Wednesday 23 October 2019

Feline vindicated: I always knew that my cats loved me

A study confirms what cat-owners long suspected;their moggies are every bit as affectionate as canine companions, writes Barbara Scully

Purr-fect pets: Barbara Scully with Diego. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Purr-fect pets: Barbara Scully with Diego. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Barbara Scully

I love it when academics and scientists undertake studies into cats and come up with results that any cat person could have already told them, saving them the time and energy.

Back in 2013, the BBC broadcast a programme called The Secret Life of The Cat which promised to reveal a hidden feline world, about which we humans apparently knew little. There were cat scientists, a professor and a cast of 50 moggies who were GPS-tagged so that the team could monitor their movements from Cat HQ in the Village Hall. We learned that cats spend a lot of time asleep, like to go out, to have fights (which, to borrow a quote, “are full of sound and fury and signifying nothing” or very little anyway), to occasionally hunt, to eat the neighbour’s cat’s food and that they love looking out windows. I could have told the producers all that. Talk about an anti-climax.

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So, when I read that there was another study about cats published in the Journal of Current Biology, I was a little sceptical. This study conducted by researchers from Oregon State University in the US, demonstrates, apparently, that cats form emotional attachments to their caregivers; this is something called ‘secure attachment’ meaning that they like spending time with their particular human as it makes them feel secure, calm and comfortable. Sounds like marriage to me. Anyway, the authors said “we may be underestimating cats’ sociocognitive abilities.” Really? Who is underestimating cats? Not those of us who live with them, that’s for sure.

My family are on our second generation of cats, which is a lot of cats and each one has formed a special bond with one member of the clan. Currently, our oldest cat is Scooter who we initially fostered from the DSPCA. A lovely affectionate animal, he formed a close bond with my middle daughter. Diego is another male, who was found as a kitten on a motorway and is a laid-back cat with attitude. Rules are not for Diego who often joins us on (as opposed to at) the table at mealtimes. “Get off the table, Diego” will be greeted with an expression that says “you’re not my mom.” I don’t have favourites but if I did, Diego would be it. Then there’s Mabel, a small female cat who rushes about the house (she doesn’t like it outside so much) wearing a worried expression. I am sure she’s very concerned about climate change. But she finds her comfort in the arms of my youngest.

Then last summer we got Rio and a bomb exploded in our previously contented home. Rio has only three legs and from the get-go the boy cats hated her. In fact, Scooter and Diego got so cross they left home. We have introduced many new kittens into our household and although the resident cats are rarely delighted with this turn of events, they usually calm down with a week or so and all returns to normal. But not this time. Initially the lads came back for food but their anger was obvious and it was directed at me. I got no eye contact and got growled at if I picked them up. Increasingly they spent longer time away.

Diego adopted a family a few doors down but Scooter has put more distance between us and his new home so that we no longer see him. I have spent all summer trying to woo Diego back and it’s beginning to work.

Barbara and Rio. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Barbara and Rio. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

You may think that by sharing my tragic story of how I lost the ‘secure attachment’ of two of my kitties is proof positive that cats are fickle creatures who love only themselves. But in fact, it proves the opposite. Diego and Scooter are very unsure about what Rio is, possibly because she doesn’t move like a cat. And they are angry at me because I was the one who brought Rio home. Mabel is either much brighter than the lads or a bit dim but she wasn’t fazed. The lads however wouldn’t be so angry and hurt if they didn’t care in the first place.

My story also demonstrates cats’ confidence in their ability to survive. I could bring 25 three-legged dogs into my home and my old doggo wouldn’t ever think of moving out.

Dogs get all the good PR, being ‘man’s best friend’ and all that. Your dog is always delighted to see you and their constant need for praise and affection means that they are easy to train. So not only can they perform tricks on demand but they can also be trained to be hugely useful to people with disabilities and their sense of smell is very handy when looking for dead bodies or drugs.

Cats don’t really do any of that, although I do know of cases where they have been trained to use the toilet. But that’s because being very clean animals, they can see the benefit to themselves, saving them getting their paws mucky outside or full of kitty litter indoors. And that right there is what makes cats wonderful pets — they don’t need us. Not in the way dogs do.

I remember watching a documentary some years back that explored what would happen to a city if human inhabitants were erased from the place overnight. Dogs wouldn’t do so well but cats would generally be alright due to the fact that they can climb to escape danger and they have never become fully domesticated, retaining their ability to hunt.

So, when I come home after a busy or stressful day and my dog levitates in the pure joy of my returning presence, my cats will barely acknowledge my arrival. But it’s not that they don’t care, it’s because they don’t have to test my commitment to them by showering me with their affection.

But it’s later in the evening when I am on the sofa watching TV that one will come in and slowly make their way over to stretch out on my knee, purring softly and luxuriating in the comfort of home and their special person. They join me and purr not to make me happy but because they are happy and critically, because they want to. Here is a semi wild animal who is choosing to spend time with me. Being loved by my cat is a far greater compliment than my dog fawning all over me. Cats stay because they want to, not because they have to. As I mentioned already, it’s like marriage. What greater compliment is there? I ask my husband that all the time.

Irish Independent

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