Sugar and the Bathroom Demon

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 is going on in her head, exactly, all the more interesting. What kind of representation of the world – what kind of threat model – does she have that makes her believe bathrooms are a specific, identifiable danger that she can protect humans from?

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.

93 thoughts on “Sugar and the Bathroom Demon

  1. Ah c’mon Eric post a picture of your cute kitty, it’s like an internet standard by now.

    And then the rest of us can post pictures of our cute pets, and the next thing you know, this blog will turn into <a href=”http://wwwcuteoverload.com”cuteoverload. :)

    I went to a dog show today man it really made me want to get a dog.

    What’s wrong with cuteness I ask you?!!

  2. Thanks for the interesting post!

    quote: “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.”

    You seem to assume that purring itself has to be somehow already encoded into the human genome. But I think the human response to purring has been learned. To some extent, this even applies to human-human interaction — just think about the different interpretations of smiling when comparing for example Western and Asian cultures.

    The ability to detect signals like “I’m-feeling-sociable” is definitely something that has its basis partly in the human or animal genome, but the manifestation of the signal can vary among different cultures and species. This is why humans can learn to interact with and interpret the behaviour of very different species. In fact, I even remember being told explicitly as a child what purring means. (Not that I couldn’t have figured it out myself =).

  3. I’ve never had a cat, nor had cause to make one purr, so I’m actually asking this question: is there more to your reaction to Sugar’s purr than can be adequately explained as a learned behaviour? That is, what’s to stop us from hypothesizing that your reaction to your, and other cats’ purring is based on the fact that you’ve known for some time now that cats purr when they are happy?

  4. I don’t really know how intelligence works, but if forced, I’d probably say your cat’s behavior is that of a trained neural network.

    About the purr being pleasurable to humans, doesn’t the same happen with other animals’ equivalent sounds? Birdsong?

  5. Phil R, cat’s don’t purr when they’re happy, they purr when they want attention. A cat in agony, and needing someone to hold it, will purr.

  6. > Phil R, cat’s don’t purr when they’re happy, they purr when they want attention.

    I’ve had at least one cat that purred when he was going out of his way to avoid attention.

  7. We have four cats, and all of them (plus the two deceased ones) insist on visiting us in the bathroom. They mostly want to just check up on us, but occasionally they want to come in and hang out, whether we’re in the shower or on the toilet. None, I have to add, has ever found a dead loved one in the bathroom or anywhere else.

    All of my cats, current and deceased, also insist on nursemaiding us when either of us is sick. Lying in a queen-sized bed with four cats cuddled up to you is, um, warm.

  8. I think you may be overthinking this one a bit, Eric. I doubt if Sugar actually thinks she can do something about the “bathroom demon,” but she knows from hard experience that people she cares about go into bathrooms, and sometimes die, so every time you go in, she feels anxiety until she can verify that you’re still alive. People are no different. After a disaster, we call our loved ones, not because we think we can undo 9/11 or Katrina, not even because we can offer help (though we might), but mostly just because we need to know if people we care about are okay. Sugar’s watching you for her own peace of mind. Is any further explanation is necessary?

  9. >Sugar’s watching you for her own peace of mind. Is any further explanation is necessary?

    I wonder about it precisely because “for her own peace of mind” seems like an awfully anthropomorphic theory to apply to a cat. It’s easy to find that kind of explanation intuitive, because we instinctively project humanity onto everything, but it’s what I’m trying to avoid here. A cat is not a tiny human in a fur suit, and I want an explanation that makes sense in the cat’s terms.

  10. I don’t think “for her own peace of mind” really requires terribly complex psychology, or at least nothing more complex than what causes a cat to try to avoid going to the vet and shake on the way there. It’s obvious from that that a) cats feel stress, and b) they’re capable of associating present and future events on the timescale of an hour or so. So it sounds like Sugar is making two associations: 1. When humans are in bathrooms, bad things happen later; 2. When I enter the bathroom and don’t see a dead human I stop being stressed. Under this hypothesis we don’t have to postulate anything as complicated as “I’d better check on my human to make sure he’s ok”; going into the bathroom can just be a conditioned response to stress.

  11. I wonder about it precisely because “for her own peace of mind” seems like an awfully anthropomorphic theory to apply to a cat. It’s easy to find that kind of explanation intuitive, because we instinctively project humanity onto everything, but it’s what I’m trying to avoid here. A cat is not a tiny human in a fur suit, and I want an explanation that makes sense in the cat’s terms.

    Though I share your views on the danger of anthropomorphizing, recent research indicates that cats are more like humans at a neurological level than most other common domesticated mammals. This may not account for much, but we do tend to get on better with cats than with other feral species.

  12. I see what you’re getting at. I am over-anthropomorphizing her in my previous comment by implying that she’d care about you in the same abstract way humans care about each other, or cats for that matter. At a lower level, though, it seems reasonable that she still perceives you as a provider for her basic needs, and experiences some anxiety at the prospect of not knowing where her next meal will come from.

    On the other hand, cats seem to exhibit strange behavior in bathrooms in general. Mine was very standoffish in other environments, and not particular affectionate at the best of times, but when I was using the bathroom, she’d come in, rub around my ankles and purr until I picked her up and gave her some cuddle. She’s become much more sociable since my other cat died, but she still does the bathroom thing. I have no clue what motivates it.

  13. Here’s the most surprising piece of cat intelligence I’ve seen. For a while, there was a cat here that Perse (a cat of generally average intelligence) wasn’t fond of. If I petted the other cat and then went to pet her, Perse would give my hand a big sniff, and then turn away.

    What’s interesting is that not only was it a gesture I’ve never seen her do for anything else, it was entirely fake. I tried petting the other cat where she couldn’t see me doing it, and there was no big sniff– she wasn’t smelling the other cat on my hand at all.

    As for purring, I’ve heard both that vibration is good for people’s bones and that purring helps cats heal. (They’ll purr when they’re in pain, I’ve been told.) Maybe there’s something physiologically valuable about purring.

  14. Dogs have owners.

    Cats have staff.

    Or, more prosaicly:

    DOG: “You FED me! You must be a God!”
    CAT: “You fed me. I must be a God!”

    You are aware that I have pictures of Sugar batting at the screen of a Mac table, right? :)

  15. You know, a cat that I used to have would come around and bug me whenever I would get online.

    Mostly she would ignore me, but if I sat down and turned on the computer, she would jump on the computer table and start showing me her bunghole. I would throw her off the table, she would jump right back up.

    What do you make of this? Was the cat jealous of the attention I was showing to the computer? Or some other motivation?

    Anyone else have a cat that does this?

  16. Dogs have owners.

    Cats have staff.

    I had a cat that would literally treat me as an attendant or PA. Example: she would wake me at 6 AM and insist that I accompany her to the food bowl. About half the time there would be food from the prior evening still in the dish; my presence was simply required to ensure there was a human on hand to dispense food should there be none in the dish.

  17. There were some quasi-anthropomorphizing statements in the above. I rather suspect that she became so used to having a human on hand at food time that she was conditioned to require it before accepting food. To be honest, though, I think cats have a rather more sophisticated world-model than is commonly attributed to them; I have personally witnessed untrained behavior involving doors and containers of hard-to-get-at food that suggest they possess a rudimentary form of spatial and procedural reasoning ability. There’s even an account of untrained feline tool use.

  18. Ken, post the picture! Then we can do an end-run around Eric’s petulant refusal to comply with memetic norms, and the captioning can commence.

  19. >Care to explain these?

    Well, yeah. That was six years ago and part of a dramatic presentation with – how do they put it?- redeeming social value, not mere cat porn. :-)

  20. I’d like to propose a new standard for blogs. When they finally hit bottom, we should say that they have “jumped the cat”.

  21. Purring:

    1) Doesn’t it sound a bit like a human’s “satisfied sigh” or “happy sigh” ? (A sigh after a very good meal, for example.)

    2) What if it’s not the sound but the looks? Purring cats look extremely cute, which basically means they resemble human babys and trigger our parental instincts.

  22. “satisfied sigh” – well, or rather like the “mmmm” in “Mmmmmm. Chocolate. I just LOVE chocolate.” i.e. a sound that’s associated with tasty meals?

  23. Perseus, our cat, can open doors. If a door is closed, and he wants to get to the other side, he will open it by jumping at the handle. This has led to lots of scratches on our doors. If I have my office door closed, and am alone in the house with Perseus then he will open my office door, come in, and go out again. Occasionally he will sit on my lap whilst I work, but mostly he will just come in and go out again. If we go out for an extended period he will open every door in the house. If the children are asleep, he likes to lie on the landing at the top of the stairs, and if we shut the lounge door he will open it so he can go upstairs. Occasionally he will open their bedroom doors and go in, but mostly he just lies at the top of the stairs.

    We attribute it to him liking to know where his people are, and wanting to know they’re OK. Your cat’s behaviour seems similar, at least as far as bathroom demons go.

  24. Oh boy, cat intelligence!
    One winter morning I was being led downstairs by my cat, who was concerned about breakfast. At the bottom she turned to face me, and brushed her nose close to a corner of the wall. Now, these wall corners have metal strips over the wallboard (under the paint) for reinforcement. A small static spark from her nose to the wall was the result. She was slightly startled, but not scared.
    Next morning, the same scene, except that she *deliberately* drew a spark from nose to wall. She also tries again but gets no spark. Fast forward a few days: She has now learned, I’m not sure how, that if she draws a spark, she can get more by flopping on her back and wriggling on the carpet.
    My reaction to this rate of learning was “If she figures out that this works better in winter (because of the dry air) than in summer, I’m going to have her apply to UC Berkeley. I knew lots of people there too dumb to figure that out.”

  25. >Oh boy, cat intelligence!

    Please keep the cute-cat stories to a minimum, preferably zero.

  26. Surprised this wasn’t posted earlier:
    http://www.nhne.org/news/NewsArticlesArchive/tabid/400/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/3359/Default.aspx

    Oscar the cat knows when people are going to die.

    PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours.

    His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

  27. Please keep the cute-cat stories to a minimum, preferably zero.
    Eric, you should know that cats have us trained better than that…

  28. Not much help with the purring, nor, particularly, how Sugar knows when you’re ill, but if you haven’t done so already, take a look at some of the work of Dr Temple Grandon.

    Dr Grandon is an autistic who has done volumes of research into how animals and human brains process information. According to Temple, most animals, including cats, remember things in the same manner as autistics do, via sensory snapshots, be they images, sounds, scents, or tactile. And that certain snapshots are “tagged,” for lack of a better word, to certain pre-wired response centers in the brain, such as Flight or Seek.

    So in the case of Sugar, someone being in the bathroom may very well provide very similar sensory tags as the ones associated with that fateful day of your wife’s stepfather, which then also drive the associated response center, causing her agitation.

  29. We “solve” this problem by putting the litter box in the bathroom (there’s no other plausible place for it, for one thing), giving the cat an actual cat-level reason to want to go there.

    It’s also probably the warmest room in the house almost all the time.

  30. I’ve known cats that have a mental model. I’ve known cats that go on triggered responses.

    I don’t really know what causes the difference.

  31. To answer another of your questions: humans do indeed smell bad when they are sick. I’ve been blessed (cursed?) with a very acute sense of smell and I can nearly always tell when someone has a cold, flu or even their monthly period just by standing next to them. Pneumonia smells *awful* and throat cancer is stomach-turning. I had one coworker who I simply couldn’t work with because she wouldn’t attend to her dentistry – and no one else could tell a thing (they thought I was nuts). If I, a mere human can smell this, I imagine that dogs and cats have no trouble at all.

    Of course, the upside of a sensitive nose is that good Wine and rich Beer are extraordinary experiences!

  32. >I’ve known cats that have a mental model. I’ve known cats that go on triggered responses.
    >
    >I don’t really know what causes the difference.

    I don’t know either, and it might be that some cats only mentally model some of the time and about some things.

    Sugar shows almost no sign of being able to reason causally about things, but her social skills are better than those of many humans I know. She can tell the difference between human beings who merely tolerate cats and humans who like cats, and behaves politely towards the former kind and playfully/affectionately towards the latter kind. Actually, if she were a human, I would say she had impeccable manners – which is pretty interesting, because it implies that she can model human desires quite effectively at some level.

    The interesting question is whether she models in the way a neural net or Temple Grandin says an autistic human does (it’s all just training of node weights and responding to sensory tags) or in the way a human does (that is, starting with a theory of mind and introspectively examining explicit models of other minds).

    The easy, least hypothesis is the former, and I think people who project humanity onto their cats as though they were small furry toddlers are both silly and kind of sad. Still…I wonder. Her imitation of a human greeting sound when she has a perfectly serviceable one of her own that she also uses is suggestive to me of at least a weak theory of mind. Further evidence is that her affectionateness goes up some if a human is feeling sad or blue and a lot if a human is sick. She behaves as though she knows when her people need her to be extra nice, and I can’t really come up with a non-theory-of-mind explanation that covers that very convincingly.

  33. >Of course, the upside of a sensitive nose is that good Wine and rich Beer are extraordinary experiences!

    I know what you mean. I can’t smell illness the way you can, but my nose is sensitive enough to the congeners in wine and beer that I can tell good booze from bad even though I have to sort of dig through the revolting smell of all that alcohol to do it.

  34. My two cents…

    We had three cats at one point, and could not stop them from relieving themselves in non designated spots. This led us to the vet who reveiled that for felines, the restroom is a social structure. Who gets to go where and do what is part of the ranking system. For us this meant the eldest cat (alpha) was unhappy sharing a box with the most agressive cat (beta) and would use the alpha humans sleeping quarters as a way to indicate to everyone that she was unhappy.

    Of those three cats, only the youngest would not seek out the bathroom when occupied. As such, my unqualified hypothesis is that the human box is a social component that Sugar is testing to see her rank (does she get to inspect the goings on).

  35. >As such, my unqualified hypothesis is that the human box is a social component that Sugar is testing to see her rank (does she get to inspect the goings on).

    That is very interesting, and exactly the sort of thing I mean by an explanation that makes sense in cat terms rather than human ones. It is well established that cats know bathrooms are human litterboxes.

    The combination of this theory with some associational trauma from the bathroom death she encountered would explain Sugar’s behavior rather neatly. It might also explain a bit of feline body language she does when on bathroom-demon patrol but at no other time — a sort of shivering motion of her tail, as if to draw attention to the fact that she’s holding it in the high and forward position of an alpha cat. I always thought this looked like some sort of social assertion gesture, but I couldn’t form any theory of why she’d do a gesture of that kind in this context.

    The cat in question just padded into my office and is now purring at me companionably. Behind-the-ear skritching will commence as soon as I have finished typing.

  36. That is very interesting, and exactly the sort of thing I mean by an explanation that makes sense in cat terms rather than human ones. It is well established that cats know bathrooms are human litterboxes.

    It also explains why my cats used to display such behavior as well, despite having not been traumatized by such a death as Sugar had witnessed.

    (Ashley, ever the inventive one, used to try to get a paw under the bathroom door when she detected human activity on the other side. Eventually we moved to a house with doors that closed tight enough to preclude cat paw penetration.)

  37. Wildmonk,

    “I can nearly always tell when someone has a cold, flu or even their monthly period just by standing next to them.”

    You must love smokers then… :) Advanced version: my dad smokes Villiger cigars. Even my cigarette-clogged noses can tell that the whole freakin’ house smells exactly like dog cr*p after the third puff :)

    BTW… does it count as cruelty to smoke in a home with cat or a dog then? I suppose it must be horrible for them. (Not that I have any pets, just curious.)

  38. I would first ask, why are the infant offspring of so many species ‘adorable’ when beheld by humans yet threatening when beheld by each other? We’ll take in a puppy, a kitten, a monkey, a baby bird, you name it, we’re likely to nurture it. As we’re the only species that does so, exploiting human compassion can’t be an accident. Yes, there are instances when other species have taken in human babies, but not many when compared to what you find at a pet store.

    As we develop compassionate traits, other species will develop ways to put those of us who have opposing thumbs to work. I don’t think that adequately explains the purr.

    As for the bathroom, if the space eats people and prevents them from using said thumbs to operate the can opener when its ‘Purina time’ , of course it will be a source of anxiety. Any species capable of understanding human compassion to the point of exploiting it (aware of it or not) would surely realize existential angst, especially when existence is tied to opposable thumbs.

  39. >The interesting question is whether she models in the way a neural net or Temple Grandin says an autistic human does

    The autism angle is interesting. I once read a theory posing that autism may be an effect of a lowering or lack of filtering of external stimuli by the sufferer’s brain. In many environments, especially public ones, there are many sounds, smells and visual information that most of our brains just filter out as unimportant because they fall below some threshold. Someone with autism can’t filter this data out as well or maybe at all. All of it must be processed. The only way to deal with the flood of data is to process it like a neural net.

    I remember looking at my cat a while back and wondering how she deals with all the sensory information she receives. Her body, especially the head, is packed with sensors. Those long, deep rooted hairs like whiskers, the steerable ears with an acoustic range similar to a bat, low light vision, tactile sensors on the paws, the Jacobsen’s organ (http://www.metpet.com/Reference/Cats/Behavior/vmo_flehmen_cats.htm), etc. must be flooding her brain with information.

    Maybe all cats are autistic. Maybe this is a pro survival trait for an animal at the lower middle part of the food chain that evolved in a world that both requires high sensitivity to capture food and low filter thresholds so as not to miss data that indicates a threat.

  40. >The autism angle is interesting. I once read a theory posing that autism may be an effect of a lowering or lack of filtering of external stimuli by the sufferer’s brain.

    I formed that theory myself after watching a film of Sufi mystical practices and noticing that they strongly resembled certain common autistic behaviors — rocking, droning, fixating on spinning or glittering objects. Once I noticed the similarity, it wasn’t much of a leap to suppose that autists might feel compelled to do whatever Sufis were doing voluntarily. Then all I had to do was figure out what the Sufis were after, and their doctrine told me that.

    As for cats being autistic – that term may or may not be meaningful at all when applied to nonhumans. If you mean “lacking a theory of mind”, then, probably, at least for many cats much of the time. If you mean “suffering from chronic sensory overload”, I doubt it. The species evolved to cope with this; the brain coevolved with the sense organs. It would take some kind of error, a mutation or a glitch in morphogenesis, to produce a cat that was capable of being overloaded by its sensorium.

  41. >As we’re the only species that does so, exploiting human compassion can’t be an accident. Yes, there are instances when other species have taken in human babies, but not many when compared to what you find at a pet store.

    You’re right, and this is conspicuous enough that it requires explanation. I think I have one.

    Humans are evolved to be super-nurturant because their young are at an extreme of neediness. In other species its more typical to be able to let the kids go at sixteen days, months, or weeks than sixteen years. Pet-keeping is a spandrel from this adaptation.

    I actually feel better having figured this out.

  42. Tinkertim,

    “I would first ask, why are the infant offspring of so many species ‘adorable’ when beheld by humans yet threatening when beheld by each other?”

    Because “cuteness” is not just a vague term but a well-researched, psychologically well-explained resemblance to human babies such as the relative size of the maxilla and mandible etc.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuteness

    “As we’re the only species that does so, exploiting human compassion can’t be an accident.”

    It’s not an accident and not an exploitation, simply the same triggers in different species. Read the article.

    “Yes, there are instances when other species have taken in human babies, but not many when compared to what you find at a pet store.”

    I suggest to use a little bit of economics, not just biology. Average modern urban humans have orders of magnitude more surplus wealth and thus can afford to follow their cute-loving instincts. Animals cannot afford it. Rural people in less rich areas neither – my own 10 years ago deceased great-grandma would not have thought twice before killing the cutest little rabbit for dinner. She grew up poor and learned not to afford such sentiments.

    “As we develop compassionate traits, other species will develop ways to put those of us who have opposing thumbs to work. I don’t think that adequately explains the purr.”

    We did not develop an extreme amount of them biologically, other species have similar amounts of them too. We developed advanced economic systems that let us afford to pay the costs of these sentiments. So, no, don’t hold your breath until evolution catches up with economic progress, they operate on entirely different timescales.

  43. ESR,

    “‘You’re right, and this is conspicuous enough that it requires explanation. ”

    Are you sure the explanation is biological and not economical? That all mammal species may have the same sentiment but we can afford it much more to pay the costs for it, due to the economic abundance of food and other wealth? Proof is rural people growing up poor like my great-grandma, who don’t give a flying fuck about killing and eating the cutest animals because they got used to not affording the costs. Yes, I think at least 20% of the world population, but more like 40%, would see Sugar as a walking lunchbox and nothing more.

  44. “Yes, I think at least 20% of the world population, but more like 40%, would see Sugar as a walking lunchbox and nothing more.”

    Correction: eating cats isn’t so widespread because they tend to be cuter than nutritious i.e. fat/muscular. Replace it with an equally cute little rabbit and I might even have underestimated that 40%.

  45. >As for cats being autistic – that term may or may not be meaningful at all when applied to nonhumans.

    “Maybe all cats are autistic” was poor phrasing on my part. I don’t think cats are overloaded by their sensor data. What I was getting at was that I think cats probably process snapshots of the flood of sensory data as Grandin says. The snapshotting is to prevent the overload. If that is the case, obviously it has worked out well for the species. It may be the most efficient way to manage large amounts of data in real-time where human-like thought is not required. It’s the way modern multi-sensor weapon systems in fighter jets work. The fact that my cat’s behavior is more complex than the weapon system is probably the result of her greater processing power and the fact that her processing is analog instead of digital like the jet.

  46. >It may be the most efficient way to manage large amounts of data in real-time where human-like thought is not required.

    Well and intelligently put, sir. I apologize for misconstruing you.

    I would amend your theory to suggest that the relevant chunk probably isn’t a “snapshot” but an object motion history assembled from lower-level continuity cues, probably in the retinal layer itself (humans too do a fair amount of preprocessing there). We know that cats are uninterested in color but extremely sensitive to motion.

  47. If you mean “suffering from chronic sensory overload”, I doubt it. The species evolved to cope with this; the brain coevolved with the sense organs. It would take some kind of error, a mutation or a glitch in morphogenesis, to produce a cat that was capable of being overloaded by its sensorium.

    Cats are very capable getting their sensoria overloaded. Ever pet a cat for one second longer than it liked?

    Dogs and cats also don’t have to sit still during meetings or fill out TPS reports. Their sensory processing methodology is ideally suited to their environment and behavior. A significant human evolutionary trait, I think, was the ability to squelch out sensory inputs that we consciously consider irrelevant. To the extent that autistics lack this ability, the load of their senses dumping data into them in full feral glory, combined with the additional cognitive load of expected human social behavior, can plausibly trigger some bizarre failure modes.

  48. >“Yes, I think at least 20% of the world population, but more like 40%, would see Sugar as a walking lunchbox and nothing more.”

    I doubt it. I’ve done a bit of web research into the matter and the range of cultures in which cats have been considered proper food animals is not large. Today it’s only documented as a regular practice in China and Korea, though I would be unsurprised if it’s an occasional practice in Southeast Asian countries under Chinese influence. I found a few references to cat-eating in the West, but generally the meat was false-flagged as rabbit or something else. My guess is that it’s rare because (a) there isn’t much meat on a cat, and (b) they’re valuable for protecting grain stores.

    I did find one reference to an annual cat-eating festival in Peru, but the account was clear that this is a strange and exceptional practice that the locals only indulge in two days a year. And they don’t eat ordinary cats but a strain specifically bred for the purpose.

    This reminded me of the taboo against eating horsemeat in English-speaking cultures, which is just as firm but (given that you can get a lot of meat off a horse) more difficult to explain. We just don’t. We know the Anglo-Saxons ate horsemeat, but the practice seems to have tapered off in medieval times. I’ve seen one source that seriously suggested this is a fossil remnant of the cult of the Celtic horse-goddess Epona.

    Has anyone here eaten horsemeat? If so, what was it like?

  49. >Cats are very capable getting their sensoria overloaded. Ever pet a cat for one second longer than it liked?

    I’ve heard you can get nipped under these circumstances but never had it happen to me. Cats like me, as a rule.

  50. “Humans are evolved to be super-nurturant because their young are at an extreme of neediness.”

    BTW does it have any causal relationship with humans evolving into sophonts, either way around? I’d think growing a relatively big and complicated brain in the womb takes time, and also the genes regulating bodily growth after birth have been slowed down by natural selection to give the parents enough time to train that big and complicated brain. (Teaching a 1 yard high, 60 pound baby to walk would be a major pain in the backside, IMHO.) Or maybe the other way around – the need for extreme amounts of parental investment triggering a change in the fitness function to be extremely biased towards the improvement of the brain at the cost of everything else (almost useless fangs, nails etc.) ?

  51. I believe the bathroom thing to be typical cat behavior. Every cat I have ever owned or known does it. I refer to the bathroom as “The Cat’s Office”.

    As for purring, my experience tells me that cats purr for a variety of widely differing reasons and that the purr itself changes depending on the situation and the mood of the cat. My current cat purrs almost inaudibly when she is content and cuddly. She purrs ridiculously loudly when she is calm, but happy or interested in something that is happening away from her (such as when a family member walks through a room), and she has a naughty purr that I can’t quite describe that she does when she is getting ready to attack me playfully. Of course, I adore ALL of these purrs, but I think that is because I adore my cat. I know other cats who’s purrs do not have the same effect on me. I won’t name names but they KNOW who they are! ; )

  52. >my experience tells me that cats purr for a variety of widely differing reasons

    Right, I recognize two of those; I think of them as the “purr contented” and the “purr demonstrative”. I don’t recognize the third one, but that’d probably just because Sugar doesn’t play-fight.

    I reply mostly to note that I have less of a differential in response than you between our cat’s purrs and other cat’s purrs. Any cat purring is deeply pleasurable to me and makes me want to be actively nice to it, scratch it where it likes, and so forth. I think cats somehow notice this from my kinesics and it’s why I’m something of a cat magnet.

  53. >BTW does it have any causal relationship with humans evolving into sophonts, either way around?

    I think you answered your own question: absolutely yes. Sometime in the Pliocine hominids wandered into an adaptive strategy in which both arrows of causation you mention formed a self-reinforcing loop. I was taking this model for granted in my original comment.

  54. I for one would love to see more cat posts. But I’m pretty sure I won’t get my wish.

    And I want to know what Sugar does when you’re both sick, and in different rooms. ;o)

  55. Your response to a purr is highly likely to be either a learned behavior, or one you have, by learning, mapped to some more inbred response. People who grew up with cats love purrs; I did not grow up with cats, and my only experience with the purr was through pop culture, and I could really care less. But canine cues I’m all over: the right ear posture, and it’s fight-or-flight-city; a wagging tail is a great thing. Really, I just think humans are quite adaptable in various forms of communication, especially where the sender isn’t all that alien. Which is to say, we understand mammals pretty well.

  56. We’ve spent six thousand (at least) years artificially selecting for cats that are emotionally compatible with humans. So of course we’re going to end up with animals that have behaviours jarringly meaningful in human terms.

    This is my theory as to why pets look like their owners: they don’t, but they do have similar facial expressions. Insofar as a cat can do facial expressions.

  57. Twelve thousand years, I see. Lots of time to train any amount of behaviours that will trigger responses in humans who have food!

  58. Eric:
    I have been thinking deeply about your post, and offering up 25+ years of experience of kitty observation, I offer the following:

    1.most kitties have issues with bathrooms, and as Orwell says, “some [bathroom issues] are more equal than others.”

    2.these issues revolve around other characteristics of bathrooms: the presence of water (with issues of it’s own) the presence of doors that close at inconvenient times and frequently locked, and the presence of a shower or bath frequently used.

    3.Cats rely on smell more than we rely on sight. Humans do quite well without sight, and, in fact in this day and age can even surf the web effectively with the right equipment. A cat without smell requires heavy-handed care to survive: including force feeding, iv and vitamins. A cat who can’t smell won’t eat, thus, a cat without smell and a loving owner is basically dead.

    With these things in mind, it’s evident that Sugar already has a big bunch of issues to cope with even before the whole finding a member of her protector tribe dead in one.

    If you have read the SF/horror short story classic “Eyes End” you have a small taste of what a cat might think of a bathroom, especially with a shower involved.

    After all, it must be very confusing for a cat to know that most of the time, you go into the bathroom and come out smelling more like yourself, (thus giving the cat more information about the state of your health and the like) and once in a while, you smell like you’ve spent weeks in a sterile land that smells like soap. (Cat pheromones on their own can take weeks or even months to dissipate) The whole showering phenomenon might even mess with a cat’s sense of time.

    So…

    1.there’s water, but it doesn’t really have a source in two places,
    2.there’s a closed off (usually) cistern that has a function like a litter box who’s usefulness goes away after making lots of scary noises.
    3.Small fry humans might go in there making loud splashing and squalling noises (who knows what a cat makes of that!)
    4.human protectors go in there into a tiny space amid a loud roaring sound (who’s origin is a mystery) comes out somewhat damp and smells like that soap-place. *And you can’t even tell how long they’ve been gone*.
    SO, it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, it changes the smells of your humans, thus erasing all evidence your existence, and might even have a time machine. It is quite confusing enough to a cat without people suddenly dropping dead. Good luck, Sugar.

  59. >SO, it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, it changes the smells of your humans, thus erasing all evidence your existence, and might even have a time machine. It is quite confusing enough to a cat without people suddenly dropping dead. Good luck, Sugar.

    Thank you, I found that both funny and insightful. Good job of reasoning from what we know about the cat sensorium.

  60. I’ve had several people opine that finding cat purrs pleasurable is a learned response. Well, OK, I don’t think that answers the real question, which is “why are humans capable of learning it?”. This is not a trivial question; I’ve never heard anyone say “I like listening to my dog bark.”

    For humans to experience purrs the way they do, I think the purring sound must be what ethologists call a superstimulus – accidentally evoking something we adaptively sought out in the ancestral environment. A refinement of my question is this: what is the cat purr superstimulating?

  61. They might have said “I like it when my dog is happy”, which is a different thing. There are different kinds of bark, after all.

  62. >We’ve spent six thousand (at least) years artificially selecting for cats that are emotionally compatible with humans.

    Most sources think it’s roughly four thousand, actually, with full domestication in pre-dynastic or early dynastic Egypt (2000-1500CE) after a long period in which cats lived alongside humans as vermin-killers but were not yet kept as pets (earliest evidence of this in Cyprus c. 8000BCE).

    Interestingly, diffusion of the domestic cat out of Egypt was then delayed for a remarkably long time; we have no evidence of it until the first century BCE. In late-Republican/early-Imperial-Roman times cats were still an expensive novelty in Europe. I’ve been unable to find any serious examination of when they made it to the Orient, but there was flourishing late-classical trade over the Silk Road so a good guess would be somewhere between 100-500CE.

  63. >They might have said “I like it when my dog is happy”, which is a different thing. There are different kinds of bark, after all.

    True, but less relevant than you think. Cats purr for lots of reasons, including being in pain and needing comfort, so the purr we enjoy doesn’t necessarily mean the cat is happy either.

  64. > You’re right, and this is conspicuous enough that it requires explanation. I think I have one.
    >
    > Humans are evolved to be super-nurturant because their young are at an extreme of neediness. In other
    > species its more typical to be able to let the kids go at sixteen days, months, or weeks than sixteen years.
    > Pet-keeping is a spandrel from this adaptation.
    >
    > I actually feel better having figured this out.

    What will be very interesting is to see humans close the gap from birth to self reliance. We’re not going to see this in our life time, if it happens at all.

    I too feel better after you articulated this phenomenon. Its extremely frustrating to know something and not be able to adequately articulate your understanding.

    I’m looking forward to your next post, I enjoy reading what you have to say.

  65. > I too feel better after you articulated this phenomenon. Its extremely frustrating to know something and not
    > be able to adequately articulate your understanding.

    s/understanding./understanding\ without\ use\ of\ common\ metaphors./

  66. 2.there’s a closed off (usually) cistern that has a function like a litter box who’s usefulness goes away after making lots of scary noises.

    Its usefulness goes away? After it’s through making those scary noises it provides lots of fresh water for cats. I don’t consider that useless…

  67. What will be very interesting is to see humans close the gap from birth to self reliance. We’re not going to see this in our life time, if it happens at all.

    Short of Singularity-grade bioengineering this is indeed hard to imagine. The trend throughout modern history and especially the 20th century has been the reverse, as more and more education is necessary to function in society. If society ever wakes up and reforms the torture chambers that are our public school system then we could maybe cut a few years off, but we aren’t going to push majority any earlier than it was in the AE.

  68. > Cats purr for lots of reasons, including being in pain and needing comfort, so the purr we enjoy doesn’t necessarily mean the cat is happy either.

    So? This seems to be exactly the same thing: cats purr for different reasons, dogs bark for different reasons. Humans learn to recognize the different forms and respond to them.

    It’s pretty easy to recognize a dog barking for pleasure from one barking because it’s alert, or because it’s strutting before a fight, etc. It does involve other cues, I guess, like the position of ears, the wagging, the movement or stance…

    I imagine the cat’s purr is not the same when expressing pain or pleasure. Frankly, I’ve only experienced the ‘relaxed’ purr. Or so I think. No cats resting on my lap and purring looked like they were in pain. But then again, you seem to be saying ‘my cat could be in pain, and yet I could enjoy it purring without noticing’. Is that so?

  69. >But then again, you seem to be saying ‘my cat could be in pain, and yet I could enjoy it purring without noticing’. Is that so?

    That is what I am given reason to believe by other peoples’ reports. I don’t think I’ve experienced this myself, but it’s hard to know for sure.

    >It’s pretty easy to recognize a dog barking for pleasure from one barking because it’s alert, or because it’s strutting before a fight, etc.

    Right, but I’ve also never heard a dog owner say “I enjoy the sound of happy dogs barking.” Even caninophiles seem less likely to experience visceral pleasure at that phenomenon than they do to heave a shoe at it.

  70. purring is cats’ equivalent of laughing/(genuine)crying, and is similarly difficult to distinguish quickly/shallowly. the underlying social mechanism is the same, interestingly: communication of “power” difference.

    cats (and most animals) are typically viewed as far more stupid than they are, because their body language and priorities are so different from humans’. even the much lauded dog’s intelligence is primarily measured by the animal conforming to humans’ expectations/wants, making their “intelligence” far more a comment on the humans’ than on the animal’s.

    but this intrigued me:
    >Purring evolved well after the last common ancestor of hominidae and felinidae diverged

    first i’ve heard this. can you expand?

  71. >but this intrigued me:
    >Purring evolved well after the last common ancestor of hominidae and felinidae diverged
    >
    >first i’ve heard this. can you expand?

    Sure. The last common ancestor of the primates and laurasiatheres (the larger mammalian group to which cats belong) flourished in the mid- to late Cretaceous period. That’s, like, 65Myears back. But it occurs in no surviving primate and to my knowledge in no surviving mammal species outside the Felidae, which only emerged during the Oligocine about 25Myears ago. (The Wikipedia article on purring asserts otherwise, but without references or any discussion of the evidence for purring in non-felids; these assertions are rightly questioned on its talk page.)

    So, while it’s theoretically possible that purring was a common early mammalian behavior that only cats have retained, the odds are fantastically against it having been so – if that were the case, it should have survived broadly in many other mammal lines. Even taking the Wikipedia article’s highly dubious claims about non-felid purring at face value would not, in my opinion, suggest a wide enough phyletic spread for the behavior to be that old.

  72. > even the much lauded dog’s intelligence is primarily measured by the animal conforming to humans’ expectations/wants, making their “intelligence” far more a comment on the humans’ than on the animal’s.

    Yes, I remember my dog used to sleep all he could, pretend he’d been proudly guarding the garden as soon as he noticed one of us in the house, and only respond clearly to food, but not when called otherwise. Some people call that ‘dumb’.

  73. Stroking a cat feels good because humans like handling soft, fluffy things (it feels good to the cat because the gentle stroking motion evokes their mother’s tongue). Maybe cat purrs feel good simply because things vibrating gently at 25 Hz feels good? Purrs as communication are primarily employed between a mother cat and her kittens. The mother’s purring helps comfort the kittens, assuring them that mommy is there and they are safe. The kittens’ purring helps to relax the mother so she can nurse. It is plausible that the purring behavior evolved in felids as a way to stimulate some pleasure center that is shared by cats and humans.

  74. I think I’ve eaten horse. (Meat substitution racket many years ago. May have been donkey, but most likely horse; wasn’t rabbit, sheep (lamb or mutton), or kangaroo as I would have known those, and I don’t think it was goat (which I’ve probably eaten) or camel (which I haven’t, but geography and the details of that long ago scandal make camel unlikely).)

    Whatever it was tasted stronger/different than the beef it was supposed to be, but not unpleasant, particularly; just “not right” and I don’t buy meat products from the company that sold those pies, even 25 years later. Fool me once … fool me twice … yada yada.

  75. I think I’ve eaten horse.

    American McGee’s new game development company, Spicy Horse, is reportedly named after a menu item he encountered at a Shanghai restaurant.

  76. How about this theory about purring? There is a large number of speices that were domesticated, and even more that could have been. But only a few were domesticated mainly for pleasure, to be pets. So plain simply humans domesticated those species to be pets from the gazillion possible choices that just basically by random chance happened to do stuff we happen to like, such as purring. (And then selective breeding improved it more. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not so consciously: every time food was scarce, poor rural owners just absent-mindedly forgetting to feed cats that don’t purr nicely enough to touch their feelings because they need the food themselves etc.)

    It’s basically the same question as why do most people like oranges? Needs there be some deeper evolutionary connection? Nope. A gazillion possible edible plants could have been domensticated, and those were actually domesticated which people just happen to like by random chance, and then breeding them further to improve the taste.

    On a general note: feel free to use economics in questions of biology, often they are a good fit. (This here is supposed to be an economics-inspired analysis.)

  77. (about eating horse): horse butchers are common in Italy. I’m not certain I’ve tried the meat (I really don’t remember), but from what I hear it’s sweeter than the bovine equivalent.

  78. Shenpen, cats were not domesticated to be pets. Like the dog and horse the cat was useful to early human settlements: cats helped keep grain stores free of rodents. The cat is arguably not truly domesticated, but rather lives among us as a kind of symbiote.

    As for purring, a friend of mine reports that an idling diesel engine outside the window put her baby niece right to sleep. That lends anecdotal support to my theory that low, gentle rumbling vibration is fundamentally soothing to humans (and possibly lots of other mammals).

  79. >>first i’ve heard this. can you expand?
    >Sure.

    ta

    Jeff Read:
    >cats were not domesticated to be pets.

    similarly to dogs, that’s both true and false. both species were most likely domesticated as being useful. but subsequently, social mechanisms have created domesticated versions of the original “working” animals.
    indeed, in many ways (atavistic untrained behaviour) there’s a strong argument to make that “cats” are more domesticated than “dogs”, as anyone watching a gundog- or sheepdog- puppy will drop-jawedly avow.

    Adriano:
    >(about eating horse): horse butchers are common in Italy

    likewise, horse is still commonly eaten in France. horseskin is amazingly better for motorcycle leathers than cowskin (as is kangaroo skin), but alas i still haven’t tried it as flesh.

  80. >indeed, in many ways (atavistic untrained behaviour) there’s a strong argument to make that “cats” are more domesticated than “dogs”, as anyone watching a gundog- or sheepdog- puppy will drop-jawedly avow.

    Careful. You may be falling into an everybody-knows that ain’t so. I might have thought so, too, but in my recent research I turned up two interesting facts about domestic cats:

    1. They routinely outbreed with their wild cousins (Felis sylvestris, Felis lybica) in the places where ranges overlap. Both populations show this measurably in their genotypes.

    2. They’re not physically neotenized relative to their wild cousins. Yes, I know, this surprises me too — but it makes sense given that domestic and wild cats are not separate breeding populations.

    So, either human domestication has had the side effect of neotenizing the entire wildcat population in just 4 kiloyears (unlikely) or the biological/behavioral differences between domestic and wild cats are far less marked than the differences between dogs and wolves.

    >The cat is arguably not truly domesticated, but rather lives among us as a kind of symbiote.

    I think, on the basis of this evidence, that Jeff is right: cats are less domesticated – with the interesting corollary that wild cats are better preadapted to living with humans than wolves are.

  81. >1. They routinely outbreed with their wild cousins (Felis sylvestris, Felis lybica) in the places where ranges overlap.

    so do dogs

    2. They’re not physically neotenized relative to their wild cousins. Yes, I know, this surprises me too — but it makes sense given that domestic and wild cats are not separate breeding populations.

    likewise dogs

    the only real difference is that wild dog (and related) populations are far less common than wild cats. but that’s more a function of cats’ relative success as a species than dogs’ domestication.

  82. Regarding the bathroom behavior, our cat does exactly the same thing. But she hasn't, to my knowledge, ever found anyone deceased in one.

    If the door is open and someone is in there, she'll walk right by without even looking in. If the door is closed, (or cracked open slightly, which is much more common in our house), she *must* open it and see what's going on inside. Usually, she'll just walk in, make her presence known, and then walk out again as long as the door didn't close too far behind her. If someone is taking a shower, she'll sit and wait patiently for the human to finish up so she can go in and lick the water droplets off the tub.

  83. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-taming-of-the-cat

    As is normal for SciAm these days, there are mistakes of interpretation. It is known from barn cat studies that house cats are more than capable of being social animals. I also fail to see how killing mice and other pests wasn’t an important contribution to human survival, especially when dealing with early crops that were not yet optimized for production quantity.

  84. When I was in my early teens, and sometimes even to this day, I often had terrifying nightmares that woke me from my sleep screaming for a few seconds. Every cat I’ve ever lived with that has heard this has always responded by running to my bed and seeming concerned. Invariably, within thirty seconds of the scream, they’ll come running. But how would they know that a human scream is a sound of distress? This could be the reverse of the purring thing you mentioned. Very interesting post, ESR.

  85. cats are curious and interesting creatures. we have 3 of them with different personalities. one is kind of like a dog, very social with humans, goes on walks with me and the dog. one is solitary and (i suspect) is the one who is responsible for the rat hearts, rat tails and bird feathers i’ve found around the place. the third is a “girlie girl” a big puff ball who loves to be petted and stuff.

  86. I’d like to share with you a similar case, where a 7-year-old cat actually monitors the blood sugar of his human, an old man who has diabetes. Several times every night the cat will approach the man while he sleeps, then sniffs and licks the man’s face, and sometimes decides to wake up the man by pushing his nose into the man’s face until he wakes up. Every time this happens, the man has low blood sugar and needs a snack to raise it. In some cases the man is already feeling ill from the low sugar level. So, apparently the cat can detect low blood sugar from the man’s breath, and considers it a threat that requires waking him up.

    Part of the story is published (in Finnish) together with a video clip on our local newspaper’s website:

    http://www.kaleva.fi/uutiset/karvainen-diabeteshoitaja/897097

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