More about Animal Psychology

So I tried once again to read a book about cat psychology and got so fed up at its silliness, I threw the book on the floor.

But not very hard because it was a library book.

I won't give the book's title because it is unfair to pick on one book when so many cat books are like this. There are probably many silly dog books out there too, but dog lovers—at least—seem to include objective/Cesar Millan-type trainers and owners. Cat lovers, in general, seem far less willing to accept that cats are, well, just cats.

The thing that annoyed me (within the first chapter) was the belief that (1) cats understand language; (2) cats feel affection.

I don't completely dismiss (1) because I don't actually know if they do or don't. What I do know is that cats, like dogs, respond more to body language and tone of voice than to words. The writer gives an example of a cat following a command. The writer does not even consider that the cat may have responded to the tone of voice, the situation, or the writer's physical action (or, even more likely, a combination of the tone of voice/situation/physical action). The writer immediately jumps to the conclusion, "The cat understands me!"

This is why cat lovers make me tired.

Cats react to body language and energy like any animal. When I first moved into my last apartment, my cat Max would initially whine to go out when I was in bed, half-asleep. (I do agree with the writer that cats are entirely motivated by the desire for food; unlike my current apartment, the front door in my last apartment wasn't a tight fit, and I suppose he wanted to investigate the possibility of food on the other side.) I would get up and spray him with water or slap his behind. (Don't get mad yet, cat lovers; it probably wasn't the most effective correction, but it worked!)

The point is he knew the difference between me getting up mad, me getting up to go pee, and me getting up because it was the next morning even before I acted (or reacted); he would immediately run, keep sleeping, or go to the food bowl. I never had to say a word. Frustrated/sleepy/fed-up human doesn't feel like sleepy/indifferent human in the slightest.

I also do not believe, even remotely, that cats feel affection.

I don't mean they don't give affection. And I don't mean they don't love. I think love is instinctual while affection is a reasoned response.

The writer uses the absurd example that cats will feel affection and gratitude for their prey. Are you kidding me? I don't care how nice lions are to the dead antelope. They aren't thinking warm & fuzzy thoughts, especially since they will rip your arm off if you get too close. This is a very, very good example of a human reading a human emotion into an action that appears human BUT ISN'T. Tenderness can be read into a human patting someone's face because all the subjects involved (reader and readee) are human. Reading such emotions into a cat's behavior is completely unfair to the cat. It's very similar to the humans on Cesar's show reading manipulation or affection into the dog's frantic desire to be petted when, as Cesar points out and proves, the dog's frantic desire to be petted is the dog's need for its humans to take control of its life and stop making it run the household all by itself!

I would imagine that a cat "tenderly" patting a dead antelope's face is the cat checking to make sure the antelope is really dead. I would also guess that a cat licking a dead antelope's face is the cat working off excess energy and calming itself. (I've read, and believe, that cats will purr when highly stressed, such as when giving birth or being operated on. Licking appears to have a similar function. My cats have calmed down from an alarm or a fever when I forced them to lick by smearing butter or anti-hairball gel on their paws. It is actually very effective and shows that licking and/or purring are probably more instinctual responses to fear and/or stress than signs of affection.)

Okay, sure, the cat looks peaceful lying next to the dead antelope. It just expended an enormous amount of energy killing its supper. When animals complete tasks, they look relaxed. But that isn't the same thing as a human relaxing after a good therapy session! The cat isn't relaxed because it feels emotion or gratitude; it's relaxed because its instincts have been satisfied.

I think a great deal of anthropomorphizing is the human need to be loved (which is stronger, even, than the human need to be needed). When Cesar talks to pet owners, there is almost always initial resistance; the dog's bouncy behavior CAN'T be the result of stress; it MUST be a sign of affection. I also think that often the humans are resistant to Cesar's instructions (at first) because in their heart of heart they are proud to have an animal that snaps at others to protect its owner. There's a kind of bragging involved when the owners say, "She just hates us to leave her! She whines all the time we are gone!"

Animals are such an easy way to obtain unconditional love. But then sole control of the food bowl tends to have that effect. My skepticism (or cynicism, depending on your point of view) doesn't mean I think animals aren't cute and cuddly. Animals cuddle like crazy. My cats gravitate to me whenever I'm in the apartment (except at the computer which they have learned means I'm unavailable). Cats may not be pack animals, but they still react at a primal level. At a volunteer vet clinic in Mexico that spades/neuters cats and dogs, Cesar pointed out how much more comfortable the recovering animals were sleeping all together. This was due to necessity: it was a temporary clinic and the animals had to be put where there was space, but Cesar was right: animals are much more comfortable in groups than in separate cages. Male lions may operate as lone leaders, but they do have their seraglios.

By the way, I'm still very skeptical of cat lovers but based on a brief perusal, Mieshelle Nagelschneider at the Cat Behavioral Clinic (see comment to post below) doesn't appear completely besotted. For one thing, she states, "Cats are motivated by what's in it for them." Yup! Please don't tell me they feel affection for me. I'm much more likely to believe they need me than they feel gratitude for me (if they felt gratitude, they would empty the litter box themselves).


Joe said...

I entirely reject the notion that animals feel affection or love. This is the ultimate in human projection. I think it entirely likely that domestic animals have, in small part, evolved to respond to this human projection. In other words, the cats and dogs that expressed what was perceived as "affection" stayed inside or where it was safe, the others were discarded. Over time that would clearly have an evolutionary effect.

Thing to remember is that ANY animal till turn on you if the situation demands (and will do so in hideously nasty ways like eating you when you're not quite dead yet.)

It continually amazes me to see people think they have fully tamed an animal, especially a wild animal (and am greatly annoyed when the "animal rights" crowd attribute some sort of thoughtful scheming when the animal "goes rogue.")

Cherndawg said...

When I was younger, we adopted a cat that was lost in the woods around our house. We didn't keep him long, because this cat was SCARY. For one he was HUGE- He stood perhaps a foot an a half, and was perhaps 2 1/2 feet long from head to tail. The creepiest thing though, was that he could speak. Really. That cat would go to the door and howl "Li-me-ooowwwt" And the occasional "Nwooooooo!" when things weren't to his liking. I can't remember what happened to him, but I've always been a bit freaked out by cats ever since.

Eugene said...

Some cat (and deer) evolutionary psychologizing.