribs and sundry relatively minor injuries too numerous to mention.

    She almost drowned me when she fell in the pool: all the swimming ability of a concrete block and I jumped in to save her. She thanked me by climbing up on my head as she desperately tried to get out and for a minute or so it was touch and go.

    As a kid we had a bulldog who, when a stranger came into the house would go and sit by the door.When the stranger rose to go, the dog would stand up. When the stranger sat down again, as they did, so would the dog.

    Breaking into our place was a breeze, breaking out was going to be a bitch,

    I still love them.

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  3. That is the best essay on cats that I’ve ever read.

    My son and his wife are in Israel. He texted me this morning saying “Happy Thanksgiving. Here it is just Thursday.”
    I like being thankful every day, wherever we are, for the blessings we have and the strength to deal with the rest.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and all of your followers, wherever they may be.

  4. Had a small silvery-gray Korat cat I paid actual money for,many years ago. They’re native to the Korat province of Thailand. He was with me for 18 years,the most dog-like cat I’ve ever known. He loved to play fetch with sponge-rubber balls,followed me everywhere,took an active interest in everything I was doing. His predatory instincts were razor sharp. I had the occasional gift of dead mouse left by the bedside,the buzzing live cicada he carried thru the house,but nothing matched the morning I felt the soft feel of his whiskers on my cheek,followed by an odd harsher scrape. Opened my eyes to my cat with a 3 1/2″ Palo Verde Beetle in his mouth,the 2″ moving antennae were tickling my nose. These beetles are not dangerous at all to humans,but they look like a 1950’s drive-in movie monster sitting on your pillow at too early AM. I did my first and last Olympian Gymnast vault from bed to the floor,where eventually my heart restarted and breathing resumed. Scooped cat up and raced outside where he continued his play with the unfortunate beetle. He was the best cat ever. Happy Thanksgiving Z Man,and Z World, We all have much to be thankful for.

  5. Love going back to the old neighborhood, but indeed, it’s not the same. Too many Blue voters from south of the border. Streets seem narrower than when I lived there, too.

    My wife and I just got our first pet about 10 weeks ago. We adopted a kitten from the local shelter, and she is a blast. I had a cat way back in the 80s/90s, but she was an outdoor kitty. This new one is purely indoors, and I have really bonded with her.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Z, and to all you commenters, too.

  6. I used to own a dog, but now I own cats. I love them both, but it is a very different experience. Cats are living proof that looks go a long way, because they’re amazingly petty and selfish, yet they get away with all of it simply by looking so adorable.

    My theory of cats and dogs: We love dogs because they seem to reflect our best qualities. We love cats because they reflect our worst qualities, but in a cute and cuddly way, which allows us to laugh at ourselves.

  7. Enjoy your R&R. The air is electric with change, and dare I say, hope. Come back refreshed and loaded for bear.
    Happiest of thanksgivings to you and your readers.

  8. A cat from a “feral” litter in a junk car literally fell in my lap in the spring of 1995. My dad pulled it out of the litter prematurely (hips hadn’t formed, clumsy at first) for my kid cousins. My aunt and uncle didn’t want an animal in the house, so it ended with me.

    That thing was so friendly, it was like a little puppy dog and it was the greatest cat you could ever have. It started purring the second you picked it up. While working in the yard, it would sit and hang out with me to watch what I was doing. While putting things in the garbage can, it followed me. When I chatted with neighbors, it always came around to see what was going on. For some reason, he got a kick out of me coming him with a leaf rake.

    He did two funny things. When it would get stuck out in the rain and I would call for it after the rain let up. He would run to the door and had this special meow that sounded like an old man bitching about something. It sounded like he was trying to say, “Don’t you know to let me in when it starts raining, you dumbass?” The other funny thing was he would hide in the bushes and the minute I would come around the corner he would jump out, try to grab my leg and then run away. The way he spread out his two front paws was like someone at Halloween saying “BOO!”

    I know I sound like a retarded person or someone with the mind of a child going on about my cat, but he lived to 19 and I was really attached to that guy. When we had to put him down, I refused to cremate him. I buried him in the back yard — by where I keep the garbage can, of course — since he liked to follow me there. I still miss the little critter.

    • Doesn’t sound retarded to me at all. Some animals have such personalities, they really do seem to be like a person. I had a cat that we used to say was an alien visitor from outer space. Very chatty, like your old cat. He had a stroke, but I shared my prednisone with him and kept him going another year. He died in the kitchen on Christmas Day, three years ago and I believe that he waited for me before he went. Sometimes it seems like there’s this little black and white ghost in the kitchen.

  9. Happy Thanksgiving to the Zman, the Z commenters, and the Z lurkers.

    That’s your best punning headline since the one about Hope Solo and the U.S. Women’s Soccer team.

    I enjoyed your observations about cats. Contra to the “man has no free will and is nothing but a moist robot” crowd, it has always seemed obvious to me that we do our reasoning in the more ancient parts of our brains. The neo-cortex is there mostly to explain to other hairless apes what the rest of the brain decided.

  10. Happy thanksgiving to all! I freely admit that I can’t function without the affection of my West Highland terrier, who also does a great job of guarding the place….

  11. I’ve had a lot of cats. I currently have six. Most cats have predictable behavior like you’ve mentioned. They come to me to be petted and fed. I have a 15 year old Russian Blue cross that truly thinks I’m his mama. He is affectionate in the way that my dogs are. Will be hard to deal with when he finally passes on.

    Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

    • Happy Thanksgiving Day to all from the Southern Cone!

      I have three dogs, all of which are “outside” dogs on a 3-acre plot on a country lane, but the 15 year old terrier is now an inside dog at night. She likes to sleep in my big, comfy club chair, which I cover with an old moving company furniture pad, but she can no longer jump up on it, so I have to hoist her up. I sympathize with your feelings, because when I come downstairs in the morning, my first thought is invariably “Is this the morning?”

  12. ” Pets have no utilitarian value to modern people, . . . ”

    Which is why I don’t have any. If you find satisfaction in having pets, excellent. They have no value to me. Guitars I can play. The wife won’t let me buy anymore. 🙂

    ” This may be why we always feel at home back in the area where we were raised. ”

    What do we do when it is gone? The house was torn down long ago; the land is in the middle of a subdivision. The main highway in town is now 4 lane, with many businesses, where it was two then and forested. Not that it matters. I have long since moved on.

    All of you have a Happy Thanksgiving.

    • My childhood home and neighborhood has changed significantly as well. And good riddance to the area, as far as my personal preferences are concerned. (Was it always a wanna-be middle class boulevard of broken dreams?). But I was driving through there on my way to somewhere else the other evening, and still felt a frisson of sorts, a bit of the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I also found that I was instinctively negotiating a whole new series of roads and intersections very successfully, based on my childhood and young adult knowledge of how the area “works” and the traffic flows. You can’t go home again, but the area resonates.

  13. The thing about cats is that they are always acting solely in their own best interest at all times, unlike dogs who seem to have more give and take. Their perceived place in the social hierarchy induces dogs to be generous and defer to others at times.

    Back to cats, as they only act solely in their own best interest, it is quite useful to learn how to bend the cat to your will by aligning their interests with your own. This skill can be used in human relationships as well, and our new national leader seems to be very good at it.

    Happy T-day!

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  15. Best Thanksgiving wishes to you as well. And thanks for thinking and insights this tired old man would never have had.

  16. Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for not saying “Happy turkey day.” The difference is the same as when someone says “Happy fourth.” So something is wrong with third or fifth? That summer day of celebration is Independence Day. End of rant. Out.

  17. Homo economicus is not nonsense. To the contrary it is a very useful and productive model. But it is a model, that is, a simplification. John Stuart Mill may have been a lot of things, but I don’t think “dull-witted” is among them.

    • He was a savant. What is the word you heat most often before “savant”? And his girlfriend led him around by the nose.

  18. From across the Atlantic, my best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving, Z-Man, and thanks for your stimulating blogging!

    As to our domestic fauna, I’ll always remain firmly in the dog camp. Wimmins are trouble enough for me, a cat would overtax my psych resources.

  19. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. Blaise Pascal

    Happy Thanksgiving Z, and to your commenters as well, distinguished men and women all.

  20. Ever since seeing those images patched up from cat neurons of what humans look like through their eyes, I’ve never been able to shake a sense of how alien cats are. There’s no cure for the anthropomorphic like seeing the felimorphic, as it were: I imagine that our neural impression of the cat is at least as falsely humanized as vice versa. Gives me the creeps, it does.

    Likely the same is true of dogs, but they’ve been with us so much longer (and played such a larger role in our evolution into what we are today) that it’s harder to mind. The Egyptians may have mummified cats, but they also mummified crocodiles–but there’s something touching about the skeletal remains of Paleolithic dogs, still provisioned for the afterlife with the bones of animals that were extinct long ages before the cat deigned to live with us.

    And yes, this response is also a metaphor. Not the part about the dogs, mind you. There’s no point of similarity there.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  21. Ya got me! I was expecting a good ‘ol rant about the left pajama boys or the stiff cucks who pretend to have a pair.

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving and I am grateful to have your work to read. Blog on!

    • And I was hoping someone would play ball on the alliteration. My guess is it is indeed about pussies, them being our betters, who show what they’re made of in light of the dysfunction of the errand boys and girls they keep.

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