Are domestic cats cunning?

Are domestic cats cunning?
Are domestic cats cunning? Not Grumpy cat! Photo: Public domain
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Sometimes people ask: “Why are cats so cunning?” It implies that domestic cats are cunning, but are they? In a light-hearted fashion, the great cat lover, Mark Twain, thought that a cat purring was a very cunning manoeuvre because he could never resist a purring cat.

“I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know..”

Dr John Bradshaw believes that Mark Twain was overstating the domestic cat’s mental abilities. With respect to purring, domestic cats are not trying to deceive us in a cunning fashion. There is no deliberate and conscious effort to manipulate their human companion. Cats simply learn that on occasions their energised purr as I call it may achieve something. I’m referring to the special trill-like purr that some cats produce when trying to elicit food from their owner.

But often, most often, the purr is simply a response to enjoying pleasant circumstances. In the case of Mark Twain he was no doubt referring to cats who enjoyed being in his company and showed it.

Domestic cats can demonstrate both stupidity and intelligence in the form of cunning when hunting. For example, when my cat brings in a mouse he lets it go whereupon it immediately runs under a piece of furniture where he cannot get at it. That is the endgame for my cat. I have to recover the mouse and release it. That does not indicate a cunning attitude on behalf of my cat. Perhaps it indicates that cats struggle with the human environment and don’t understand certain aspects of it like doors.

However, my cat can wait with incredible patience for a mouse to emerge from hiding and he might be at sufficient distance from the mouse for it to be unaware of him. I believe, however, that “cunning” is an inaccurate description when applied to domestic cat thinking. After all, it means to achieve an objective by deceit or evasion. It is this sort of activity that humans are very good at. It’s a word, which I think applies far more to human rather than domestic cat behaviour.

But we know that domestic cats can be smart. But being smart does not imply that an animal is cunning. Experts don’t believe that domestic cats are cunning. For instance, Dr John Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense only refers to the word once and then he debunks it. The other books that I have on domestic cats do not refer to them being cunning. I think, therefore, I can conclude that the word is probably inappropriate when describing domestic cat behaviour. It’s more a misconception from some cat owners.

However, I expect some cat owners to have their own stories about how cunning their cat companion has been over the years. I think, though, you have to be careful and not misconstrue feline behaviour because we still don’t fully understand the domestic cat.

What do you think?

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