How they are different

Cats resemble humans in many ways.

They are capable of conceptual intelligence, especially with pattern recognition, figuring out cause and effect, and anticipating the behavior of others. They are also social and empathic, capable of cooperation and compassion. They have senses that, for the most part, work better than our own. This lets them pull in more sensory information than we can.

Our similarities create the space where our relationship thrives.

iz likin myself on lolcats.com

I have also noticed some key differences which we need to be aware of. This should temper our expectations, and help us understand some of our cats’ puzzling behaviors.

living in the now

Cats love to anticipate. This is a reflection of their hunting style, where they lie in wait and show up where the prey is going to be.

They understand looking forward to our return from work or errands. If we create a pattern for them, like packing a suitcase, showing them the calendar, and then reliably showing up again a set number of days later, they can adjust to what they now understand will be our return. They are very good at timing events. But there are limits to these skills.

As understanding as they can sometimes be about our absences, they are not able to grasp a complicated future sequence. Especially if we are trying to convey something they have not experienced. I have never left Tristan more than a day or two at a time, and I do my best to prepare him for me going away and coming back. Still, as bright as he is, and as often as I’ve had short absences, he always gets upset when I go. He never feels sure I will return, even though it would be worse without the reassurances.

This gap in the cat’s mental abilities has the most impact when we are faced with something like a series of vet visits, especially if there are uncomfortable procedures involved. Or a long period of travel, challenges, or upheaval in our lives. Our cat’s skills let them worry about the next upsetting event, while not being able to grasp that there will be an end to them. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, since some cats will shrug off an adversity another cat takes in stride. We need to evaluate the situation based on how much stress our cats are experiencing.

Say the medical process is relatively short, and the chances of success are high; I can tell them it is worth it. We can happily reassure them, and they will get good feedback in the form of feeling better. If our cats handle travel better than they handle separation from us, or vice versa, we need to consider what they most need.

If travel to the vet is the worst part, maybe the vet can make a housecall. More and more lodging places allow pets; we might be better off bringing the cat, and a travel litter box, with us. A pet sitter so our cats can stay in their own home could be the best decision for a Gamma, while our Alpha might prefer to stay with someone who likes cats and can provide attention and reassurance.

We can make better decisions about what is truly best for them when we look at things based on their perspective.

no rationalization

Cats have the ability to pretend, especially when they need to project confidence to a possible observer. They will also hide their pain. In the wild, looking vulnerable would make them vulnerable.

Still, their baseline is radical honesty.

I have never experienced a cat faking affection or interest. I have been complained to that a cat “lured them in and then attacked!” but this always turns out to be a human not understanding cat signals. There was once a popular video showing a broadcast news reporter holding a cat; who then suddenly burst out of her arms. On the first viewing, I figured she didn’t know what the lashing tail and folded back ears meant; but then I watched it a second time, with sound, and discovered the cat was also making siren noises the entire time.

Pro-tip: don’t hold any cat making siren noises.

I believe cats score low in rationalization because when confronted with the unknown, they are curious, but they do not pretend to know more about it than they do. They will put up a front for survival, when all the variables are known, but if they are not sure, they will not care if they look uncertain. Knowing exactly what they are dealing with is far more important.

My cat Puffy would ask for treats by pretending he barely had the strength to drag himself to my feet. Then he would raise one trembling paw. It was brilliant acting. But both of us knew it was an act. This is exaggerating a feeling they already have, making it bigger so humans can understand it.

Humans are led by their emotions and rationalize their thinking processes accordingly; it requires training and effort to observe impartially and evaluate evidence, and we still often get it wrong.

Cats do not have these same pressures and incentives to fool each other, or us. They do not have the same drives to manipulate reality in a way which would suit them better. They live in the natural world, where they must operate as reality demands.

utterly egalitarian

Our cats never pretend affection they do not feel, or act out of malice. This would run contrary to their survival instincts. Cats use their social skills to share tasks and enjoy closeness. They are communal creatures.

Many people view cat assertion or disagreements as examples of jockeying for a higher social status — like “boss cat” — or as other kinds of hierarchical disputes. But this has nothing to do with cats ordering each other around. I see inter-cat cooperation, and inter-cat hurt feelings, but cats are not pack animals. If cats have a dispute over territory, they are expressing the need for more territory.

Humans also have social instincts, but they are shaped by the “chain of command” necessary for the larger groups we got out of civilization. As we move from toddler to child to teen to adult, we also learn how to obey authority, share resources, and form alliances. But only part of this works with cats.

Cats ask for things because they need them, not because they want to boss us around. Cats work with negotiations, not commands. They do favors for friends, not follow orders. Understanding this will have a great impact on our care, training, and affection; a positive one if we listen, and a negative one if we do not.

Cats live happily in our world because they love us. They trust us to take care of the parts they can’t manage themselves, and do their best to provide the companionship, interaction, and enjoyment that is their part of the deal.

They are not exactly like us. Alien enough to provide a wild perspective for us. Close enough to make our friendship work.

We can enjoy our similarities and learn from our differences.

    Find out more about cat thinking.

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    There’s more ways to understand our cat with The Way of Cats than the article you are reading now. See all of my posts on WHY CATS DO THAT.

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