Rethinking housecat ethology

There’s a common folk model of how housecats relate to humans that says their relationships with us recruit instincts originally for maternal bonding – that is, your cat relates to you as though you’re its mother or (sometimes) its kitten that needs protecting.

I don’t think this account is entirely wrong; it is a fact that even adult cats knead humans, a behavior believed to stimulate milk production in a nursing mother cat. However, through long observation of cats closely bonded to humans I think the maternalization theory is insufficient. There’s something else going on, and I think I know what it is.

Disclaimer: I’m not a trained animal ethologist, just a careful observer who is fond of cats and has learned to speak cat kinesics pretty well. (The reality check for this is that I have a history of making friends with individual cats easily and quickly even when they’re shy around humans.)

I follow the (sparse) literature on cat genetics and ethology. And a thing that has come to light recently is that Rudyard Kipling (“The Cat Who Walks By Himself”) was wrong. Housecats and their near relatives in the wild (felix lybica and felix sylvestris) are not solitary animals. Some of the larger cats are, outside of mating; but the felids related to housecats (which still interbreed freely with their domesticated kin where the ranges overlap) tend to live in smallish groups composed of a handful of mature females and their offspring.

Being adapted for living in groups makes sense. Small cats in the wild are dangerously exposed to predation, not least by larger cats; the usual benefits of having peers on alert while you’re sleeping apply.

It follows that cats have well-developed social instincts about each other. They don’t merely tolerate each others’ presence if a human happens to be keeping more than one, they form actual peer bonds. This is easy to miss because much cat peer signalling is not obvious to humans; in particular, cats don’t have to be in eye-to-eye contact to be interacting.

I judge the maternalization theory of how cats bond to humans is inadequate for several reasons. One is that cats show marked and differing sex preferences for what kinds of humans they like to bond to, and some (like our last cat, Sugar) clearly prefer males. If maternal bonding were the entire instinct armature of their relationships to humans, this would be difficult to explain – indeed, it would be hard to see how such a preference could evolve at all.

Another is that maternalization theory doesn’t seem adequate to explain how cats often bond to every human in a household, even the ones that don’t feed them! At our house, my wife Cathy is the food-giver. Both our gone-but-not-forgotten Sugar and our current cat Zola have shown a clear grasp on this, but that knowledge never stopped either of them from behaving as though their day wasn’t complete without some quality Eric time.

All this becomes much easier to account for if the instinct ground of housecat behavior towards humans is not necessarily maternal bonding but peer bonding. In this model, I’m not Zola’s mother but a peer cat or senior tom that he trusts and wants to maintain good relations with.

I’m not certain, because the differences are very subtle, but I think “senior tom” status elicits slightly different behaviors than “mommy”/food-giver status – slightly more placatory and submissive. I noticed this more with Sugar (female) than with Zola (male), which is a little odd because one consistent thing about cat social hierarchies is that they tend to be female-dominant – all things being equal one would have expected Sugar to defer less to a near-peer male than Zola does.

On the other hand, my observations fit the fact that male cats aren’t nurturers and are actually rather dangerous to kittens – in the wild they not infrequently eat the young of rivals if they can get away with it.

It is well known that some cat breeds are more consistently human-friendly than others, and generally believed among cat fanciers that the friendliest breeds are old, “natural” landraces like Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, and Lake Vans that haven’t been show-bred for appearance traits.

I suspect that the underlying variable here is exactly propensity to form social peer bonds with other cats. It could hardly be anything specific to humans; we haven’t been part of the cats’ evolutionary story for long enough at only 10KYa or so. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why that peer-bonding tendency might have been both strong in the ancestral environment and show some tendency to decay under the artificial circumstances of living with humans.

I’ll finish up by noting that living with Maine Coons for 25 years probably did more to push my thinking in this direction than anything else could have. It is impossible not to notice how social, outgoing, and just plain nice Coons are as a breed – but if your brain works like mine you can’t stop there, you also can’t avoid noticing that cats are not little humans in fur suits and looking for an explanation of their human-compatibility that makes sense in cat evolutionary terms.

Co-option of cat peer bonding is my proposal. Alas, I have been unable to think of a way to test this theory. Maybe my readers can come up with an interesting retrodiction?

68 thoughts on “Rethinking housecat ethology

  1. I’ve heard about cats who have a social preference for the human who isn’t feeding them.

    Also second hand, but I was told about a male farm cat who would find and socialize a feral kitten to add to the household every time the humans added a dog.

  2. @esr: They don’t merely tolerate each others’ presence if a human happens to be keeping more than one, they form actual peer bonds.

    And it’s instructive to observe that process if you have multiple cats. There will be a status hierarchy, and there may be considerable friction between members of the group as it gets sorted out, with much hissing and the odd fight. Adding a new kitten to a clowder is a lot simpler than adding a new adult.

    >Dennis

  3. Dumb question. It seems obvious that cats can distinguish between human sexes, there’s plenty of supporting anecdotal evidence. But can they identify human males as male, and human females as female, in cat terms?

    • >But can they identify human males as male, and human females as female, in cat terms?

      An interesting question and I have no idea. How would one tell?

      • I have experience that might be relevant. We adopted our cat, Penny (black/white DSH), in 2010, while I was still presenting as male. Starting in late 2012, I began presenting more often as female, culminating in my legal and social transition in July 2017. During that time, Penny’s behavior towards me remained consistent; for instance, she licks and grooms me frequently (a behavior we call “giving kissies”), but she first did that when we first met her at the Denver Dumb Friends League. From this we can conclude one of two things: either there’s no inherent difference in how cats treat male and female humans, or Penny was perceptive enough to know that I was “female” all along. Yes, this is hardly scientific data, but it might be worthy of note.

        • I won’t speculate on Jim’s non-PC answer, but I’ll propose an alternate hypothesis: cats make that decision at least in part on pheromones or other signals that don’t change when you transition. I’m also not going to speculate on which signals you actually send.

          • Or they simply know that your gender is binary and doesn’t change regardless of cosmetic changes.

        • I think cats certainly do distinguish between male and female human beings, but I don’t think the way a human looks is a major factor. I think things like pheromones are far more likely cues.

          It’s no surprise here that your cat’s behavior remained the same while you transitioned. It was the most important experience of your life, but I see no reason the cat should be aware of it in the first place, or care if it was. Your relationship with other human beings changed dramatically, but your relationship with the cat did not.

          • This is true; my relationship with Penny hasn’t changed. I’m beginning to like the “pheromones” explanation, although I do wonder if hormone replacement therapy and the resulting shift in balance between testosterone and estrogen in my system will change those pheromones, and, if they do change, whether Penny will “adapt” to those changes or shift her behavior in turn. “Adapt” seems the more likely possibility here, since any change would be gradual in nature (as with other changes I’ve noticed as a result of HRT).

            • Gradual to the point that the scent that Penny associates with you, regardless of how much it shifted in absolute terms, didn’t shift enough at any given moment to break the association – or even, I suspect, produce a “Huh. Does my human smell different today?” reaction.

            • @Amy Bowersox:
              I fail to see why Penny’s relationship with you would change. Your behavior towards Penny hasn’t changed because of your transition. Why should Penny’s behavior toward you change?

              While HRT may produce changes in your pheromones, they will be gradual. Penny will have plenty of time to adjust, and you will still be you.

              I have seen evidence of cats preferring to bond with humans of a particular gender. I have seen no evidence that the relationship they develop with the human differs because of the human’s gender. Only the initial selection is affected.

              >Dennis

              • >I have seen no evidence that the relationship they develop with the human differs because of the human’s gender.

                Um, I may have some. Slender and anecdotal to be sure, but as I’ve said I think I as a male elicit slightly more submissive and placatory behavior from cats than the mommy figure does.

  4. Our current cat, Macavity, may well be part Maine coon; he’s big, over 20 pounds, and he’s very affectionate—he likes to flop on the floor next to one of us and expose his belly, and he’ll accept quite a lot of belly rubbing before showing aggressive impulses. We’ve observed that he often likes to go back and forth between C and me, getting attention from one and then the other. One of his nicknames is “the reciprocating cat.”

    • >We’ve observed that he often likes to go back and forth between C and me, getting attention from one and then the other. One of his nicknames is “the reciprocating cat.”

      That is really typical Coon behavior, all right.

      • I’ve seen that behavior in other cat breeds; Star would go back and forth getting attention from my ex, then me, in a behavior we called “kitty Pong.”

  5. We have observed that our cats who seem to prefer the company of adult human males might actually be showing a preference for low, resonant voices.

    • >We have observed that our cats who seem to prefer the company of adult human males might actually be showing a preference for low, resonant voices.

      An interesting theory. Probably testable.

      • Should be trivial to analyze cat behavior before and after male puberty related voice change. That was some decades ago for me; no significant change in human/cat interaction quality noticed with a sample size of one, well one human and lots-o-cats. More data would help.

        Should also be an obvious feline variation among choir members sorted by octave.

        I propose the not very politically correct hypothesis that correlates with testosterone levels much like voice: Cats have been hacked to accidentally respond to primate dominance rituals such as alpha male staring them in the eye vs more primate beta male behavior of carefully examining the ground in front of them. An alpha male pre-teen is likely to keep on staring the cat in the eye after puberty related voice change.

    • I think there’s something you’re overlooking in the human-cat relationship, to wit: humans are big and cats are small. A human-acclimated cat is going to feel much safer with their humans around, and adult male humans do tend to run bigger than females, which would confer a greater security advantage… Security is fundamental to a lot of human bonding — parent-child, spouses, friendships where you know the other person has “got your back”, etc. It’s not hard to see how the same would apply to cats.

      Deep voices may still be a part of it. I think somehow, deep rumbling noises are soothing to mammals in general: idling diesel engines and vacuum cleaners are known to soothe babies to sleep, and then there’s the whole phenomenon of cats purring…

    • >Natural selection may operate far more swiftly than we thought.

      That story is fascinating, but not necessarily on point. I can think of two reasons the cases probably are not parallel:

      1. Felids in general are an extremely conservative group, genetically and behaviorally speaking. Even the peak-predator big cats most distant from housecats show some interesting pre-adaptations to sociality with humans; while they’re not exactly easy to tame and socialize, it is at least possible in a way it’s not for (say) polar bears.

      2. Rapid evolution of things like the Yakut horse’s extreme cold-weather adaptations makes sense when you have a combination of very harsh selective stress and genetic drift in a small, closed breeding population. The housecat case isn’t like that at all – one of the things we know from sequencing cat genomes is that there’s been constant genetic and population exchange between domesticated and neighboring wild cats over the whole range of f. sylvestris and f. lybica.

      • @esr: Even the peak-predator big cats most distant from housecats show some interesting pre-adaptations to sociality with humans; while they’re not exactly easy to tame and socialize, it is at least possible in a way it’s not for (say) polar bears.

        Big cat breeding programs in zoos do it by integrating humans into the big cat’s social structures. When a female has a litter, the cubs are given to keepers to hand raise, and each cub has a dedicated keeper. After a few generations, you see females give birth to a litter, then turn them over to keepers for raising, in an “I’ve done my part of the job. Now you take over!” manner.

        And as an aside, big cats are just as fond of sitting in boxes and react the same way to catnip as house cats. You have to give them a lot more, like a pound or so, but the results are the same, and hilarious.

        >Dennis

        • Big cats are in many ways just big kitties. Not all, to be sure, as anyone who tries to interact with one the way they would a housecat will swiftly discover, but there are many similarities.

  6. I would agree that pressure will affect timelines, and I didn’t want to derail the thread, I just found the story interesting, and somewhat relevant.

  7. Just throwing some stuff out here:

    – Imprinting could play a large role here.
    – Cats might retain a vestigial bonding behavior left over from an ancient progenitor species. Suppose that the bond initiating behavior in modern cats is lost but the bond reciprocating behavior is retained and evoked by human initiating behavior.
    – Cats communicate with humans by meowing but feral cats in the wild do not communicate with other cats by meowing. They actually have a small vocabulary of different meows. This might be an example of a vestigial trait. Seems too blank-slatey to assume this spontaneously arises in the presence of humans.
    – Wild animal behavior changes dramatically when animals reach sexual maturity, so whatever observations made about your neutered or spayed cat might not be representative of how cats normally behave. You kind of create a new type of animal by doing that, perhaps perpetuating neotonic traits into adulthood. Do young cats bond with each other as do cats to humans?

    • Our cats have all had more than one vocalization. Our current cat has at least “pay attention to me now!” and “I’m happy to see you.” I haven’t heard him do “let me at those birds out there!” (or “machine-gun kitty”), which is also a distinct sound.

    • >I wonder if something similar applies to domesticated cats.

      Almost certainly. Similar neural-crest changes occur in multiple domesticated mammals. It’s well documented in the flop-eared silver foxes that were produced in Russia by breeding originally wild foxes for docility. That only took 60 years from zero, so such changes can happen remarkably fast under selection.

    • >When my wife asks me why I insist on getting a Norwegian forest cat, I’m going to blame you, Eric!

      You might as well get a Maine Coon – they’re physically, behaviorally and probably genetically indistinguishable from Norwegian Forest cats. Same goes for a northern Russian landrace of cats the name of which I have forgotten.

  8. Think in terms of how cats learn to talk. They make attempts to communicate at, to, or with, things they’re interested in. Bird chirps, for example. Cats only meow (that way) for humans. Maybe there is also mimicry or whatever compatibility being attempted with other interactions.

    Maybe cats are that way with us in response to _us_ being that way with each other, and our acting certain ways with them. They’re adapting.

    I’ve always thought of my interactions with cats as our figuring things out as we went.

    I lived with a cat in a household where they only spoke French, and rarely to it. It was quiet, but when I started speaking with it, it eventually learned to meow, and began acting much like other cats I’ve known.

  9. > And a thing that has come to light recently…

    Is the state of cat science so poor that “cats are social and form groups” was somehow in dispute? It’s obvious that they are from casual observation of free-roaming cats.

    • >Is the state of cat science so poor that “cats are social and form groups” was somehow in dispute?

      I don’t know that it was in dispute, but I do know that the theory of cat-human bonding most cat fanciers carry around has never connected to field observations of cat peer-to-peer behavior. This might have been just a deficiency in folk theory rather than the science – I don’t actually know.

    • The feral cats I’ve known have been pretty solitary. One would volunteer as a barn cat, keeping mice out of the grains but always hiding if humans were around. When that one would find better accommodations or get coyoted, another would take its place. I’m not aware of the barn ever being home to more than one at a time.

  10. You don’t worry about Toxoplasma gondii? (I do, which is one reason why I have a terrier.)

    The only cats I thought much of have been Siamese. Would like to hear your comparison to Maine Coon.

    • Siamese tend to bond strongly with only one owner and are much more aloof to strangers. Maine Coons are sociable, and gregarious.

      In my experience.

      • Mine too. To me as a stranger, Siamese tend to be assholes.

        Ask Eric how well I got along with Sugar.

        • >Ask Eric how well I got along with Sugar.

          Quite well, yes. But this was hardly unusual – Sugar had 18/00 charisma and loved humans even more intensely that Coons normally do. She was exceptional.

          Zola is just ordinary nice for a Coon, which is pretty high up the bell curve for cats in general but not the phenomenon Sugar was.

          • Granted. Still, I have confidence that Zola and I would get along quite well. I cited Sugar because she was the only cat you ever saw me interact with.

            The point is that I can get along quite well with cats…and yet Siamese, in my experience, are assholes.

            • >Still, I have confidence that Zola and I would get along quite well.

              I don’t doubt that, either. Random Coon plus random person who likes cats generally adds up to happy on both sides.

              >and yet Siamese, in my experience, are assholes.

              Can’t argue, but my sample size is small.

      • >Siamese tend to bond strongly with only one owner and are much more aloof to strangers. Maine Coons are sociable, and gregarious.

        The few Siamese I’ve met seemed downright hostile to strangers, but I don’t have enough experience of the breed to generalize.

        I do have a lot of Coon experience. Sociable and gregarious, yep. And with a basic level of just plain nice that few other breeds commonly match.

      • > Siamese tend to bond strongly with only one owner and are much more aloof to strangers.

        I’ve not known any purebred Siamese, though I’ve known some mixes. Two come to mind, and their behavior was somewhat similar to the above. The first was my mother’s when I was a child. She loved my mother and would let Mom pet her whenever. She however avoided my siblings and I. The other is owned by a couple from my gaming group. Initially she was cautious around me but has warmed up to me over the past couple years. Both cats were/are quite vocal, meowing more than other cat’s I’ve known. I’ve been told this is another characteristic behavior of Siamese.

  11. I think cats are smart enough to know that humans do not belong to their own species.

    Probably there is some kind of “universal mammalian form language”, a way of recognizing other life-forms and assigning them “roles”. Think of it as a way of reducing other beings to “primitives”, imbued with certain archetypal vectors of behavior, deference, expected utility, communication requirements, etc.

    I think we fulfill the universal mammalian form language “symbol” for “god”. Or possibly “giant”.

    In other words, if cats can see us as “gods”, we can also see Something Out There as the same. Ie personhood is a deep mammalian way of slicing reality, and it has notions of inferior/superior intelligence, and the recognition of smarter beings, in-built.

  12. One day I was sitting near a window looking out on my patio, and two cats strolled by outside, looking very peculiar because their fur was clipped like French poodles’. My two cats freaked out. (They had barely glanced at other passing cats.)
    My current cat sometimes gets twitchy when she sees a little bird outside, but she’s terrified of the mallards who walk by in the spring.
    So likely not only distinct categories for various life-forms, but models of what members of that category are supposed to look like.

  13. That wildcats and feral cats live with other conspecifics in colonies should not be news. I’ve known that since I was a kid.

    Rudyard Kipling wrote his story from the perspective of a dog person. (That he was a dog person should be pellucidly clear from the poem at the end of “The Cat That Walked By Himself”.) Dogs have been artifically selected over the millennia to emit social signals that neurotypicals respond to; dog people resent cats for stubbornly refusing to emit those signals, and they have seeded our culture with the persistent myth that all cats have antisocial personality disorder. A common complaint is “a cat is never excited to see you”, because cats don’t jump up and down wagging their tails when you come through the door. Never mind that a) some cats do greet their owners (albeit in a more laid-back, cat-like fashion) and b) cats become profoundly distressed when they think their owners are gone — the cat must obviously not care whether you live or die, and may be plotting your demise.

    The maternalization theory is based on the fact that cats exhibit several neotenous behaviors when in human company, not just kneading. A big one is meowing. Cats rarely meow to each other in the wild, preferring to signal to each other with posture, body language, and of course scent. Though cats may yowl when horny and hiss, growl, or scream when angry, meowing as such is a behavior generally reserved for kittens looking for their mother. Cat behaviorists have assumed that cats revert to “kitten mode” in order to get us to feed them; what we learned only recently is that cats tailor their meows to get human attention, usually that of specific humans. I don’t really know if this is a kitten instinct, or if the cat thinks “humans make mouth-sounds to each other; maybe I should make mouth-sounds too to get their attention.” (Underestimate a cat’s sense of reasoning at your own peril. You could find yourself awakened by the sound of tiny paws struggling with, before successfully opening, a doorknob.)

    • You could find yourself awakened by the sound of tiny paws struggling with, before successfully opening, a doorknob.

      We always kept exterior doors deadbolted for this reason when we had cats. It was quite entertaining to watch our Siamese’s repeated attempts to tug the doorknob around. Fortunately the deadbolt was too high for him to reach.

  14. Actually, on second thought:

    Why do we assume cats have our level of personhood?

    A human infant divides the world into mom / non-mom, so why should a cat, with a much less developed nervous system, be any different?

    Cats (probably) just divide the world into me / not-me, with some eg hunting subroutines layered on top (they might neurally slice prey as objects for instance).

    • Spoken like a true dog person. Time spent with cats should:

      a) disabuse you of any notion that they have anywhere near our level of “personhood”

      b) discourage you from dismissing their behavior as something simplistic like the “instinct machine” model, or even “me/not me”.

      For example, a cat will react differently to different cats or humans within its circle — friendly towards one, hostile or indifferent towards another. Cats can distinguish strangers from familiar creatures, and will defend their territory and colony against intruders.

      A grown cat is far more cognitively developed than an infant human. The human baby may have more neurons than the cat, but they haven’t organized in a manner sufficient to deal with the world, even to the extent that the cat’s has. Humans catch up quick though — not that the cat will respect you any more for it… (Cats can also distinguish adult humans from juveniles, and be far more friendly and supplicating with the former.)

      • Good points re: organization.

        Maybe cats do see us as “cats”, it’s just that they don’t have language there to slice stuff into categories like that.

    • >Why do we assume cats have our level of personhood?

      I don’t see anyone doing that. Me, I don’t even think we need to assume that cats have a theory of mind to explain their behavior, though I think I’ve seen dim and occasional flashes of one.

        • >Exploring cat theory of mind would be a cool applied-phenomenology project.

          I’d love to do this, but I haven’t figured out how to design the experiments. And not for lack of thinking about it, either. Hard problem.

          • It’s the same general class of problem that we’re going to have to solve if we ever want to communicate with non-human intelligences…

  15. Based on my casual observations of cats and dogs over the last 5 decades, I’d say your theory is a good one.

    Under the right circumstances, cats do form tight social groups, and those groups clearly can form with other, not cats. (Anecdote: I had a dog, a cat and a duck that slept, ate and played together. They were inseperable while alive)

    And this kind of video clearly shows just how strong those bonds can be: https://youtu.be/0ZIQUb-d4GQ

    YouTube is filled with videos showing this behaviour.

    There is another, longer version of the above clip that shows the men interacting with the big cats family, lionesses who’d never met these men before. It’s is interesting to see how easily they accepted these men.

  16. Didn’t know cats were pack animals. The point about kittens makes sense though. Are there any breeds that hew to a more dog-like version of loyalty (ie, the owner is more than just a food dispenser)?

    • Cats are not pack animals; “pack” implies cooperative group hunting, which some big cats may do but not, to my knowledge, any of the clades of F. silvestris (including domestic cats). Wild and feral cats can be seen living together in colonies, but usually hunt alone.

      Cats display a feline version of loyalty. Dogs are hardwired to accept humans as their rightful lords and masters — they instinctually deal with humans specially and distinct from other dogs — but cats are not. They haven’t been fully domesticated and bred to be working animals over many tens of thousands of yesrs the way dogs have. They view you as a colleague — a member of their colony — so you have to invest time and effort in the relationship in order to earn their respect and loyalty. And even then, they may not show their loyalty at a time and in a manner of your choosing, so you just have to learn how to read the cat and learn the signals they give off that indicate you are a beloved and honored colony member. And most importantly, learn to trust your feline friend. If you go into the relationship thinking “this animal is plotting to kill me”, you will probably be very unsatisfied.

      The most openly friendly breeds include the Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest, and Siamese cats. Maine Coons in particular are sometimes described as being “dog-like” by proud owners, but if you want dog-like loyalty, your best bet is to get a dog.

  17. @esr: >I have seen no evidence that the relationship they develop with the human differs because of the human’s gender.

    , I may have some. Slender and anecdotal to be sure, but as I’ve said I think I as a male elicit slightly more submissive and placatory behavior from cats than the mommy figure does.

    Okay, possible. But the basic parts of the relationship should be unaffected.

    The human gets pleasurable companionship. The cat gets a place to live, safety, security, food, and attention. Precisely how the cat behaves will have more to do with what breed it is, like the previous discussion of Maine Coon vs Siamese behavior.

    (I also spent time interacting with a Sphinx cat at one event. It’s name was “Spanish Inquisition”, as in “Nobody expects the…” because its owner was known to breed Maine Coons and it was the last cat people might expect her to have. SI seemed to feel his position in life was to be worshipped, and picked up and held and given constant attention when not actively being fed or asleep. It was delighted to purr and try to groom me while I held and stroked it. His owner said that was typical of the breed. Other folks at the event who saw SI started developing obvious Sphinx Cat lust and appeared to be considering how they could talk their long suffering spouse into an adoption… I got the impression Sphinx cats were the feline equivalent of King Charles Spaniels, who were bred to be lap dogs.)

    I doubt a cat’s behavior will become less submissive and placatory because the male they originally bonded with has transitioned to female. The basic dynamics of the relationship are already established.

    And while we’re at it, consider changes in cat behavior because it was spayed/neutered. That may change, but how much is a factor of when spaying/neutering was done.

    One of my former cats had been inherited from a former tenant in my building. Bugsy decided Kat and I were his preferred people and where he wanted to be. (Given his former owner, this was a rational decision.)

    Bugsy was netured male, but had not been neutered till well after puberty. He retained the tomcat instincts, and would still go prowling the neighborhood and get into fights with other toms, (until he began to lose them.)

    My late cat Dizzy got neutered as soon as he started to hit puberty, and never developed tomcat behavior traits.

    >Dennis

  18. Another explanation is simply that the cat has learned, through operand conditioning, behaviors that produce positive behavior from the human. While the initial activity might have started from some instinctive behavior like kneading, the later use of the behavior simply be a result of success of earlier uses.

    There is a book on this sort of thing regarding dogs – “The Inside of a Dog” – which I am reading right now, since I’ve got a dog whose behavior is fascinating and complex. But, the insights and especially the methodology of pet ethology are likely applicable to cats.

    • >Another explanation is simply that the cat has learned, through operand conditioning, behaviors that produce positive behavior from the human.

      While this is a plausible theory, I think there’s a subtle danger of over-mechanizing cat behavior here that is complementary to the more obvious anthropomorphization error.

      I say this because we have experimental evidence from small mammals other than cats of some ability to distinguish “the world” from “my world model”. We might have it from cats, too, if they weren’t so self-sufficient and difficult for experimenters to motivate.

      Otters, for example, have play behaviors that strongly suggest not only some introspective capability but an other-minds theory. Trying to describe their behavior solely in terms of operant conditioning, as though they don’t have any object or other-minds representation of what they’re interacting with, would probably be a serious mistake.

      Are cats over that threshold? I don’t know, but I don’t know that they aren’t either. On the one hand I think I’ve sometimes detected dim flashes of other-minds modeling in my Coons; on the other hand, (a) I could be kidding myself because I love those little fuzzballs, (b) cats could have the capability generally available but simply not use it much because their adaptive strategy seldom requires it, and (c) trying to generalize from Coons to cat breeds that average less bright and sociable may be a mistake.

      Humble admission that we just don’t know seems best here – and that’s doubt-raising for “it’s all operant conditioning” just as surely as it is for “other-minds theory – I haz it”.

  19. We just adopted a cat on Saturday. Today is only his third day with us, and I am already in thrall. He’s a marvel.

    He’s a shelter cat of unknown provenance, but he adheres really closely to the breed description of the Bombay. He’s very smart, very, I don’t know how else to describe it but mellow, but also extremely affectionate.

    What prompts me to write, is that while he is affectionate and mellow, he nevertheless has *boundaries*. There are just things he doesn’t like and will calmly block or avoid any attempts anyone makes to do them. Ex, he adores body contact but doesn’t want to be hugged or held.

    Where it gets uncanny is that he seems to respect boundaries in others. There are certain things he won’t do without *asking first*. And he will only do them if you respond favorably. The obvious one is that, and we’ve seen him do this with several different people now, he will not walk or climb on you without asking first. And yes, he clearly is asking.

    • Not really on topic at all, but I couldn’t help sharing it. And it makes me wonder about the intelligence variation in cats.

      We always had at least one cat when I was growing up. They always had the same litter box behavior, poop wise. They’d circle around, find a spot they liked, squat and extrude, then use their back paws to kick litter over the evidence.

      Our new cat, he’s different. Before he does his business, he digs a slit trench in the litter. Then he does his business into the hole, and when he’s done he fills in the hole. By standing to the side and sweeping litter into the hole with one front paw. I have never seen anything like it. (Also since I’m on litter box duty it’s frustrating because he buries it *deep*, with no sign on the surface there’s anything down there. Every time he goes I have to filter the whole box.)

      What does it take, cognitively, for an animal that instinctively hides its scat to DIG A HOLE first? If that’s learned behavior, I really have to wonder what kind of environment he was in before he made his way to us. Or is that his own innovation?

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