I am now going to blog about my cat.
No, I have not succumbed to the form of endemic Internet illness in which someone believes the cuteness of his or her feline surpasses all bounds and must therefore be shared with the entire universe. But my cat’s behavior raises some interesting questions about animal (and human!) ethology, which seem worth a little thinking time. There are three things that puzzle me in particular: the nature of the bathroom demon, some aspects of her nurturing behavior, and the mystery of the purr.
First, our subject. Sugar is a female American housecat of no particular pedigree, about 15 years old but still very healthy. She has green eyes, short fur in a mainly black-on-gray tabby pattern with a few touches of brown, and a white underbelly and socks. She’s a largish cat, about 13 pounds, and rather cobby-bodied. We strongly suspect some Maine Coon in her ancestry; she has a Coon-like double undercoat, uses the wide range of trilling vocalizations associated with the breed, and has a typical Coon personality — extremely affectionate and sociable, gentle, friendly to strangers and children. She charms humans so effectively that we have two different sets of cat-sitters eager to look after her when we travel, and would have a third but for allergies.
Now, it must be said (because it’s relevant to the questions I’m going to raise) that Sugar is not overly bright even by cat standards. I’ve had intelligent cats and they tend to be a pain in the tuchis; they can be unpleasantly creative about expressing discontent. Been there, done that, and prefer Sugar’s sweet-natured-but-dumb style. She’s never had any behavior problems worse than an occasional spin of the toilet-paper roll.
Sugar has exactly one real behavioral quirk; she becomes quite agitated if a human is in a bathroom and she can’t get in, and will meow piteously and scratch for admittance until she gets it. She does not have this trait about other closed doors; though she likes human company a lot, she’ll generally mind her own business until a human chooses to open up. Except for bathrooms.
What makes this more interesting is that we think we know roughly why that is. We inherited Sugar in 1994; she was about eighteen months old then, and the surrounding events included my wife’s stepfather dropping dead of a heart attack. In a bathroom. We think the cat found the body. My wife’s mother was in intensive care with pleural cancer at the time, and died a few days later. Her last request to Cathy was “Please take care of my cat…” and we did. We were very fortunate; Sugar adopted us as her humans immediately.
The inference that Sugar learned to think of bathrooms as places where people beloved by her die seems unavoidable. If stuck outside one with a human inside she shows unmistakable signs of extreme anxiety, followed by equally extreme relief when she’s let in. At which point she shows no particular inclination to interact with the human — well, no more than normal for her, anyway; she’s quite affectionate at all times. She’ll sit quietly on the rug while a human showers, but she seems to need to be there. As if she’s watching for something…and our running joke is that Sugar behaves exactly as though she believes that humans are in constant danger of being killed by an invisible bathroom demon, but it can’t get them if she is there to scare it away.
This is ridiculous, of course. It’s the way a brave human child might think, but Sugar is not a human, nor even one of a member of one of the handful of borderline-sophont species outside the higher primates (dolphins, seals, elephants, squids, parrots, corvids) who have demonstrated some ability to reason causally. Which makes the question of what
I don’t have an answer, but I think it’s an interesting question. Too bad she doesn’t have an organ of Broca so we can ask her. Whatever tiny spark of mammalian proto-intelligence lives inside that walnut-sized brain is definitely pre-linguistic. Though she does have a two-word vocabulary; she recognizes and responds to her name, and she knows that “hello” is a friendly greeting sound. She even uses a greeting vocalization that sounds as much like “hello” as a cat vocal tract can manage (and is very distinct from the normal feline greeting trill, which she also uses). I think this implies a rudimentary theory of mind, but this is not hugely interesting because I’ve met lots of animals with stronger ones. My swordmaster’s Malamute dogs have distinct vocalizations for calling individual humans known to them by name. I’ve been nose-to-trunk with an elephant in semi-wild conditions, too, and I’ll be damned if I don’t think he had a theory of mind nearly as elaborated as mine.
Here’s another another interesting behavior. When either of her humans is ill, Sugar will not leave his or her side, except for minimum litterbox and feeding breaks, pretty much for the duration. Well, this is very nice, and I have no doubt that it helps us get well faster, but…how does she know? Do ill humans smell wrong? Do our kinesics change in a way she picks up?
Finally, the mystery of the purr. This is not a question about cat behavior but about humans. What is it that makes a cat’s purr such a pleasurable sound for us? It’s obvious why it would be pleasurable to another cat; it evolved as an I’m-feeling-sociable signal among felines. It’s even obvious why they purr at humans; they don’t know that we’re so phyletically distant from them that their inter-species sociability signal shouldn’t actually work.
What isn’t obvious is why it actually does work. Purring evolved well after the last common ancestor of hominidae and felinidae diverged, so there must be some other response trained by human species history that cat-purrs stimulate. I’d love to know what it was. Um, has anyone ever recorded normal noise from within a human womb?
Yes, these are the sorts of things I think about when I look at my cat, as opposed I mean to “Awww, she’s so cute and fuzzy.” Well, not that she isn’t cute and fuzzy, she is. But I refuse to post a picture. On principle.