Observing Cats I: Saying Goodbye

What are they thinking?
As John Bradshaw remarks in his book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, researching cats is a relatively new discipline. Dogs have been with us humans forever, living in our homes, guarding our property, organizing our sheep. But cats, even when domesticated, have lived parallel lives to humans (until recently). Scientific research and observation is being done even as I type--as are more popular forms of observation--but it is still relatively slim compared to the research and observation applied to dogs.

In the interests of science, therefore, I will being posting observations about my cats on occasion--especially since I already know far too much about their pee and poop habits! Although I am as capable of anthropomorphizing animals as anyone, I maintain that cats-be-cats, not humans in cat disguise. What I observe will not necessarily be a reflection of my state of mind.

Death and Cats

As Daniel Gilbert argues in Stumbling on Happiness, animals do not imagine the future (he then goes on to point on that although humans can and do, they aren't as good at it as they think they are). Animal behavior that appears to take the future into account actually comes from instinct and a kind of episodic memory bank (loud noises have occurred in this room: be careful!). But animals don't plan to become astronauts or imagine taking vacations. They don't even imagine what to do when YOU go on vacation.

Consequently, it is difficult to say (when humans are removed from the equation) whether animals really mourn each other (rather than just reflect their humans' emotions). When Aurora died, I was prepared for a few days of confusion on Bob's part, followed by complete indifference. I was sort of right. I was also sort of wrong.

To begin with, there is the issue of temperament. Max was a cat-who-thought-he-was-a-dog. When he got ill, his personality underwent a massive shift. Aurora--an older female cat with an aloof and self-sufficient temperament--ignored his decline. After he died, she adjusted almost immediately to his absence. She didn't go searching for him. Her routine didn't alter. And she took over the couch (the seat next to me in the living room).

Commemorative ornament.
On the other hand, when Aurora got ill, Bob--a 4-year-old of skittish habits who nonetheless likes to be around others--continued to associate with her. He would walk up to her and lick her forehead. He would look for her in the apartment. He would eat food alongside her. Although Aurora become very restless, her personality didn't alter substantially. Bob did not ignore her at any point.

When she died, Bob would go into the closet (where she liked to sleep), find her smell, leave the closet and go looking for her. After I vacuumed out the closet, Bob responded by staying under the bed (I didn't remove Aurora's smell/fur from there until a week later). He stopped going into the living room. The living room has always made him nervous (open windows: truck noises!); still, he had spent time in the living room when Aurora was alive.

Although I continued to get weepy (and still do), Bob adjusted to Aurora's death within three days (I am opposed to humans insisting that their animals mourn with them, so he got no pressure from me one way or the other). He no longer searched for her. He returned to the living room (helped by me shutting the windows, eliminating the scary truck sounds). And he took over the chair (the seat next to me in the living room).

Three days later than his adjustment, I thought I would lose my mind. Unlike Aurora, who adjusted to the absence of another cat without pause, Bob clearly dislikes being left alone. He began to demand more affection and playtime when I was home and before I left in the mornings. Some cats you can feed, and they saunter away without a backwards glance. Some cats you feed, and they curl up in your lap. Some cats you feed, and they demand to be entertained. Bob has always fallen into the last category--running off to the hall or living room and standing over a toy as soon as he lapped up a little breakfast. After Aurora's death, his demands became more vocal and insistent.

Aurora and Bob
I don't believe that Bob was necessarily demanding another pet in the house. I point this out because I think it is customary for pet owners to claim that their animals want thus-and-so when it is really the human's needs and desires that are being satisfied. (My animal wants me to buy a new bed! A new entertainment system! A new car!)

What I do know is that I don't have the time or energy to keep Bob fully entertained. "I have to go to work," I will tell him. "I'm the person who pays for all your food." Which means absolutely nothing to an animal with a fetish for warm bodies.

 To be continued . . . 

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