What is your cat trying to tell you?
Edel Coffey talks to a pet behaviourist to find out what her feline friend Rambo is really feeling
There's a hoary old divider that separates pet owners into two groups – you're either a cat person or a dog person. If you're the latter, you're considered a confident, upstanding member of society who conforms to acceptable behavioural norms. What's not to love about dogs? They're friendly, loyal, clever and selfless. (When is the last time you saw a sniffer-cat fighting crime at the airport?)
If you're a cat person, you're considered, well, a little bit shady. There's a suspicion that your house might smell and if you were to sit down on any soft furnishings you might stand up covered in hair. If you're a single woman of a certain age with a cat, well, you might as well dress it in a BabyGro and push it around in a buggy, because that's what people suspect you do behind closed doors.
Being a cat lover is like having a guilty secret. When I was dating, I was careful never to mention my cats. My phone's photo album, packed with cute pictures of Rambo and Uma doing super-cute things like balancing on door frames and reading books, was closely guarded. Invitations to my flat were not extended. It was like living a double life.
Imagine what kind of reaction Dr Sandra McCune must get. She has a cat called Captain Adorable The Mittenator (or 'Mittens' for short) and a PhD in cat behaviour. Raised in Templeogue, Dublin, she is now a Whiskas Cat Behaviourist for the WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition.
When I mention the crazy cat lady tag, she laughs and says there's some solid research behind the gender divide.
"Cats do behave differently with men and women. If you look at a cat and who it approaches, what you'll find is they're much more likely to approach women than men. The reason for that is that men are more likely to go over to the cat and introduce themselves and initiate the contact, and the cat backs off, whereas women are more likely to get down to their level and wait for them to come over."
I was six years old when I got my first cat. My chances weren't good. My father thought animals belonged outdoors and my mother had a gruesome childhood encounter with a cat that had left her with a feline phobia. Somehow, they agreed to let me have a kitten. I got him on the day of my First Holy Communion, which made me an incongruous bride of Christ, with my black kitten, like a witch's familiar, by my side.
He became my best friend. Every day before I went to school, I popped him into my doll's pram, where he slept until I came home from school. From time to time, I even dressed him up in my doll's clothes. Inevitably, one evening he tired of this drag routine and fled to the garden shed roof. A neighbour called the house, slightly shaken, to tell my mother, "I think there's a cat in a dress in your back garden."
Throughout my 20s I had another black cat. Sparky was one of those cats that made me understand why some people are creeped out by cats. She would walk into a room, stare at each person individually with such menace it seemed she was pondering which one of us to kill first. If she was ignored for too long, she would methodically bat items off the mantlepiece or coffee table while steadily holding your gaze.
Dr McCune says our ideas about cats and dogs – i.e. that dogs are loyal and loving and cats are aloof and self-centred –say more about us than they do about the animals themselves. Cats are naturally independent but, just like dogs, they still share a very special bond with their owners.
"Cats are much more flexible, which is one of the reasons they're everywhere in the world except for the poles and a couple of islands," says McCune.
"They survive everywhere, even when we don't feed them. Because they have now come to live with us they now have this need for love and care. What's interesting is a lot of the behaviour that they show us is basically behaviour that mums show to their kittens and in a sense we've hijacked that in our relationship.
"When they purr and knead and drool, it's all what they would have done with their mum, much the way older kids will have a teddy bear from their childhood because it reminds them of that safe time."
My current cat, Rambo, came into my life nearly five years ago, when I adopted him and his sister, Uma, from the pound. Since his sister died, he has become a much more needy cat, wanting more company and attention.
"What he's showing is really normal behaviour in cats," says Dr McCune. "He's crying out to make social contact, missing her, looking to replace her with you."
He's also an indoor cat and so needs a lot of stimulation. McCune says, "If you've got an indoor cat, what are the things they're motivated to do? Food is a huge part of that motivation. With dry food, you can mess about with how you feed them, like hiding the food or putting it up high or in little devices that they can roll around and release a kibble of food."
I've since bought Rambo a food puzzle that he now spends most of his waking hours with, so it turns out he's very food-motivated (just like his owner).
Even with the traumas he's been through as a rescue cat, Rambo is still one of the most calm, affectionate and friendly cats I've ever known. When I arrive home from work, he's waiting in the window to greet me and immediately tries to herd me on to the couch, where he plans to spend the evening with me. He'll butt his head in to my face and attempt to nibble at my ears. It's a real love thing.
He is the first friendly face I talk to most mornings – that's right, I talk to him and he communicates with me as best he can. I'll even sing to him what has become his theme tune – a variation of Glen Campbell's 'Galveston', with the word 'Ramblington' substituted for the Texan city.
I'm not so worried about the crazy cat lady tag. I figure it's worth it for the laughter and love that Rambo brings into my life every single day. And, after all, I am a little bit crazy about him.