What's Mittens Thinking? Make 'Sense' Of Your Cat's Behavior
Originally published on Thu September 5, 2013 6:43 pm
Cats have come a long way from being animals charged with catching mice to treasured, adorable creatures that snuggle with us in our beds. But this relatively new arrangement is creating issues for cats and the people who live with them.
John Bradshaw has studied the history of domesticated cats and how the relationship between people and cats has changed. He's the author of the new book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, which is a follow-up to his book Dog Sense.
Bradshaw is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England. As an anthrozoologist, he studies the interactions between people and animals. He's also the former science chairman of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations. He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about how our relationship with cats has evolved over time and how toning down cats' hunting instincts will ensure them a future on an increasingly crowded planet.
On cats' social behavior
"I think cats are much less demonstrative animals than dogs are. It's kind of not their fault; they evolved from a solitary animal that has never had the need for a sophisticated social repertoire in the way that the dog — having evolved from the wolf — had that ready-made. So their faces are just not terribly expressive, and some people read into that, that they're kind of cynical and aloof and those sorts of things. But I don't believe that for a moment. I think cats show, by their behavior, even if it's a bit more subtle than a dog's, that they really are fond of their owners."
On the purpose of purring
"The purr is popularly thought of as ... indicating comfort and contentment. And it can be that, but signals like the purr — because it is a signal, it's giving out a message and it's trying to get you to do something. They don't evolve just to convey emotions, not in the animal world, anyway. What we think cats are doing here is just trying to reassure their person — or [another] cat — who is hearing the purr that they are no threat, and ideally they'd like them to stand still and help them do something. So it starts off with kittens purring to get their mother to lie still while they're suckling, and it goes on into adulthood. ... It's a signal to the animals, [and] the people around them to pay attention and try to help them."
On how our relationship with cats has changed
"There are so many cats around the world that are kept for their mousing abilities, their abilities to keep farmyards free of mice and rats. And then, suddenly, in the last 50 or 60 years or so ... we've started having our own methods of keeping mice and rats out of cities. We don't need the cat to do it anymore."
On the connection between playing and hunting
"The research that we've done suggests that it's almost indistinguishable, that everything that a cat does when it's playing seems to be a part of its normal hunting behavior.
"You kind of see dogs do this a little bit, but a lot of dog play and a lot of play between dogs and people is a much more social thing. ... The dog is using a toy as a way of interacting with a person and the toy in some sense is irrelevant — it's just a piece of equipment that the dog uses.
"In the case of a cat, we've never really found any particular significance to the human being. If you're holding a piece of string with a mouse on the end, the cat isn't so much interested in you (which the dog probably would be), but interested in the mouse on the end. So, for example, cats prefer to play with toys that in some way look like prey: They've got feathers on them or they're furry or they're about the right size for the kind of thing that a cat would safely be able to prey on. ... And cats play more intensely when they get hungry."
On toning down cats' hunting instincts
"Nobody has really focused on the idea of breeding a cat [to be] a good companion. Some of that has happened in dogs, but most of our cats are descended from hunters and animals that we encouraged to hunt, that we kept for their very hunting ability.
"So we need to, somehow, tone that down a little bit. Some of it can happen by ... giving them other outlets for their hunting. But ultimately I suspect that the cat will only be ensured a future in an increasingly crowded planet if we can generate an animal [that] really doesn't feel the need to hunt. ...
"In a way, we almost have to start again. We have to think about the cat in the 21st century. What do we want cats for? What kind of cats do we want?"
"The operation involves essentially taking the ends of what we would call our fingers off. I had a personal experience of this. I had the end of one of my fingers crushed in an accident many, many years ago, and for years afterward ... I got phantom pains in that finger. I'm a human being and I could look at my finger and say, 'That's a phantom pain. I know it's not real pain. It's annoying and distracting, but I can live with it.' ...
"I think [if I had] eight of those going and I was a cat and I couldn't really understand what had happened to me, I suspect I would have not been happy about it. ...
"Surgically, it's more than [just taking out the nail] because you have to take out the whole bit where the nail grows from. ... There's an ethical issue as well, I suspect, which is reflected in the codes of practice over here in Europe where declawing is illegal. ... It's regarded as being a mutilation of the animal."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Cats have come a long way from being the animals given the job of catching mice to being treasured as adorable creatures that snuggle with us in our beds. This relatively new arrangement is creating new issues for cats and for the people who live with them. My guest John Bradshaw has studied the history of domesticated cats and how the relationship between people and cats has changed. He's the author of the new book "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet." It's a follow-up to his book "Dog Sense."
He's the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England. As an anthrozoologist, he studies the interactions between people and animals. He's also the former science chair for the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations.
John Bradshaw, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
JOHN BRADSHAW: Thank you for having me on.
GROSS: So most of us who live with cats love our cats, and we believe that our cats love us. But some experts disagree and say cats don't really love the humans they live with. What is that controversy about, why some people don't believe in cat love?
BRADSHAW: Well, I think cats are much less demonstrative animals than dogs are. And it's kind of not their fault. They evolved from a solitary animal that has never had the need for a kind of sophisticated social repertoire in the way that the dog, having evolved from the wolf, kind of had that ready-made.
So their faces are just not terribly expressive, and some people read into that that they're kind of cynical and aloof and all those sorts of things. But I don't believe that for a moment. I think cats show by their behavior, even if it's a bit more subtle than a dog, that they really are fond of their owners.
GROSS: But don't some experts say that if a cat's on your lap, it's really seeking warmth, or, you know, that it's like you're bringing the warmth, but it's not like the cat likes you, per se, or it has an affection toward you? It wants you to feed it, it wants your warmth, and that's kind of where it ends. Do you believe that?
BRADSHAW: I don't think cats are after our warmth, particularly. I mean maybe on a very cold winter's day they might be, but they've got pretty good fur coats of their own. I don't think sitting on a lap is necessarily only good for the warmth aspect, in fact maybe the opposite. It may actually be that they get too warm.
No, I think they're there in the same way that they would lie up against another member of their own species, another cat that they were particularly friendly with. I think they're there to show that they are our friends and that they are completely relaxed around us.
GROSS: So when a cat purrs, what do we know about the purr response?
BRADSHAW: Well, the purr is popularly thought of as being indicating comfort and contentment, and it can be that. But signals like the purr, because it is a signal, it's giving out a message, and it's trying to get you to do something, and they don't evolve just to convey emotions, not in the animal world, anyway.
What we think cats are doing here is essentially just trying to reassure the person or the cat who's hearing the purr that they are no threat and that ideally they would like you to stay still and help them do something.
So it starts off with kittens purring to get their mothers to lie still while they're suckling, and it goes on into adulthood. And then it can be combined with other sounds. So some cats will have a very kind of loud and slightly uncomfortable purr when they're wanting to be fed. They'll charge around the kitchen making this kind of loud purring noise, which has been named the solicitation purr.
And the sound of it is distinct from the regular purr. And it means hang around and feed me. And then there is also a purr that cats will do when they are in deep distress, either very unhappy about something or indeed in pain, and will purr, you know, in situations when they're clearly not comfortable or contented.
But again, it's a signal to the animals, the people around them to pay attention and try and help them.
GROSS: As you point out in your book, cats have made a very rapid evolution from the solitary animal and the animal that catches mice, to the beloved pet that sleeps on your pillow. How well do you think cats have adapted to the new kind of role we've given them in our homes?
BRADSHAW: Well, they've adapted remarkably well, I think. I mean, there are still many cats around the world that are kept for their mousing abilities, their abilities to keep farmyards clear of mice and rats. And then suddenly in the last 50 or 60 years or so, we've started keeping cats in cities. We've started to have our own methods of keeping mice and rats out of cities. We don't need the cat to do it anymore.
And so now we've kind of turned around and gone actually we'd rather you cats didn't do that. We don't like it when bloody corpses come dragged in through the cat flap. We don't like it when the conservationists say look, cats are causing a nuisance and maybe even proper damage to wildlife populations.
The cats need some time, I think, to catch up.
GROSS: So what happens when a cat does bring you a bloody corpse, presents it to you and - as like a little gift that the cat's very proud of. I mean this just happened to our director Roberta. She had a little mouse presented to her in the bedroom, and she didn't want to, like, punish the cat for it. But at the same she didn't want to encourage the behavior of, like, dragging a bloody mouse into the bedroom. What should you do in a situation like that?
BRADSHAW: Well, I think it's - first of all is to realize that the cat, I don't think he's giving you a present. The cat is merely bringing some prey back to the place it feels safest before it decides whether to eat it or not; and of course in the majority of cases they don't.
GROSS: Oh really? I always though, I always thought it was kind of like, you know, thank you, thank you for taking care of me, and in return...
BRADSHAW: Here's a mouse that I am actually not going to eat because now I've got it home, I realize it's not very tasty, and I'd rather you opened some cat food for me. I think, you know, that tends to be the scenario. So I don't think that the cat is donating the mouse to you insomuch as abandoning it as something that it's, kind of, can't really remember why it killed it in the first place.
Well, I think there are a number of things that can be done. None of them are going to be 100 percent effective, but together they go quite a long way. I think the first thing is ensure that if you're getting a kitten, you get a kitten from a place where the mother cat has not gone hunting. So it's not such a good idea to go out and get a kitten off a farm, where the mother has brought the kittens up and has already presented them with half-dead mice as a kind of lesson in how to - you know, what's good to eat and how to hunt, because those lessons certainly affect the likelihood that the kitten will go on to start hunting when it grows up to be a cat itself.
You can feed it the best possible food you can. I mean, almost all of the commercially available cat food nowadays is nutritionally adequate, and that's not something that's always been true. I mean, it was only 40, 50 years ago that we actually understood really what the cat's nutritional needs were and how unusual they are.
So now we have good quality cat food that should satisfy every cat. They don't need to go hunting. And we do know that cats fed on poor-quality food or scraps or whatever, do go hunting a lot more, and they hunt a lot more seriously, too, because they really feel this need for the protein that hunting will give them.
So good quality food, and then keep the cat in at times when it may need to go hunting. I mean, some people keep their cats indoors, and I think that's fine. Sometimes it's not a cat that's got used to the outdoors. If you have an indoor cat, it's not going to be given the opportunity to hunt.
If you let your cat out, maybe not let it out at times when the wildlife is most vulnerable. Fit a good quality quick-release collar with a bell on it. That's been shown to have some effect on hunting success.
All of those things put together, I think you'll end up with a cat that hunts very little. I mean, the surveys that we've done recently show most pet cats that are well-fed only catch something about once every two weeks.
GROSS: Well, there's actually a big controversy now about outdoor cats, and a lot of neighborhoods, even in cities, people get very upset when they see a cat hunt a bird. And a lot of people are demanding that their neighbors keep their cats indoors so as not to hunt birds or kill birds. And I wonder what the level of controversy surrounding that is like in England, where you are.
BRADSHAW: Well, it has been quite severe. The kind of damage that they do, I think there's two aspects to it. One is that people don't like to see that kind of thing going on, and that is really a question of what particular people, you know, like or dislike.
Then there's really the question of whether cats really cause a problem to wildlife. Now that is still very much open to argument, but here in the United Kingdom, it's pretty much agreed that there is no significant problem due to pet cats. And I think this is the crucial distinction, is a well-fed pet cat is unlikely to cause any significant damage.
It may occasionally upset somebody by catching something, but in terms of, you know, how many birds there are going to be next year and the year after, really there doesn't seem to be any significant impact at all. Feral cats that do not have owners and are not regularly fed are a different matter, and I think they can be a real problem. And so I think the argument boils down to, well, what do you do about feral cats. What do you do about discouraging people who feed feral cats on, I think, the mistaken idea that they deserve it, when those feral cats are actually causing significant problems for lots of birds and small mammals.
GROSS: How much is a cat's play a reflection of the cat's hunting instinct?
BRADSHAW: Well, the research that we've done suggests that it's almost indistinguishable, that everything that a cat does when it's playing seems to be a part of its normal hunting behavior. And this is - you kind of see dogs do this a little bit, but a lot of dog play and a lot of play between dogs and people is a much more social thing that the dog is kind of using a toy as a way of interacting with person, and the toy is, in some senses, irrelevant, it's just a piece of equipment that the dog uses.
In the case of a cat, we're not - we've never really found any particular significance to the human being. You know, if you're holding a piece of string with a mouse on the end, the cat is not so much interested at you, which the dog probably would be, but interested in the mouse on the end.
So for example cats prefer to play with toys that in some way look like prey. They've got feather on, or they're furry. They're about the right size for the sort of thing that the cat would safely be able to prey on. If you produce rather larger kind of fluffy toys for cats, they start to react towards them as if they were rats and could bite back, which clearly the cat must know in some respects the toy can't do, it doesn't have any teeth.
But nevertheless, they adapt the way that they actually play with a toy in just the same way as they would adapt their hunting techniques when they were hunting a rat. Cats play more intensely when they get hungry, which is the exact opposite of what you'd expect. You'd expect them to just be begging for food. But no, give them a toy when they're hungry, and they'll attack it in a way that - with an energy that they probably wouldn't use when they're less hungry.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Bradshaw. He's the author of the book "Cat Sense," which is a follow-up to his book "Dog Sense." He's the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about cats. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about cats. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Bradshaw, and his new book is called "Cat Sense." It's a follow-up to his book "Dog Sense." He's the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England.
One of the toys that has been popular in my house is reflection games. So it could be like chasing light. So it could be the reflection of, say, a CD box, you know, one of those plastic boxes on the wall - the reflection on the wall. Or, you know, those laser light toys, where it's like a little wand with a laser pointer. And so you can project the laser light, a little round dot, onto the wall, and you move the, you know, you move the wand around, which moves the light around, and the cat chases the light.
And it can chase it on the wall and jump onto the wall or chase the dot on the floor. And cats seem to just go wild over this. They seem to love it. And yet it seems like it would be the most frustrating game in the world because it's light: you can't capture it. It fulfills none of the functions you've described. There's no fur or feathers. You can't change the smell. You can't dismember it. It's just a little circle of light.
Why do cats go so crazy over it, and what do you think of that as a game for your cat?
BRADSHAW: Well, I think you see the same sort of thing in a more natural situation in the fall, where cats go crazy over dried leaves blowing across the ground, and you might equally argue, what on Earth is the point of that. I don't think there's a cat in the world that thinks that a dried leaf is going to be good to eat.
What we think is going on here is that it's not really - the cat doesn't think it's hunting, but what you're doing is tapping into some peculiar things about cats' vision. You know, we look at cats, their eyes are in the front of their head. They're actually about the same size as ours, which is quite remarkable given, of course, that the cat's head is that much smaller than ours is.
But those big eyes are there for good night vision. But the eyes are not wired up to the brain in quite the same way as ours are. The cats have some kind of color vision, but very little, and they don't see the world as a sequence of TV pictures like we do.
They do have some of that. They obviously do build up images of what's around them. But a lot of what their eyes are picking up on is movement. And they have lots of specialist nerves that pick up on movement: downward, sideways, diagonally, things getting larger, things getting smaller and especially in the peripheral vision, around the sides.
And these are all things which presumably evolution has given the cat in order to make it an effective hunter, so that it can follow a little animal that's running through cover just by very slight movements of the grass above it or whatever. So what we're doing with these light games is tapping into this very early stage of the hunting sequence. So the cat never gets to catch anything, obviously, there is nothing there to catch, of course.
But the game, if you like, is in the - is in triggering these parts of the brain that would normally be used to detect the movement of a mouse through the grass.
GROSS: One of the things you write about in your book is your concern about cat breeding. You know, you write that dogs for quite a long time have been bred for certain characteristics and for certain abilities. They've been bred to herd sheep, or they've been bred to hunt, or bred to be good companions or to run fast; whereas cats have been bred to compete in cat shows, or to look a certain way and be sold to people who want that look.
What are your concerns about the future of cats and the traits that they're being bred for, and what would you like to see us do?
BRADSHAW: Well, I think we have not - nobody, really, has focused on the idea of breeding a cat, which is a good companion. Some of that has happened in dogs, but, you know, most of our cats are descended from hunters and animals that we encourage to hunt that we kept for their very hunting ability. And so we need to somehow turn that down a little bit.
I mean, some of it can be done by possibly a little bit of training by giving them other outlets for the hunting. But ultimately, I suspect that the cat will only be ensured a future in an increasingly crowded planet if we can generate an animal which really doesn't feel the need to hunt.
I mean, there's no physiological need why they have to hunt nowadays. Cat food is good stuff. They could live their wholes lives on it. And so hunting is now a nuisance as far as cat ownership is concerned, at the very best. So I think that's something that we need to do, and also I think we need to breed a cat which is simply more tolerant of other cats.
If indeed, you know, cats are highly stressed, as I believe they are, by contact with some of the cats around them. Not all of them, some of them they will get on with, but there'll pretty much always be one they don't. Then a cat which is just a little bit more laid back around other cats will not only be a happier cat, but also probably more rewarding as a pet.
And I think neither of those things really are being concentrated on at all, in terms of cat breeding. I mean, those people who are breeding cats are breeding them for shows. They're breeding them for their appearance, and as a consequence, there's a lot of inbreeding going on. And there are more of these diseases appearing within cats that we've already seen in pedigree dogs, due to simply too much breeding for a particular appearance and not so much for behavior.
So I think the - in a way we almost have to start again, think about the cat in the 21st century. What do we want cats for, what kind of a cat do we want, and start again from there.
GROSS: You know, so many people get their cats from shelters, and so many of the cats in shelters - well many of the cats in shelters are the offspring of feral cats. And so many housecats are neutered. Are we breeding cats who succeed on the streets, more so than we're breeding cats who are successful domesticated pets?
BRADSHAW: Well, I think we are accidentally favoring the cat that lives on the street, because it's the cat that lives on the street who produces offspring. Many of those, you know, do sadly die of injury or disease or whatever, but some of them end up in rescue, the lucky ones, and then become pets.
Now if we're going to neuter a large majority of our pet cats, that means that the most successful cats, and the most successful cats that are best adapted to living in people's houses, never leave any offspring. And so where the next generation of cats comes from is from cats that are - whose parents, anyway, were adapted to living on the street.
Now that's OK for a while, and I'm not saying there's an imminent crisis, you know. It's over the horizon. But it's going to be there. I think that cats are going to become very, very slightly less friendly with every generation. And eventually we're going to come to the point where cats become less attractive, less appealing, because they're much harder to socialize.
At the moment you can do a huge amount, probably everything you need to, by handling the kittens and treating them the right way. I'm just hopeful that we won't ever get to the point where some kittens really just don't respond to handling in the same way that wild kittens don't. The kittens of wild cats don't respond to handling. They just go wild again, eventually.
GROSS: John Bradshaw will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Bradshaw, author of the new book "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet." It's a follow-up to his book "Dog Sense." Bradshaw is an Anthrozoologist - which means he studies the interactions between people and animals. He's the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England.
You, in your book, not only write about domestic cats, you write about feral cats. And you've worked with feral cats. Tell us about the feral cat community that you worked with.
BRADSHAW: I've particularly worked with feral cat communities where the majority of the individuals are neutered. I mean it's often not possible to neuter all of the, but this is a humane method for control of feral cat colonies, which has been recommended in the U.K. now for an upwards of 30 years, and I think it's becoming adopted worldwide as a humane way of keeping the numbers of feral cats under control without having actually to go out and kill them, which is previously what used to happen.
One of the things we were intrigued by was whether these communities would stay together. I mean just to backtrack to fully breeding unneutered feral cat colonies, which I've also studied, but which has been studied by many other people around the world. They are essentially matriarchies; they are female based alliances between mothers and daughters, and possibly even female cousins - if the colony gets big enough - where a lot of things, including the nursing and care of kittens, our shared. And males really don't kind of play a part in that very much. They tend to be much more solitary and they're much more competitive. It's very much an alliance between females.
If you neuter a female cat, then you take away the reason for it to get together with other females in the first place. And so one of the questions we wanted to answer was, you know, do they just simply give up and become solitary again now that they find that they can't breed? And the answer is no, they don't. In fact, to the opposite really, they stay together despite the fact they're no longer actually raising kittens together, and are quite often joined by males - which now having been castrated and no longer need to spend a lot of time fighting one another and in competition with one another. So these neutered feral colonies are usually very harmonious - even when they're not socialized to people - these are, you know, not necessarily cats that anybody could go in touch. They've never really come to trust people. They didn't meet people when they were kittens and while they may get some food from people, they're not necessarily very trusting.
GROSS: So although you found that some feral cats are actually very sociable to each other, you also say that often humans are fooling themselves when they think oh, I'm out of the house for a long time everyday at work, my cat needs company, so I'm going to get another cat and bring it home as a companion to my cat. And your cat actually might not like the idea of a new cat in the home very much. So can you compare the kind of social adaptation in feral communities with how a solitary cat at home is going to react when a friend cat is brought in?
BRADSHAW: Feral colonies well, first of all, they're natural accumulations of cats. What they're normally based around is one of the cat having kittens in an area where there's plenty of food. And so there's no real incentive for the female kittens, particularly, to leave. She may drive her male kittens away to prevent inbreeding, but she's often very tolerant to her female kittens so they will stay. The next year they will themselves have kittens and the whole lot will start raising their kittens together. And that's the nucleus of a feral colony.
Sometimes unrelated females will try to join. Many times they will be rejected, chased away. Sometimes though, for some reason, and we don't really know why, they will be accepted. And so you get several females who are not related collaborating and helping one another out. So what you see there in the feral colonies is the product of not only just evolution - the evolution of the cats social abilities - but also a lot of trial and error, that cats that don't get on with the group leave, cats that tried to join the group and don't get on with them are thrown out, and so on.
What we do when we try and add to a household, take one cat and then add another one, is we want that to work first time. And sometimes it does work in the same way that sometimes an outsider can join a feral colony. But often it doesn't work so well - at least not if the owner doesn't take some precautions and does the whole thing gradually. And there's a well-established way of introducing two cats together. It's not entirely foolproof. It's not guaranteed to work every time. But you can greatly enhance the probability that two cats will get on with one another if, for example, they're introduced to each other's smells, first of all, and not literally physically face-to-face. That if you're maybe getting a cat from a shelter that you take some bedding from the cat's bed in the shelter, take it back to your house, put it in front of your existing cat, let the cat sniff it. It won't take too kindly to it to begin with, but after a day or two it may get used to it. Then when you keep the cat home you can keep them in different parts of the house and do the same thing, exchange the owners between the two. Which is very much how cats learn about other cats; they'll probably smell them before they ever see them in the wild, so this is a very natural way of doing introduction. And then do the introduction, the physical introduction, when they can actually see one another with some kind of partition in between. So that if any kind of, you know, one cat does decide to go for the other one, it can't have any nasty effects and certainly, no lasting effects on the cats so that they can get used to one another very gradually.
I think where it goes wrong is when people just kind of think well, these are two cats, they're both cats, they must get along. You know, I'm a person, I get along with other people, cats should get on with other cats, and leave them to get on with it. And usually well, certainly, commonly what happens is the two cats get some sort of stalemate going between them where neither of them really likes the other, but they somehow carve the house up between them. And trouble only starts when say, there is one litter tray they have to share - which they won't like to or there's only one food bowl, which they have to essentially compete over. So for people who've got two cats already who might not seem to be getting along too well, if you just allow them, you know, give them two of everything and they'll sort it out between themselves, nine times out of 10.
GROSS: How many cats have you had at the same time?
BRADSHAW: I've had about six or seven at the same time, including kittens. But they've all been, I basically for most of my life had one family of cats. So that they've, all the kittens, all the younger cats have grown up with the older cats. And that's mimicking, if you like, the feral situation, where kittens grow up in an environment where all of the - or most of the adult cats are already getting along together, and so they, kind of, they take their cue from that, that's the way they would they would they start behaving themselves. Cats are...
GROSS: So ideally, if you want two cats, should you get two cats from the same litter?
BRADSHAW: Ideally, yes. But it doesn't always work. I mean I have to say, you know, I've got friends who've done that - gone out and done that. Eight times out of 10 probably it does work, but sometimes for some reason the two decide they don't like each other. You know, cats are unpredictable. I mean I think that maybe that's part of their charm, but unlike with dogs, there's, kind of, no rules.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Bradshaw. He's the author of the book "Cat Sense," which is a follow-up to his book "Dog Sense." He's the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRADSHAW: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Bradshaw. He is the author of the new book "Cat Sense," which is a follow-up to his book "Dog Sense." He's the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England.
GROSS: I think one of the issues you have to face if you're getting a kitten is whether you're going to have that kitten declawed or not, and that's becoming increasingly controversial. So let's start with a description of what actually happens when a cat is declawed.
BRADSHAW: Well, the operation involves essentially taking the ends of, you know, what we would call our fingers off. And I have a personal experience of this. I had the end of one of my fingers crushed in an accident many, many years ago, and for years afterwards - it was restored to some extent by the surgeons, but not completely. And for many years afterwards I got phantom pains in that finger. Which I knew, you know, I'm a human being and I could look at my finger and go, I know that's a phantom pain. I know it's not real pain. It's annoying and it's distracting, but I can live with it.
I think, you know, people, war veterans who have whole legs injured or amputated in that way, it's a much more serious problem. But I think if I'd had eight of those then, and I was a cat and I couldn't really understand what had happened to me, I suspect I would have not been happy about it. It's a...
GROSS: I have to say until I read your book I never thought of the possibility that cats would have phantom pain in the part of the paw that was amputated, you know, during the declawing process. I never used to think of declawing as amputation. I thought of it as taking the nails out.
BRADSHAW: Yeah. No. Surgically, it's more than that, because you have to take out the whole bit where the claw grows from, rather than just the claw itself. And the cats will loose claws and re-grow them quite easily. It's a, you know, a natural thing that they have evolved in order to be able to keep hunting even if they damage a claw. So there is that possibility and I think there is some evidence that this may actually - from veterinarians - that this may actually - be the case. But there's an ethical issue as well, I suspect - which, you know, is reflected in the codes of practice over here in Europe where declawing is illegal. I mean the veterinarians are not allowed to it.
GROSS: It's illegal in Europe? Really?
BRADSHAW: Yeah. Yeah. They're not allowed to do it. It's regarded as being a mutilation...
BRADSHAW: ...of the animal. So...
GROSS: But here's the thing. Let me give you give you an example of my neighbor who got this adorable little kitten a couple of years ago. And the kitten - she wasn't sure whether she would have the kitten declawed or not. But after a while, you know, the kitten would lay in bed with her and would paw her face a lot, you know, affectionately but still this young woman was afraid that the kitten was going to accidentally claw her eye or seriously scratch her face. And at that point she decided, just for my own safety, I love this kitten but I need to get declawed. And what would you say about that?
BRADSHAW: Well, the use of the claws in a social context, as you're describing, is something that mother cats teach their kittens not to do. I mean, you know, kittens as they grow up will play roughly with one another. They'll quite quickly find that if they play roughly with their claws out or with an adult cat, they get a swipe around the head and they don't do it again - or at least after a couple of times they don't do it again. So it's something that the majority of cats can learn quite easily. This is not, you know, they'll try at it, but if they're told off them though quite quickly learn that this is not something you should do. I mean if it's an established habit in an adult cat, that's something rather different. But in a young cat that's still learning about the world and had to interact with people and so on. When things like that happen to me I have just imitated a cat, which is to do a dry spit - if you like - if that's, if you just...
GROSS: You spit at your cat?
BRADSHAW: I don't actually spit, but you make the...
(SOUNDBITE OF DRY SPITTING)
BRADSHAW: ...noise that mother cats do when they're telling kittens off. And cats really take notice of that and they'll tend not to do it again. They understand that signal.
GROSS: Do it again so I can get what you're doing.
BRADSHAW: You can just go...
(SOUNDBITE OF DRY SPITTING)
BRADSHAW: ...at the cat. So you're not actually spitting at the cat but you're making a spitting noise which imitates what the mother cat does and that will dissuade the cat. If that's not enough, a carefully aimed water pistol is a great way, and painless for the cat way, but uncomfortable way of persuading a cat not to do something. Provided you catch it in the act. I mean like all kinds of animal training, if you're going to produce a nasty stimulus, whether it's a noise the cat doesn't like or a brief jet of water, the only way it would work is if the cat is actually doing the same thing that you don't want it to do when the particular, when that punishment - which is what it is - arrives. If you do it afterwards, the cat won't understand.
GROSS: Well, how can you explain to the cat that it's the claws that's the issue and not the proximity of the cat? That it's one very specific part of the action - the claws?
BRADSHAW: By only doing it when the claws are out. And as I say, my experience has been that because mother cats - it's something that kittens kind of almost expect mother cats to be training them to do. And so if you can train the cat not to do it that way. I've never had a problem with cats scratching me like that and I think that's part of the reason. The other reason, of course, is that many of my cats have grown up, have been born in my house and so their mothers have done the training for me. And it is, I think, more common - that kind of behavior is more common in kittens that are taken away from their mothers too young at six or seven weeks. So a little bit later, leave them a little bit later and their mothers will do the job.
GROSS: What a lot of people are facing with their cats and dogs now is that their pet is elderly. And now we have a lot of options dealing with that - a lot of medical interventions that previously were only available for humans, and not too long ago even humans didn't have the options of things like CAT scans and chemotherapy and, you know, interventions that can really prolong an animals life but are also very expensive.
And so if you have a pet now, you're faced with some very difficult choices at the end of the pet's life of, like, how much money are you going to invest in keeping your pet alive? Can you afford to do it? Does it mean your children aren't going to go to college if you keep your cat alive? I mean, honestly, this is the kind of choices that people with pets have to face now.
And I wonder, you know, as an anthrozoologist, if you have any thoughts on that, because the end of life means something really different now.
BRADSHAW: Well, I think there's a danger in over anthropomorphizing, over-humanzing our cats. There's an issue of quality of life and an issue of quantity of life. And quantity of life is something that means a great deal to us humans, because we have a concept in our minds of our lives and how long they have been and how long we would like them to go on for.
Everything that scientists have found out about animals like cats so far is that they don't have that concept. They live in the here and now. And so simply prolonging an animal's life for the sake of it, I don't think you're doing the animal any favors. I think the animal does not understand what you're doing for it.
What it will understand in its own particular way is what its quality of life is. Is it in pain? Is it in discomfort? Is it constantly having to be hospitalized and kept in a strange environment that it doesn't understand? And it's a very difficult decision, and I wouldn't for a moment want to minimize the difficulty of it, but I would always boil - what it always boils down to for me: Is the animal having quality of life?
And if it is not, then I - my decision, my personal decision, has always been to allow the veterinarian to euthanize the animal, provided the veterinarian is content that that is the best way forward. Rather than spending money prolonging life for what I could, I think, rationally say would be my own selfish ambitions for that animal, rather than taking cognizance of the way the animal feels about the world.
I think we have to acknowledge that our cats are cats - they're not little furry people - and make the decisions for them. We've brought them into the world, in some senses. We've nurtured them throughout their lives, and I think we have a responsibility to make sure that they end their lives in as content a state as possible.
GROSS: Have you ever had any regrets about euthanizing one of your animals, and thought after the fact: I did it too soon?
BRADSHAW: I've never regretted - no. I have not regretted having any of my animals euthanized. There have been one or two instances where I thought it probably should've been last week, but I was too emotionally involved. I was willing to let the veterinarian have one more try when the veterinarian was perhaps a little bit ambivalent about whether the one more try would work.
It wouldn't be more than, you know, a few days, but sometimes, you get into a situation where you're trying to help a blind, senile animal with kidney failure, and you just don't want to let go. And I think I'm probably as guilty as anyone else of prolonging that slightly.
But, you know, again, you just have to stay back - sit back and think: If I was a cat and I lived in the here and now and I didn't have any idea that death was final - because I don't think they do - then what would I want for myself? And then, you know, answer that little voice in your head and obey it.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
BRADSHAW: Thank you for having me on.
GROSS: John Bradshaw is the author of the new book "Cat Sense." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. We're using this as an opportunity to give the FRESH AIR cats their moment in the spotlight. We've posted pictures of our cats on our blog, which you can find on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Superchunk's new album, which has the provocative title "I Hate Music." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.