It must be tough, being a cat and not a dog. Thousands of years before there was any such animal as a domestic cat, dogs had already run off with all the prizes for faithfulness, loyalty, and just being “man’s best friend”. Or rather, they would have run a short way and then turned right around and headed back again, because dogs’ place is, of course, by his master’s (or mistress’s) side. Ever since the first cat tiptoed out of the wild and into a mouse-infested Neolithic village, cats have been struggling to catch up.
Cats’ somewhat inexpressive faces don’t do them any favours. Whether he’s growling or “grinning” (actually a sign – inevitably – that he wants you to like him), it’s not difficult to get a rough idea of what a dog is thinking just from looking at his face, let alone all the other clues that come from his body language. Not so cats, who will casually sit down in front of you and then stare at you impassively for a while before walking off, apparently impervious to your presence, let alone your feelings.
It’s true that cats have different priorities to dogs. Unlike dogs, whose wolf ancestors bequeathed them a flair for building social relationships, cats are descended from a solitary, territorial animal. For a lone predator like a wild cat, a detailed knowledge of its hunting grounds, the places where prey is likely to be found and those where it is not, will make the difference between prosperity and starvation. Even now, when most cats get their food from their owners, cats still obey the ancient rule of their forebears, that having a secure place to live should always be priority number one. That’s why owners are strongly advised to keep cats shut indoors for two to three weeks after moving house – it takes that long for the cat to build up confidence that his new environment is as good as the old one.
So cats are loyal, but mainly to places. What about people? Are cat owners little more than the link between the cat’s bowl and the pet food aisle in the supermarket? A recent study at the University of Lincoln showed that cats don’t turn to their owners for reassurance (something that most dogs do) when they’re faced with a challenge – in this case, an unfamiliar room. When cats find themselves in a place they’ve never been before, they will immediately explore it, but pretty quickly their thoughts turn to getting back to their usual territory. Whether or not their owners are nearby doesn’t seem to make any difference as to how insecure they feel.
When cats are on what they perceive to be safe ground (which for pet cats is most of the time), they can and do behave affectionately towards their owners. They show this in a whole variety of ways including: raising their tails upright when they see us, rubbing their heads or flanks on our legs, licking us when they’re sitting next to us, and purring when we stroke them. How do we know that these are signs of affection? Well, it has to be said that we will never know precisely what’s going on inside a cat’s head (or a dog’s for that matter), but we do know that these are the ways in which cats indicate their affection for other cats.
The fact that cats get along with other cats at all is something of an achievement for a species that was exclusively solitary just 10,000 years ago. Our domestic cat’s wild relatives, the Arabian wildcat Felis lybica, spend most of their lives alone. During the breeding season, males consort with females for just a few days of the year, but otherwise avoid other cats as much as possible, unlike male lions and cheetahs, both of which are able to form “brotherhoods”, competing with other groups for the attention of females. Adult females have dependent kittens with them for about half of each year, but of necessity drive them away when they reach about six months old, each hunting territory being only large enough to support one cat.
Everything changed for cats some 8,000 years ago, when the first towns appeared in the Middle East. Prior to that, the early domestic cats lived in villages which would only have produced enough prey, in the form of mice that infested their stores of nuts and wild grains, to feed one or two cats. With the dawn of agriculture came food stores that were both larger and closer together, providing a comfortable living for not one but many cats. This must have forced those cats to lose some of their natural suspicion of one another: cats that persisted with their old, pugnacious habits would have spent more time watching their backs than searching for their next meal, and would have lost out to those who could form alliances with others – which in the domestic cat’s case turned out to be “sisterhoods” (males remaining largely solitary to this day).
Since amicability was the exception rather than the rule for these cats, they had to evolve a way of communicating their friendly intentions to one another. The “language” that emerged was based on the way that kittens communicate with their mothers, but modified for use between adults. So, a cat that sees another cat that it recognises as an ally will raise its tail upright before approaching, as a signal of friendly intentions. If the other cat raises its tail, the two will walk up to one another and rub their heads, flanks or tails together before going about their business. Or, they may settle down side by side, and groom one another, purring all the while. So, when our cats perform these signals towards us, we can be reasonably confident that they’re showing that they are fond of us.
The simple difference with dogs is that cats have to feel secure before they can show their affection, whereas dogs can use their instinctive affection for us as a way of calming themselves when they’re feeling insecure. A cat’s need for social interaction isn’t as great as a dog’s, but they do benefit from a certain amount. One particularly good way that owners can satisfy this is by playing games with their cat using toys that the cat can “hunt” – a toy mouse on a string, a bunch of feathers on a miniature “fishing rod” – thereby satisfying the cat’s hunting instincts as well as its need for company. Other than this, it’s always best to wait for the cat to request attention, because, as you’ve probably guessed by now, they’re not always in the mood.