Strong and Sensitive Cats

The cat is surely America’s favorite domestic animal, but remarkably little is known about its inner world. The author describes two important traits of cats: their highly developed sense organs and the fact that they are social creatures rather than solitaries

by ELIZABETH MARSHALL THOMAS

POUND for pound, cats are by far the strongest animals many of us ever encounter. When my husband and I recently tried to wash our cat Rajah, for example, our combined strength was required just to keep him in the washbasin, and we could have used a third person to put on the soap. All we had sought to do was to rid this cat of fleas, but both of us got badly scratched in the process, and the bathroom got drenched from ceiling to floor. In the confusion the poor cat escaped and dried himself off, and he had nothing to do with us for days thereafter.

When one projects the strength of that seven-pound cat into a 700-pound tiger, one gets some idea of the animal’s might. So we may be grateful that tigers bathe themselves—or so says the science writer Sy Montgomery.

Cat sense organs, too, are developed to a degree that we may find hard to imagine. Cats have six senses—or more if, as some believe, they also have psychic powers. They have whiskers, teeth, and skin to provide the sense of touch; eyes, ears, and nose for sight, sound, and smell; the tongue for taste; and a nearly invisible system known as the vomeronasal organ in the upper gum and palate, for detecting the presence of certain chemicals in the environment. Among other signals picked up by the vomeronasal organ are estrus pheromones.

Of all the senses, this sixth sense is the least understood. Sea mammals and the higher primates were thought until recently to be the only mammals in which it was missing, although some of the higher primates, including human beings, were thought to have it vestigially. In the past few years, however, researchers have discovered that the vomeronasal organ in human beings is functional after all. Exactly what purpose the organ serves has yet to be learned.

To use the organ, an animal stretches its mouth to expose the vomeronasal pores in an act known as “flehmening” or “doing flehmen.” A tiger doing flehmen grins a terrible grin that stretches out its tongue. A house cat makes a tight little smile, with its front teeth covered by its upper lip, which is stretched tight. Cats often do flehmen when they encounter the urine sprays of other cats. Our cat Lilac, the mother of our hunting house cat Rajah, slowly and deliberately does flehmen when she encounters a glass of white wine. Other cats scratch dirt over wine and beer, as if covering pools of urine. Who knows why? Probably the answer lies in the chemical properties of alcohol. In any event, most if not all tiger trainers stay away from strong drink before a training session or a performance. Tigers are said to dislike the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath so deeply that, given the opportunity, they will shred the drinker. (Even were this not the case, who would have the nerve to spend time with a tiger while drunk?)

Perhaps a cat’s most important sense is sight. To understand its impact, one might contrast the way dogs and cats respond to films and television. Many dogs seem aware that what appears on a movie screen is unreal, yet some dogs respond anyway—often to sound, particularly the sound of other dogs barking, but sometimes to the image as well. Usually naive dogs do this. Once, a sled dog named Koki, who began life on the end of a chain in a village in northern Canada, reacted with restrained excitement to the image of a deer in someone’s home movie. She leaped eagerly into a chair to see the screen better, but soon realized that whatever she was looking at was an illusion, and quietly got down. On another occasion, when a television set was placed on the floor, a young female dingo named Viva became greatly taken with an ad for pet food in which a little team of horses ran through a room and disappeared into a cupboard. Viva tore around the set to catch the horses when they ran out the back. But Koki and Viva were unusually gullible, probably because of Koki’s rustic origins and Viva’s youth. As a rule, not much experience is necessary for a dog to ignore television images. Koki soon realized her error, and young Viva, ashamed, was never fooled again, although I and other loudly laughing people tried everything we could think of to get her to repeat the mistake.

Dogs are not nearly so sophisticated about sounds. The bark of a dog on TV—not an uncommon occurrencecan usually start a viewing dog barking. The bark of a coyote on TV can put a viewing dog in orbit.

Just as dogs respond to the sounds of television, cats seem drawn to the flickering screen. At bedtime our three cats appear as if by prearrangement to lie at the foot of our bed and watch the evening news, like an audience in the front row of a theater. Videos made especially for cats are particularly popular with them. When Rajah was shown a cat video of fluttering birds, he couldn’t get enough of it. He sat squarely in front of the screen, his eyes huge, his whiskers straining. Every now and then the image would prove too much for him, and he’d fling himself against the glass, only to drop to the floor. Reality. At that point he might leave the room for a while, but then he would quietly return to the enthralling spectacle. He soon learned to recognize the soundtrack, and the twittering on it would draw him from elsewhere in the house. At the time of this writing Rajah still watches the cat video, even though he knows it’s an illusion, and his excitement remains nearly as strong as it was the first time.

Christmas, our third cat, watches the same video. Now and then she leaps at the screen, and so involved is she with the images that sometimes after leaping she will back up, looking down at herself: she believes she has caught the bird but has lost it again, and is checking to see if it has escaped by going underneath her, as mice sometimes do.

SOME people might offer the anecdote of these cats and their video as evidence of cat stupidity. Not so. The anecdote merely illustrates the nature of a cat’s hunting instinct. And if cats are proved stupid by having such an instinct, why, then so are we. One of the most important observations I’ve ever encountered concerned the human hunting instinct and was made by Ken Jafek, a hunter and professional outfitter in Malta, Idaho. Jafek said that the intense excitement that accompanies the sighting of a wild animal does not diminish with repetition or with familiarity or with time. Although Jafek is now a grandfather, he gets the same rush when he spots a deer (or other wild animal) as he did when he was a youngster, although in his capacity as a guide and a hunter he has by now encountered wild animals thousands of times. I’m sure this important reflex is found in many of us. It certainly is in me. And here we share something with the cat tribe: the stimulus to our hunting instinct is visual.

A cat’s sense of smell, in contrast, seems to have relatively little importance as a hunting tool, but is more than useful as a way of learning about other cats. Unlike most hunters, including wolves and human beings, the big cats (those whose habits are known) appear to ignore the wind when hunting, even though they surely know of their own strong personal odor. A cat is just as apt to stalk its prey upwind as down, not always to its advantage.

A cat’s lack of response to airborne scent is particularly interesting in light of the fact that cats use their sense of smell to find things and to identify other animals. I watched a demonstration of the latter skill at our home, in New Hampshire, after an elephant and her trainer, who is an acquaintance of ours, had walked between our house and garage. Our cats had been locked up with the dogs in the detached, windowless garage while the elephant was present, and once they were released and were gladly making their way back to the house, they stopped dead at the elephant’s trail. Whoa! They didn’t know what the smell was—they had never seen or smelled an elephant—and they wanted to know. Hair bristling, they lingered long over the footprints, pressing their nostrils to the earth, audibly snuffling. The dogs, in contrast, ran right past the scent trail, much to my surprise. But then I realized that they would have caught whiffs of the elephant during their imprisonment, so the smell would not have come as a shock.

The animals’ respective reactions were as typical as they were informative. The dogs wanted most of all to join us, their social group, after having been kept from us while something as strange as an elephant was present, whereas the cats cared less about their group and more about their surroundings. They wanted to know what strange thing had visited their home. Furthermore, if the dogs had caught the scent before the cats did, I take that not as evidence of cats’ lesser ability but rather as a sign that they do not give airborne odors the same credit that dogs do. Every year at Christmas these same cats use olfaction to detect our family’s hidden hoard of Christmas presents, to find their own presents in the pile, and then to remove and open those packages. Our cats are never wrong; they open only their own presents and no others. Obvious? Not really. Why does a cat who can find catnip not search for odors in the wind ? I think that cats experience odors as pools—not as trails, the way dogs do. A kitten finds his mother by entering the pool of her scent, and then finds his own personal nipple by sniffing through the fur of her belly. What this must mean to a cat is suggested, I believe, by the preference cats show for their owners’ clothes. To lie on one’s owner’s sweater, in a cloud of one’s owner’s scent, must awaken secure and pleasant feelings.

Intraspecies communication is probably the most important function of cats’ sense of smell. Cats evidently have tiny scent glands on their faces— on their lips, chins, and cheeks, and at the base of their whiskers—which they rub on us, on each other, and even on objects, mixing their odors with the odors of others in a gesture of unity and bonding. Similarly, cats have scent glands on their backs at the roots of their tails, with which they perfume other, familiar cats and objects in and around their homes. When a cat arches its back and rubs against you, it is probably marking you with this friendly odor. Cats also have glands between the toes and inside the anus which leave secretions that may carry a hostile message. Cats bury their feces when at home, perhaps to mute the message. But when far from home cats purposely leave scat on top of rocks or hills or in other conspicuous, windswept locations for the information of other cats. Thus scent can serve as a Keep Out sign.

The entire face of a cat, including the lips, the fine hairs inside the ears, the tips of the whiskers, and perhaps even the surface of the eyes, is an area of extreme sensitivity, perhaps enabling a function like the “facial vision” of blind people. As a cat walks, its whiskers point forward—forward and down if it is calm, forward and up if it is anxious or excited. A circus tiger often enters the ring wide-eyed and with his whiskers pointed far forward, as if unsure of what will meet him as he emerges from the chute. Usually the cause of concern is another tiger already in the ring. If the newcomer reaches his seat unmolested, he may feel more confident, and will await his first cue calmly, with his whiskers to the sides. If his trainer then comes to speak to him, or if he happens to be seated beside a tiger whom he likes and who likes him, he may chuff and bow his head in greeting, with his whiskers flat against his cheeks. But if he is then expected to do a trick that’s difficult for him, his whiskers will come forward as he gathers himself to perform. Human beings can replicate these emotions by moving the skin around their mouths in a comparable manner: pursing their lips when unsure (an act that, if we had feline whiskers, would push them forward) and blandly smiling when serene (to lay the whiskers back against the cheeks).

Using his face and all its senses, a hunting cat keeps his whiskers forward, his lips very slightly parted, his ears up, and his eyes very wide. Even his eyeteeth are fitted with nerves, making the tips of the teeth highly sensitive, so that when the cat grabs his prey by the neck and bites down, his eyeteeth feel his victim’s vertebrae and find spaces between the bones where he can cut through the spinal cord. The cat may then shroud his victim with his whiskers to learn through them whether any vibration remains in the victim—in other words, to learn if it’s still living. Usually cats don’t start eating until their prey is dead. Perhaps through his sensitive whiskers a cat learns the moment when eating may begin.

ALTHOUGH cats are no less social than many other species, we tend to think of them as solitaries, probably because whenever we see a cat he is physically far enough away from the other members of his group to seem alone. Celebrating the concept of cats as solitaries, Rudyard Kipling described the cat who walked by himself, waving his wild tail in the wet wild woods. In fact, however, cats are highly social. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t need scent glands and their vast repertoire of vocalizations and tail and body postures, which convey an almost unlimited number of emotional impressions to other cats. Nor would they need their highly mobile facial skin—their delicately muscled ears, eyelids, lips, and cheeks—and their whiskers to produce a wide variety of changing facial expressions. The faces of cats are more mobile than dogs’ faces or even our faces. Less social mammals don’t need facial expressions, and hence their faces seem comparatively stiff.

The importance of facial expression in cats was dramatically illustrated by our cats after one my husband and I used to have, our beautiful white Aasa, went blind. We had no idea that anything was the matter with this cat. Her blindness was caused by an inherited condition that we were unaware of, and that had come on gradually. Because Aasa had known our house and its surrounding land from childhood, she managed to get around almost perfectly even after she became blind, so that we noticed only that she seemed very quiet and subdued, that she had developed a strange way of getting onto a bed (never jumping, but reaching with her paw and feeling the surface before clambering up), and that fewer little corpses of mice and birds were being brought into the house.

But the other cats noticed big differences. Perhaps the most important was Aasa’s response to them. She had no way of knowing they were looking at her, and therefore failed to respond to them appropriately, which to them was inflammatory behavior, and only made them try to get at her all the more. We weren’t able to discover which of her mistakes brought on the attacks, but my guess is that Aasa, a junior female in our household’s cat group, didn’t realize when a senior cat was looking at her. She couldn’t meet the other cat’s eyes, nor could she avert her own eyes, a very important social requirement for lowerranking cats. Nor could she solicit affectionate rubbing—another feline gaffe. The other cats must have had a cats’ version of the idea that Aasa was deliberately trying to frustrate them, something that a normal cat would never do. Even to us, that she felt a surface before jumping up onto it was eerie, disconcerting, perhaps because she seemed to do it stealthily, without looking at us and without changing her facial expression even when we were right there watching her. Undoubtedly, her failure to do the right thing at the right time provoked the other cats very deeply, and caused them to persecute her. They seemed to be especially hard on her when we were away from home. We would return to find no sign of Aasa other than piles of white fur that the other cats had tom from her skin. After a long search we would find her hiding, usually in some dark comer of the basement. We would call her, and she would come partway toward us, moving very slowly, very carefully, particularly when crossing a part of the crawl space that contained a deep open well. Looking back, picturing where she would stand and how she would move in the crawl space, I can see that she remembered the well, and was being careful to stay far away from it.

Eventually we would catch her and carry her upstairs. Sometimes the other cats would then chase her, and in flight she would sometimes narrowly miss a doorway and run into the wall. We knew that something was terribly wrong, but we had no idea what. Before long we had to section off the house, putting Aasa in one part and the rest of the cats in the other. But still the other cats stalked her, peering at her through an interior screen door.

At last we decided to find her a new home. There her blindness was discovered by the wonderful, thoughtful people to whom we gave her—Peter Schweitzer and his late wife, Susanna, cat owners extraordinaire. So the strange persecution was finally explained. Aasa now knows her way around the Schweitzer house and is on good terms with an adolescent cat who also lives there and, being younger than the blind cat and her junior in the household, is in no position to take offense at any possible mistakes.

WHY don’t we recognize cat society? Probably because, at least superficially, it differs so greatly from our own. We recognize caste in dogs because we rank ourselves by the familiar dog system, a ladderlike social arrangement wherein one individual outranks all others, the next outranks all but the first, and so on down the hierarchy. But the cat system is more like a wheel, with a high-ranking cat at the hub and the others arranged around the rim, all reluctantly acknowledging the superiority of the despot but not necessarily measuring themselves against one another. Farm cats and cats of other closely knit groups usually seem egalitarian. But my impression is that they may actually have a cats’ version of the social ladder—not like that of dogs and people, with one individual per rung, but rather with several cats on each rung. Even then, the signs of hierarchy in cats are displayed so subtly that our poor powers of observation can barely detect them. A cat expresses soft, submissive feelings by lightly rubbing his face on the faces of those whom he would please: his feline superiors, or dogs, or his owner—anyone close who he feels is not a rival and who is above him socially. A vertical tail can be a sign of superiority in house cats, as is a tail curved up and over the back like a scorpion’s in leopards, tigers, and lions. A raised tail in a cat is not the same as a raised tail in a dog, however. Among dogs the raised tail means higher rank, and thus when two dogs meet, Dog One raises his tail while Dog Two holds his tail low. When two cats meet, however, both may raise their tails, with Cat One raising his higher, perhaps because he feels more confidence. My cats usually go out into the fields with their tails low, and usually come home with their tails high—they are coming home to other cats, and to the dogs and human members of the family.

In a delightful encounter last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a certain cat who had been hunting birds in the bushes of Harvard Yard noticed me watching him, gave up his hunt, backed out of the bushes, and purposefully strode right toward me, lifting his tail to the sky and his gaze to mine as he drew near. As our eyes met, he meowed once and kept on going. You have disturbed me, so I’m leaving this place, his gesture said. But since you are a human being, I’ll greet you anyway. Hello. Sometimes, though, the tail shows nothing. Two cats simply eye each other, and both know who is who.

If the social order of cats differs from ours, so does the social behavior. Here again, human beings are more like the dog family, whose social inclinations we have no trouble recognizing. To illustrate the difference I offer my own three dogs and three cats, who are unusually compatible by virtue of long acquaintance, and who each morning choose to follow me to my office in our detached garage. I don’t ask them to come with me, and I don’t feed them when I get there; they are free to come and go by way of many animal doors. In short, I offer no incentive other than my company. When I start for my office, the dogs crowd out the kitchen door with me, squeezing past my legs and almost upsetting me, never bothering with a nearby animal door, because in the morning they are feeling sociable and want to be close. Meanwhile, nothing is seen of the cats. However, by the time the dogs and I are halfway to my office, we notice that the cats are also outdoors and heading in the same direction. On we go, the dogs and I exchanging looks and touches, while the cats apparently ignore us and each other. But soon after the dogs and I are inside the office, the cats materialize there, too, just as interested in being together as the dogs are, but expressing themselves in a different way.

Cats, I surmise, seem unsocial to us only because we aren’t good at recognizing the signals of other species. We interpret cat signals as telling us, for instance, that the cat doesn’t care about us and doesn’t miss us when we’re gone. If people were giving off similar signals, our interpretation would probably be right. But they’re not people, and we’re wrong. When my husband and I take a trip, we leave the cats in the house with plenty of food and water. We take the dogs to a kennel, but the cats may not know that, since we drop the dogs off on the way to the airport. As far as the cats are concerned, we and the dogs depart together, leaving the cats at home. And evidently the cats mind this.

No wonder. The cats depend on us and the dogs, whether they show it plainly or not. When thunderstorms gather, for example, the cats come indoors to be with me or my husband. If neither of us is at home, the cats stay with the dogs, preferably with my husband’s dog, Sundog, who is Dog One in our family. Even though Sundog doesn’t like the cats, they look up to him, believing that when cosmic troubles threaten, he’ll know what to do. Thus they feel truly abandoned when we go away, taking Sundog and the other dogs but leaving them alone in the house. As we leave, they retire to the upstairs rooms to lie on the beds, tails tucked and paws neatly folded, where they become unresponsive, a demeanor that resembles human pouting or sulking and may be an emotional withdrawal from an unpleasant situation. If called, they won’t answer and won’t come.

But when we return, they have heard the car and are waiting at the door, tails high, to curl themselves around our feet and lift themselves to brush lips with the dogs (but not always with Sundog, who keeps them at a distance by showing them the tip of an eyetooth and watching them out of the corner of his eye).

I once watched a group of four male cheetahs crossing an African plain, not one behind the other, in the way of most land mammals, but scattered like crows about fifty feet apart, each Ending his own way. These cheetahs had formed an alliance to own a tract of land, and therefore I felt—enclosed as I am in primate sensibility—that they ought to glance at one another every once in a while. In a similar situation we primates would glance at one another, perhaps to see if our companions were in agreement as to where to go next, or perhaps merely to reaffirm our bonds. Dogs, too, would glance at one another. But cheetahs evidently don’t feel the need. With their chins high and their half-shut eyes looking at the hills, the woods, the sky, the horizon—anywhere but at their companions—they slouched along in seeming bland oblivion. My first impression, stupid as it now seems, was that none of them realized that the others were there. When, as if by chance, they all reached the edge of the plain together, each chose his own path as they sauntered off among the trees.

As for Kipling’s cat, being of the same cattish mind-set as the cheetahs, he probably never thought he was walking by himself. More likely he thought he was walking with Kipling and, waving his tail aloft as a beacon, was probably trying to lead the author out of the wet wild woods.