Book Review: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw
John W.S. Bradshaw, PhD, has been studying the behavior of cats and dogs and their people for over 25 years. In this book, he seeks to present the biology behind the modern domestic cat in the hopes of helping their humans understand them better. He also presents theories about the possible future of cats and suggestions as to how to direct that the best way possible for better human/cat relationships.
I picked this book up because I wanted to understand my adorable talkative tortie fluffball, Ayla, better. I certainly learned a few things about cats that I found useful in relating to my own, but I also learned a lot about the genetics of cats (not sure I really wanted to learn that), the history of human treatment of them, and theories on their future evolution.
The book is divided into 11 chapters, which could be casually grouped into the following general themes:
- the genetic and biological history of the cat or just how did we end up with a domesticated tiger anyway
- how the domestic cat thinks and feels or yes scientists are now proving that cats actually have feelings although maybe not quite to the extent that their most loving owners believe
- how cats relate to each other or cats hate other cats except for random kittens that are dropped into their nest or possibly other females from their own family
- how cats relate to people or cats think you are a giant mother cat who is possibly superior (possibly)
- how cats relate to wildlife or no cats aren’t destroying your precious birds you overly upset cat-haters (um except for possibly the wildlife on small islands but the invasive rats are actually worse and cats hunt them so there)
- the potential future of the cat or for the love of god stop spaying and neutering the bestest most loving kitties in the world and only allowing the anti-social ferals to breed.
Obviously this is a lot of ground, so I’m only going to touch on each one briefly. First though, just let me mention that the author is both a renowned expert in this science (the science of cats), and his book also features extensive references. This is thus a trustworthy source, however, potential readers should be aware that the author (just as every author) has biases, and Bradshaw’s are fairly clear in the book. The man clearly adores cats, and thus sometimes may sway a bit to the side of positive representations of cats and optimistic beliefs about the extent of their feelings and internal lives. Now, I love cats too, so that didn’t bother me in the least, but a reader just looking at the science should note this bias. Additionally, some of the studies he cites for his findings were quite small (under 100 participants, in one case, only 8 cats were tested). Studies this small show definite room for further research. Additionally, all of the cat studies he himself has conducted were in Great Britain, so cultural biases and differences in how cats and people interact should be considered when thinking about how he analyzes cat/human interaction and behavior.
The section about the history of the domestication of the cat and the genetics of the cat is, honestly, a bit of a heavy place to start for the average person just looking to get along with their cat better. There are sentences that go far more in-depth into the genetics of a cat than I really ever cared to know. Given that this book is marketed toward the average cat owner, it may have been better to dial down the genetic information just a bit to make it easier and also speedier to read in the lead-in into the more modernly relevant information. The most interesting things I learned in this section were that domestication of the cat happened in multiple different times and places, meaning multiple cultures saw the potential of the cat and domesticated them (loc 267). There is Egyptian temple art of cats sitting in baskets (loc 634), something I found to be pretty adorable. The genetics of just how we wind up with torties, which I admit to only being interested in because my own cat is a tortie:
If a cat carries one orange and one brown version of the gene, then both appear in the coat, in random patches: in one part of the skin, the chromosome with the orange version has been switched on, and in another it is it eh brown-black pattern that “wins,” producing a tortoiseshell-tabby (or “torbie”) cat. (loc 772)
If you found that quote a bit tedious to read, just bare in mind that that is the most interesting to me of the genetics information in this section. The cat is a “hypercarnivore” (loc 1176), meaning that unlike the dog, it has lost the ability to live on plants. Cats, unlike dogs, must eat meat. I also finally learned why I shouldn’t worry too much if my cat doesn’t drink very much water:
Cats do have two notable nutritional advantages over humans. First, their kidneys are very efficient, as expected for an animal whose ancestors lived on the edge of deserts, and many cats drink little water, getting all the moisture they need from the meat they eat. Second, cats do not require vitamin C. Taken together, these make cats well suited to shipboard life: they don’t compete with sailors for precious drinking water, getting all they need from the mice they catch, and they are not afflicted by scurvy. (loc 1192)
The next four sections often blurred together, since how a cat thinks and feels directly relates to how cats relate to each other, humans, and wildlife.
Cats can develop a cat form of PTSD if they are abandoned by their mothers early in life:
Kittens that are abandoned by their mothers and are then hand-raised can become excessively attention seeking toward their first owners, though some subsequently seem to “grow out of” this. Based on what we know about other mammals in similar situations, we can assume that after the mother’s departure, the kittens’ brains endure high levels of stress hormones. These consistently high levels cause permanent changes in their developing brains and stress hormone systems, such that they may overreact to unsettling events later in life. (loc 1371)
I found this particularly interesting, since I know my cat was abandoned by her first owners in their apartment when they moved away, and it took weeks for anyone to find her. I’ve often suspected my cat has some form of kitty PTSD, and I think this scientific information would support that, although the specific type of abandonment was different.
Cats can’t focus on anything closer than a foot from their nose. Your cat is not being stupid when it can’t spot a piece of food on the floor, she really can’t see it. It helps to move it around or tap the floor next to it, to get the cat to sniff that area. (loc 1644)
This section also addresses why cats are harder to train than dogs:
Cats are much more difficult to train than dogs are for at least three reasons. First, their behavior shows less intrinsic variety than that of dogs, so there is less raw material with which to work….Second, and perhaps most important, cats are less naturally attentive toward people than dogs are….Third, although dogs are powerfully rewarded by simple physical contact from their owner, few cats are. (loc 2086)
It goes on to explain how to do basic training with your cat, adapted to cats’ specific needs, primarily using a clicker (a device that makes a noise).
Feral cats have shown us that cat society is a matriarchy, with the females of the family sticking together and the toms getting booted out to go roam and make more kittens, although there are certain scenarios in which toms are tolerated living in close proximity, generally in a situation where the tom is valuable for protection of the kittens if the space is at a premium. (loc 2426)
In spite of the ability of feral cats to live in matriarchies, cats are not well-suited for a bunch of unrelated and gender-mixed cats living in one small space. Cats generally don’t like most other cats, and Bradshaw talks some about how forcing cats to live with other cats they are not related to or don’t particularly like can put undue stress on the cats.
Cats appear to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships, even when all their neighbors are close relatives. (loc 2438)
However, the bond the cat feels with its immediate family is strong, and scientists believe they extend that bond to their owners, who they perceive of as being a sort of mother cat. (loc 3080) This section also offers potential reasons for why a cat may purr or lick their owner, but there is no definitive scientific answer yet. It is also noted that cat personalities are the result of a mix of nature and nurture, and affectionate owners tend to have affectionate cats but whether they pick out affectionate cats or cats become affectionate in response to the owner is uncertain.
Bradshaw then addresses the concern some groups have that domestic cats are hurting native wildlife populations, particularly birds. It’s clear that Bradshaw believes that this is mostly a bunch of hokum created by cat-haters as a way to get rid of cats. This is potentially true, and Bradshaw does cite some good studies about the actual impact cats have on wildlife (very small, and in some cases, helpful since they eat the invasive predator of a native species). However, it is difficult to believe everything he cites, since his bias in favor of cats is so clear, and I am saying this as a cat-lover myself. I would find it more useful for his evidence to be presented in a more balanced fashion, as I would then feel more confident citing it to people who are concerned about cat impact on wildlife.
Finally, Bradshaw looks at the potential future of the cat. He is clearly quite concerned that our current method of neutering pet cats will hurt future cats.
Because neutering inevitably targets those cats that are being best cared for, it must logically hand the reproductive advantage to those cats that are least attached to people, many of which are genetically predisposed to remain unsocialized. We must consider the long-term effects of neutering carefully: for example, it might be better for the cats of the future as a whole if neutering programs were targeted more at ferals, which are both the unfriendliest cats and also those most likely to damage wildlife populations. (loc 4039)
I found this argument to be quite moving and logical. Bradshaw suggests both that owners might let their pet cats breed once before neutering/spaying them and also that breeders could begin to work at breeding pet cats with an eye on personality rather than looks. He also suggests focusing spay/neuter programs on feral populations. This is definitely food for thought, and I certainly will consider letting a future pet cat have a litter of kittens.
Bradshaw ends his book with this statement:
Cats need our understanding–both as individual animals that need our help to adjust to our ever-increasing demands, and also as a species that is still in transition between the wild and the truly domestic. If we can agree to support them in both these ways, cats will be assured a future in which they are not only popular and populous, but are also more relaxed, and affectionate, than they are today. (loc 4072)
A good summary of the overall themes of the book.
Overall, this book will definitely teach cat owners and lovers some new things both about the science of cats and cat behaviors. Sometimes the science can veer a bit too in-depth for the audience of the book, and also sometimes the author’s love of cats can make him seem a bit biased in favor of them. However, readers who are willing to skim over the science that they are not so into will still be able to gleam lots of information from this book that will be directly helpful to them with their pet cats. Also, this audience probably won’t mind the love of cats bias in the science. 😉
4 out of 5 stars