Book Review – Cat Sense: the Feline Enigma Revealed by John Bradshaw

Book cover - Cat Sense by John Bradshaw

We have watched with interest and some concern as the Calamity Cat adjusts to our new reality without her sister. In some ways, she appears to have seen it as an opportunity. She is spending more time on my knee (the Princess seemed to demand my knee as her right and Calamity would not push herself forward to challenge her). She is displaying more Princess-like behaviour, wanting to be fed in a variety of locations around the house and being distinctly fussier. In other ways, though, she has appeared to struggle with being alone. She has been crying more at night, wondering where we are and she has followed me around the house and garden constantly. Always chatty, she has also become even more vocal.

In an attempt to understand what she was experiencing, I borrowed a book on cat behaviour from the library and enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it with you all. Although scientific, it is written in an accessible way and, although I am not sure I agreed with everything the author said, I could see the logic in the way he structured his arguments.

The book starts with a history of the domestication of cats and a look at their wild ancestors and how they affect cat behaviour today. This was the section I found the hardest going, getting a little bogged down in the different types of wildcat across the globe and how modern domestic cats are genetically related to them. It was worth working through it, though, as it was referred back to throughout the book.

Bradshaw’s theory of what forms cats’ characters as individuals as well as their development as a species is based on genetics, learned experiences and personality types, which can differ as much as in humans. He uses clear examples of research projects, either his own or others’ to illustrate his points, as well as citing the behaviour of his own cats over the years. Some of what he said appeared to me to be perhaps a little simplistic. For example, he lists behaviour which should show you whether cats in a multicat household are from the same social group or not. Those who are groom each other, sleep in contact with each other and rub up against each other as they move around the house. Those who are in different groups avoid each other, block access to food or litter trays and have occasional hissing or smacking bouts. My own experience with Calamity and the Princess was that they demonstrated elements of both lists, depending on their mood.

On the whole, however, his insights were fascinating. For example, our cats quickly grow bored with their toys. Apparently, this has been proved to be true in research too but, if the toy changes in some way, they regain interest. For example, if the toy falls apart during play, it will hold a cat’s interest for longer. If you substitute it for a similar toy in a different colour (preferably one cats can see – they can’t distinguish between red and green), they will stay interested for longer. The theory is that any change replicates capturing prey to cats and so gives them the sense of achievement similar to catching something. When playing with your cat, it is important that they are allowed to catch what you are playing with at least some of the time or they become stressed and frustrated. We are going to make more of an effort to put some of their many toys away and rotate them for the Calamity Cat so that she stays stimulated and playful in spite of her advancing years.

In terms of helping us deal with her bereavement, if that is indeed what she is experiencing, he was reassuring. Rather than grief, he describes the behaviour of a cat who has lost a member of their social group as resulting from “a temporary anxiety”. Certainly Calamity appears to be recovering her equanimity. He is clear that, although even feral cats often live in loose colonies, the species is predominantly solitary and a cat will often be happier alone. This was less reassuring to us, as we have been considering the best way to go about introducing a new generation in due course. Ah well, at least he offered advice on how best to go about it if you are determined to expand your feline family.

The book concludes with a look at the cat of the future. Bradshaw argues that domestication in cats is relatively recent (compared to dogs, for instance) and indeed, isn’t really complete. Human society has moved on extremely quickly over the past century and cats have not had time to evolve to match us. So, having been kept by humans for generations predominantly as pest control, it is suddenly socially unacceptable for cats to hunt, something they are genetically conditioned to do. They are naturally solitary so find it stressful to live in our smaller and smaller properties, which they often share with other cats. While I can completely see his point, I am less sure that the answer is to actively breed cats to be tolerant of others, less liable to hunt and happier to live indoors. Part of the joy of sharing your life with cats is in their very difference – the enigma mentioned in the subtitle of the book.

That said, I did learn a lot from reading this and found it an engaging read overall. It’s well worth a look if you want to understand why your cat does what they do. And it was great to find a scientist who understands that cats do feel emotion and a genuine affection for the humans in their life. We already know Calamity loves us of course, but it is nice to think that a feline expert agrees!

Grey and white cat asleep on a brown blanket with back of head to camera
Calamity looking happy and relaxed on my knee

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