Book Preview: Cat Research for Dummies

Here’s another sample from my forthcoming book, Hold The Apocalypse – Pass Me A Scientist Please (and other humorous essays from an optimist in dreamland), due in August.

I hope you like cats.

Cat Research For Dummies

The hardest working animal researchers in the business have to be the cat researchers.  If you don’t believe me, try getting a grant to study cats.  The grant people will gladly give you all you need to study the mating behavior of the semipalmated sandpiper, or the social life of coral gobies, but give them a whiff of a study you’re proposing to find out whether humans domesticated cats or cats domesticated humans, and they’ll stare at you like you’ve got cat scratch fever.  Such proposals are destined to end up in the litter box more often than a cat with parasites.

            One of the earliest attempts to find out what, if anything, is in a cat’s head didn’t occur until 2005, when a naïve cognitive researcher conducted the pointing test on cats.  This test, for those who might need it pointed out to them, was conceived to determine if a cat could understand where a person is pointing.  The first sign the researcher was naïve was when he called it the pointing test, instead of something like the Directional Focus and Awareness Assessment as any seasoned researcher would have done.

            The second sign occurred when most cats promptly walked away from the test, thereby pointing more than anything to the need for more testing of cat researchers.  It was ten years before anyone sufficiently clueless was found to try again.  Cats, in the meantime, continued their research on humans.  No grants were needed, as there was no shortage of eager participants willing to work for an occasional purr. 

            It’s no secret that cat researchers have always been envious of dog researchers, mainly because dogs evolved from a social and cooperative animal, the gray wolf.  After 30,000 years of habitation with humans, and 9,000 years of selective breeding, dogs have learned to recognize emotion in humans, understand some human speech, and perform socially complex tasks. 

            By contrast, cats evolved from the Near Eastern wildcat, an antisocial loner who needs 19 square miles of territory for itself or it starts to feel like the world’s becoming too crowded.  Still, after only 10,000 years of living with humans and 1,000 years of selective breeding, cats have learned how to get humans to feed them, clean their litter box, pet them at times of their choosing, and, if 19 square miles aren’t available, to otherwise leave them the hell alone.  They likely look at dogs as needy, bootlicking fools, and are quite prepared to wait 20,000 years if necessary before evolving any further.

            In later cognitive testing attempts, cats scratched, bit, hid under furniture, leapt out of mazes, and if the researchers weren’t already up them, climbed trees.  “If you want results on one cat,” said one frustrated researcher, “you have to test three.”  I suspect any cooperative cats were summarily shunned by the others, and stripped of their cat independence rights.

              Instead of waiting for University researchers to make any headway on cat cognition, there are simple tests you can try with your own cat at home.  All you need is patience, tranquilizers, and a pillow to scream into, as cats are sensitive to loud noises.  The first test explores whether or not your cat actually likes you, by placing treats and toys near to where you are sitting to see where your cat lingers.  If the cat chooses you, it likely means that you didn’t follow directions and gave the tranquilizer to the cat instead of yourself.

            To test whether your cat is tuned in to your emotions, sit near a frightening new object and talk calmly to it.  If your cat remains agitated, it likely means that you have no influence over your cat.  Now there’s a stretch.  If your cat calms down, it likely means that your cat is in fact influenced by your emotions.  To punish you for conducting this cruel experiment however, it will then test YOUR emotions by clawing the leather couch, peeing on the new rug, or ignoring you for the rest of the day.

            To test whether your cat knows its name, say several random words of similar lengths and accents, pausing between each.  Then say your cat’s name.  If your cat reacts in the slightest to any of the words, you could be on your way to a new career as a cat researcher.

            Some final notes: The results of these tests can actually mean anything you want them to mean, as your cat is liable to change its responses the next time you try to understand it.  And if you still don’t think that cats are smart and manipulate us, then why is the internet awash in cat videos?  As smart and social as dogs are, they haven’t begun to figure out the value of social media. 

Published by boblorentson

I am a retired environmental scientist and an active daydreamer. I love one-legged air dancers (I think that's what you call them), and I still hate lima beans.

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