The Hand-Reared Cat

In a recent comment, I wrote:

Oddly enough, our cat often does come when called, and is rather good at figuring out what humans want and doing it. A few days ago a photographer came out here to take snaps of me for an AP story on NedaNet and was quite startled when I asked the cat to turn around so her head would face the camera, and she did it.

Our cat’s behavior is not doglike servility, though. She pays careful attention to human hands because she associates them with being petted, and she’s a total friction slut. As a result, you can often fetch her, or get her to move, with hand gestures. I made one that directed her attention towards the photographer.

By an odd coincidence, my wife Cathy insisted less than an hour later that I should watch a video of the Moscow Cats Theater (I’d post a link, but I haven’t found that exact one from here). And we both noticed something; as the cats are walking tightropes and so forth, the human trainers are using encouraging, guiding gestures that seem…familiar to us. And, in fact, the cats often seem visually fixated on the trainers’ hands.

Wild! It looks very much as though Cathy and I have accidentally trained into our cat one of the same responses the Moscow Cats Theater people use to program their far more elaborate tricks.

I am reminded of something I heard a lion-tamer say once; training big cats is not about dominance, it cannot be; it’s about pleasure and reward. Nor does it seem irrelevant that the cats in the video looked happy. I think what we were seeing was not work to them, it was guided play – motivated not by fear of doing poorly but by love of their trainers.

Our cat behaves the same way; she walks towards a gesturing human hand because she loves getting attention from her humans and believes the hand will pet and cherish her. Everything in her experience confirms this. (On the rare occasions we have to discipline, we do it with a shout or a squirt bottle.)

More cat ethology: some time back, I examined the mystery of the purr. My commenters and I never arrived at an explanation of why the cat’s purr is so appealing to humans that I found entirely satisfactory. Now, science may have provided one.

It seems there’s a woman named Elizabeth von Muggenthaler (wonderful name, so redolent of mad science and gothic castles!) who has discovered that cats purr in a range of acoustic frequencies that are widely known in the medical literature to stimulate tissue healing, especially of bone and connective tissue.

Ms. Muggenthaler does not propose to junk the conventional account that cats purr to express sociability and/or contentment, but she suggests that cats purr as a form of self-healing as well, and has designed various clever experiments that appear to confirm this.

She may also have explained why humans enjoy the sound. Like purring itself, the healing effects of gentle vibrations in those particular frequency ranges have probably been significant in the mammalian line long enough for humans to inherit a mild instinctive tropism for them. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the human ability to become fond of certain varieties of repetitive mechanical noises has a similar ground.

51 thoughts on “The Hand-Reared Cat

  1. “cats purr in a range of acoustic frequencies that are widely known in the medical literature to stimulate tissue healing, especially of bone and connective tissue. “ [citation needed]…

    (Seriously, those would be some interesting papers to read over. If you have references, could you post them?)

  2. Seems we have similar experiences raising cats (I do, however, like big wolfy intelligent dogs, but I am at heart a cat person). I sadly lost a fine brown mackerel tabby recently, but he was totally in tune with both my vocal prompts and hand gestures. A most unusually intelligent and perceptive cat. You could really ‘see’ something going on behind the eyes.

    I never considered that I had ‘trained’ him, however….rather that we had reached an understanding whereby we had mutually optimized the delivery of advantage to him ;)

    I suspect I was his pet. The little bugger.

  3. Regarding vibrations and purring. I know that as I child, my Mom would sometimes take me for a drive in our VW (classic) bug to get me to sleep. I still find the noise of a bug comforting… I’d love a high quality loop of a VM bug engine running from the inside.

  4. Cats are hackers. This is the simplest reason why you like cats, IMHO, despite that the general “manliness” or “machismo” of dogs, which would be a better fit to your personality, more than the “femininity” of cats. But dogs just obey commands. They really have no imagination. Cats do. Cats experiement, discover, play, are curious. They are hackers.

  5. I don’t know much about cats because I’m a dog person. (There are dog people and there are cat people and I won’t presume to assert that one is better than the other except to note that both are better than people who are neither.) I’ve always had success at training my dogs to respond to commands and conform to my lifestyle. Training always begins with verbal commands and hand gestures, and eventually, the verbal commands become almost unnecessary. They become very attuned to body language, and that’s when the dog has successfully conformed to my lifestyle.

  6. >) I’ve always had success at training my dogs to respond to commands and conform to my lifestyle.

    My impression is that cats are less responsive to vocalization than dogs are, so you have to rely more on gesture.

  7. @The Doctor What : I actually have a classic bug, and a decent(ish) digital recorder. I’ll try to remember to edit a 10-min loop for you. May you sleep peacefully ;)

  8. > My impression is that cats are less responsive to vocalization than dogs are, so you have to rely more on gesture.

    Yup. Ever notice how the way that cats communicate with humans is completely different from how they communicate with each other? Among cats, it’s pretty much all body language; they’re nearly silent aside from the occasional hiss. But for communication with humans, I’ve seen cats develop up to a dozen or so different vocalizations, because they figure out that that’s what we respond to.

  9. >But for communication with humans, I’ve seen cats develop up to a dozen or so different vocalizations, because they figure out that that’s what we respond to.

    Indeed. Sugar is like that. I’ve noted before that she does a recognizable imitation of “Hello!”

    Cathy and I, on the other hand, are both unusually fluent at cat kinesics – myself just slightly more fluent than she. But I’m only the second most capable speaker-to-cats I know; my friend Rob Landley (the former BusyBox maintainer) is some sort of talent freak at this, far outclassing me and probably up there with Dmitri Kuklachev, the guy who founded the Moscow Cats Theater. Rob has a corresponding weakness, though: unlike me, he’s basically incapable of saying “no” to a cat. Hilarity sometimes ensues.

  10. There’s more overlap between cat and dog behavior than the stereotypes imply. I’ve seen cats who’ve learned to do tricks on command. I’ve also been to dog parks and noticed that most dogs need to be told whatever two or three times before they’ll do it, and been told that reliable obedience from a dog takes a lot of practice and maintenance.

  11. Man, that Russian cat circus guy must have put a lot of time and attention to get those cats to do that.

    I tried to train my cat to “shake hands”, a trick most any dog will readily learn, and he just sits and stares with that blank cat expression, like he’s saying, “You have got to be kidding!”

    He does do different vocalizations. When I’ve been gone all day he will greet me at the door with a particular high pitched ‘Meow!’ that I clearly recognize as a greeting. It just sounds a little cuter and sweeter than his normal meow.

  12. Eric overstates my talent for cat kinesics. I’ve observed my one cat, Sugar, for a long time, and know her habits pretty well, so naturally we communicate well. However, I don’t have that much of a knack for cats, because I’m too impatient to make an impression. Thus, I tend to move too abruptly to communicate with skittish cats, though I do well enough with cats who are already friendly and well-inclined to humans.

  13. > Dmitri Kuklachev, the guy who founded the Moscow Cats Theater

    That was Yuri Kuklachev who founded the Theater. Dmitri is his son.

  14. BTW Yuri wrote a book called “Lessons of Kindness”. I hope it will be translated to English soon.

    “One must really love animals to work in our theatre”, he says. “Normally, cats behave quietly and never harm people. They are so amazing, they must have come from some outer world to soften our hearts. Cats prompted me to write a book called “Lessons of Kindness”. It contains reminiscences, amusing pictures and funny stories, and it’s also an attempt to teach children to listen to their hearts as may cats taught me – to hear silence, to see the invisible, to see with one’s heart…”

  15. Eric, a couple of things:

    1. It seems appropriate to me that your and Cathy are cat people: dogs live in a hierarchical, rule from above society, cats kind of do what they want, and work with others when necessary. Dogs are statists, cats are anarchists. Go figure.

    2. I am deeply concerned about you, given that this is your second post about your cats. I worry that you will next be posting a video of fluffy playing with a ball of wool.

    3. More seriously, you comment about purring and mechanical noises prodded me a little. In the past six months I have been listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and the question has arisen in my mind as to why music is so effective at stimulating our emotions. Why do we react so emotionally, why is music so pleasant to us (and why is bad music so painful.) My theory is that our brains, being patten matching engines, work very well with the complex but highly patterned structures of music. Music being patterned at multiple levels (from the sine waves of the tones, to the mathematical relationship of the non discordant notes, to the beat structure, all the way up to the repetitive structures of the music on a macro level. I am sure there is masses of research on this, but I am unfamiliar with it.

  16. >Dogs are statists, cats are anarchists. Go figure.

    Would that it were true. Cats have social behavior and pack (or pride) hierarchies too – we interpret cat behavior as individualist or asocial mainly because their signals are harder for human beings to read. Ask an ethologically-aware owner of multiple cats about this sometime.

    >I worry that you will next be posting a video of fluffy playing with a ball of wool.

    If my brain ever degenerates that far, the Iranians will be doing me a favor to shoot me.

    >I am sure there is masses of research on this, but I am unfamiliar with it.

    The standard evolutionary account agrees with you. There is one interesting theory going the rounds that our music and pattern-generation facility elaborated from circuitry originally evolved for accurate throwing. The relevant thing about throwing a rock is that it requires control of motion at a time granularity smaller than the .01 sec human reflex arc. So, to throw properly, you have to compose a precise motion pattern in your brain and then push it down the spinal nerves. A significant component of human-level intelligence may be the recruitment of the machinery for buffering motion patterns to handle patterns in different sensory modalities and of more abstract kinds.

  17. Ask an ethologically-aware owner of multiple cats about this sometime.

    It only takes as much as two cats… either they’re always fighting to be in charge of the household, or one becomes submissive.

  18. A few days ago a photographer came out here to take snaps of me for an AP story on NedaNet

    did the shooter give you any indication of when this story might hit the wire?

    ESR sys: It already has, last week. The pictures didn’t make it, for some unknown reason.

  19. I thought it was dogs are socialists, cats are anarchists.

    And what would be wrong with a cute cat video with Fluffy playing with a ball of string?

    I, for one, welcome our feline overlords.

  20. I am unable to say no to a cat too. This leads to things, when I am at home, like my mother’s cat patiently nosing her way into my lap and displacing the laptop.

    My cat has several very distinct vocalisations as to what he wants, and I know which ones mean pet me, and which ones mean pick me up.

  21. @esr “we interpret cat behavior as individualist or asocial mainly because their signals are harder for human beings to read”

    Cats aren’t really loners, but more so than dogs: “Despite cohabitation in colonies, cats do not have a social survival strategy, or a pack mentality. This mainly means that an individual cat takes care of all basic needs on its own (e.g., finding food, and defending itself), and thus cats are always lone hunters.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestic_Cat

    @esr “training big cats is not about dominance, it cannot be; it’s about pleasure and reward.”

    And this is the way to train dogs too but sadly they can be trained by fear too.

    @Shenpen “But dogs just obey commands. They really have no imagination. Cats do. Cats experiement, discover, play, are curious. They are hackers.”

    German shepherds and Labrador retrievers can be quite servile but there are lots of primitive breeds like the Afghan hound, huskies, Basenji etc. that are quite stubborn and hard to train to obey commands reliably. Even the German shepherds and other dogs that are easier to train like to solve problems as hiding treats around the house and inside wrapped up towels are common ways of amusing a dog.
    The huskies also have a reputation for being very hard to contain inside a kennel.

    I’m not sure that this isn’t a taught trick but it looks to me that this puppy has some imagination and curiosity.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lqlGDF_7Aw&feature=related

    Dogs also understand non-verbal communication a lot better than verbal commands and most of their communication is non-verbal since wolf packs and wild dogs hunt most of the time silently:
    ‘”When it comes to understanding human behavior, no mammal comes even close to the dog,” says Kaminski. Her Leipzig research team has demonstrated that dogs are far better than the supposedly clever apes at interpreting human gestures.’
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,504508,00.html

    I’ve myself also found that the best way to train a dog is to start with gestures and include the verbal command only later. They say that way the verbal command doesn’t get “diluted” and I often just use gestures to make the dog do tricks.

  22. Take this story for what you will. Some friends of mine have a farmhouse and a tomcat. Every time they added a dog to the household, the tomcat would find and socialize a feral kitten.

  23. Take this story for what you will. Some friends of mine have a farmhouse and a tomcat. Every time they added a dog to the household, the tomcat would find and socialize a feral kitten.

    Sounds like the tomcat was preparing for war. :)

  24. Being the owner of a 38lb Mainecoon cat that looks more like Garfield than Shere Khan and will fetch when bribed, I understand.

    ESR says: We think our cat might be part Maine Coon, actually. She’s big and cobby, has a double coat, has never been much of a jumper, has a Coon’s wide range of trills and other vocalizations, and the platinum-standard Coon temperament (for the rest of you, that’s extremely sociable, gentle, and good with kids).

  25. funny, we’re fairly certain our boy is maine coon as well — all 18 sleek, solid pounds of him. he’s a pound cat so there’s no way of knowing, but the description of the breed characteristics on the wikipedia page reads like it’s based on an evaluation of him.

    a beautiful beast he is — smart, sweet and affectionate, with just enough abnormality (between the polydactly and his status as the largest healthy housecat anyone i know has ever seen) to enhance his charm. chatty as all hell, too.

    ESR says: Ditto. That is, we don’t know our cat’s ancestry but I read a breed description of Coons and my jaw dropped open because it described all of what I had thought were Sugar’s odd individual quirks with micrometric exactitude. Well, other than the short outer coat; the rest was dead on target. The chattiness is a Coon trait, too.

  26. My cat Tiger is a Maine Coon cat. He’s a big, fat, sociable, gentle cat just as Eric describes. He does like to jump though.

    And he always gives me an affectionate greeting when I get home. (:

    ESR says: I think greeting the humans at the door may belong in the Coon breed description…

  27. ESR,

    But does it have “The Look”. For those that have these cats, they understand. It’s the stare they get that says, “pet me now or else”. And he is always waiting at the door when I get home. Usually asking to be fed.

  28. > ESR says: Ditto. That is, we don’t know our cat’s ancestry but I read a breed description of Coons and my jaw dropped open because it described all of what I had thought were Sugar’s odd individual quirks with micrometric exactitude. Well, other than the short outer coat; the rest was dead on target. The chattiness is a Coon trait, too.

    But beware the Forer effect …

  29. The Forer effect applies to descriptions of one’s own self. I’m not sure it applies to descriptions of one’s pets.

  30. Right, and we’re talking very specific traits. Like, the fascination with water. The tendency not to be much of a jumper. The unsually silky fur with undercoat. The size and build. The racoon-like tail fur and markings. The large range of vocalizations, not just purrs but many different kinds of trills and chirping sounds. (I think that last one was the single most convincing marker, for me.)

    General temperament could be subject to a Forer effect, all cat people think their cats are adorable – but stuff like this shouldn’t be.

  31. OTOH, my female cat Hecate has a fascination with water and is not much of a jumper. She also has unusually silky fur and undercoat. Though she’s all-black, if you look at her in the right light, she also has racoon-like tail and fur markings. But, she has a petite build and Siamese-like eyes. Both my male, Hades, and Hecate have a wide range of trills and chirping sounds, but somewhat more so for Hades than Hecate.. I don’t really think either one of them has any Maine Coon, but you never know, as both cats are mixed breed. *shrug* After reading the description, I almost thought my own cats may have some Maine Coon, but on reflection I think that some of these traits may be common across several different breeds.

  32. Sort of OT, but I wonder about cats’ reactions to mirrors. Supposedly cats aren’t intelligent enough to pass the “mirror test” (i.e., recognize the image in the mirror as their own). But I would assume that, by the basic laws of optics, the image in the mirror looks like a cat to them the same as it does to us. So why don’t they react to it as if it were another cat?

  33. … but on reflection I think that some of these traits may be common across several different breeds.

    it’s not that robbie has some of the standard characteristics of the breed … it’s that he appears to have all of them: size and build, fur length and growth pattern, the big tail, color (brown tabby is most common in the breed), polydactylism (he has thumbs), personality, even the fur between his toes and in his ears.

    ESR says: Between-toe fur, check. Ear fur in thick comblike tufts mostly covering the ear aperture, check. No polydactylism here, though.

  34. Note re polydactylism: I have read at least once a claim that the incidence of this trait in all breeds of housecats is rising, as it confers a few advantages and has no particular downside in a domestic environment.

    This would fit a tentative theory I have about Coons – they’re what you get when a felis domesticus breed has been selected hard for adaptation to symbiosis with humans. Perhaps not insignificant that they’re thought to descend from northern forest cats; going feral again is generally more difficult in a cold climate, and perhaps we have the Little Ice Age to thank for their sweet dispositions.

  35. No polydactylism here, though.

    it’s not a requirement, but it is reasonably common. i’m sure you know the phenotype was almost completely eliminated from the breed since it’s verboten in show cats.

    I have read at least once a claim that the incidence of this trait in all breeds of housecats is rising, as it confers a few advantages

    what advantages? i’m not sure robbie’s thumbs even include the necessary nervous or musculoskeletal structures to allow motor control. (if they do, i’m teaching him to throw a slider.)

    This would fit a tentative theory I have about Coons – they’re what you get when a felis domesticus breed has been selected hard for adaptation to symbiosis with humans.

    this reminds me of another interesting trait: robbie is the house’s self-designated spider-and-moth killer. if i notice one around the house before he does, i call his name and snap my fingers, and he INSTANTLY knows — from the tone of my voice, i think — that i’m directing him to a target.

    this is pretty much the only time he pays attention to where i’m looking and what i’m pointing at (which, in my experience, cats generally ignore), and it makes me wonder in more fanciful moments whether he’d have any utility as a collaborative small-game stalker.

  36. >what advantages? i’m not sure robbie’s thumbs even include the necessary nervous or musculoskeletal structures to allow motor control.

    They don’t have to. A slightly larger paw with one more claw is helpful for mousing – makes for a fractionally more effective killer swipe.

  37. They don’t have to. A slightly larger paw with one more claw is helpful for mousing – makes for a fractionally more effective killer swipe.

    but most housecats are regularly fed, so i wouldn’t think one’s efficacy as a mouser has much bearing on its ability to pass on genetic code. where’s the evolutionary advantage?

  38. >but most housecats are regularly fed,

    That’s a very recent development, like the last couple centuries, and hasn’t had time to affect the genotype much. Until almost yesterday in historical time, effectively all cat commensals were kept as vermin controllers.

  39. That and it’s widely grokked amongst cat owners, particularly those living in rural or semi-rural areas, that if you want a cat to get rid of mice (as opposed to a pet), you don’t feed it much. Feeding a cat occasionally will keep him around, but in order to supplement the rest of his caloric needs, he’ll have to catch mice and/or other small pests (geckos come to mind….).

  40. I am a big cat-lover myself. I just cannot resist them! However, not all neighbourhood cats care to be domesticated and many of them wander from house to house, preferring to spend their time outdoors rather than in.

    However, I know for a fact that cats can be friends with human being — and exhibit far more signs of intelligence than dogs in many occasions. A cat’s sense of unaided intuition, I believe is better than a dog’s even though dogs sometimes seems to learn better.

  41. >I am reminded of something I heard a lion-tamer say once; training big cats is not about dominance, it cannot be; it’s about pleasure and reward.

    quite. modifying cats’ behaviour is actually extraordinarily easy. but you have to treat them as aspergic rather than social: they look at the reality not the social hierarchy.

    i’ve always loved bram cohen’s withering dismissal of Social “managers” (‘ personal needs) re hackers: “you don’t herd cats. you throw a ball of string.”

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