“Curiosity killed the cat” or strategic territorial mapping?

“Curiosity killed the cat” or strategic territorial mapping?

by George
(Cumberland, MD USA)

Charlie mapping her home

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Charlie mapping her home

As a child, when my own curiosity got me into trouble, the adult would always say, "Curiosity killed the cat". It was a way for authority figures to warn children to take care not to venture where they shouldn't go or investigate things they shouldn't view.

But does the analogy work? Are cats curious?

It seems to me the assumption that normal feline behavior includes astonishing amounts and levels of human-like curiosity is another gross anthropomorphism which deflects us from observing what is even more astonishing: that cats are superior geometers and three-dimensional cartographers.

Everyone of us that has brought an adult cat into a new permanent home, and allowed the cat to freely "acclimatize" itself to the new environment by exploration, will have watched the cat carefully stalk around examining everything it sees. This initial process can take hours on the part of the cat. And it will likely be continued for days. Indeed, does it ever end? During this exploration, the cat may jump up onto higher level spots and continue the survey.

What is the cat doing? In my opinion, it is not merely indulging an insatiable curiosity. It is creating in it's memory a highly detailed, three-dimensional territorial map of the house. The cat does this (and needs to do it) for the sake of it's own sense of security as well as to lay the ground work for future predatory pursuits.

By creating in memory a highly detailed three-dimensional map, the cat will eventually come to know what is static in it's environment. This, then, becomes a template against which will be revealed to the cat any changes to it's environment as well as surprise movements by other critters (bugs, mice and other animals, or strange cats). It will also inform the cat of what's not seen when it is down on the floor or from other angles. And it will give the cat a sense of the height of levels it may need to jump to and the energy it needs to make the jump.

You may have noticed that when a cat is about to make a jump, it will tense up and get ready. But before it makes the jump it will quickly look side to side (
for any danger around or behind it) and then bob it's head up and down while looking in the direction of the jump. This bobbing of the head gives the cat a three-dimensional view allowing it to calculate, using intuitive geometry, the distance of the jump and the precise amount of thrust necessary to propel it for a smooth and exact landing. Invariably, the cat will land on the edge of the level without even the slightest forward slide (that is, unless it wants to slide).

After days of exploring and mapping, the cat will slowly become relaxed and comfortable in it's new home. But the mapping will continue. Later on it will want to know what's behind that closet door or what?s inside that cabinet. This, too, is not curiosity. The cat wants to be sure there's nothing dangerous lurking within. And whenever you make any changes to your home, the cat will need to add the changes to it's mental map.

Eventually, the cat will know it's environment so well, and feel so secure in it, that that detailed map becomes boring. I believe cats seem to sleep an awful lot because they are bored with their static environment.

As cat owners, we think a lot about how to play with our cats. But we fail to realize cats have an intellectual life too. Strategic territorial mental mapping seems also to be a pleasurable intellectual activity for a cat. Consider the following as an example:

One of my two female cats, Charlie, and I have a daily session that allows her to enjoy her mental map of the house, renewing her interest in it everyday. It seems to be her favorite thing to do. She will jump up onto my shoulders and wait, expectantly, for me to fold my arms across the front of my chest. Once I am prepared, she will then climb down my arm to the "shelf" I have made for her. She gets excited, her hair stands up and she purrs loudly as she walks back and forth along my folded arms, turning around, wrapping and unwrapping her tail around my neck. Eventually, she settles down and lays lengthwise along my arms. She's ready now for the intellectual fun.

I very slowly walk around the house, stopping at various interesting vantage points. Charlie will excitedly look around at her environment from this new and higher angle, no doubt comparing it to her mental map which was mostly composed from the floor level angle. She especially loves for me to stop in a doorway between two rooms. First, she scans the doorway frame. Then, she will rotate her head excitedly, examining the coming room as well as looking backwards to from where we came. Sometimes she will bob her head up and down to get a fix on the dimensions from this height. As she makes these calculations, she sometimes vocalizes her typical "I am pleased" grunt.

Charlie never tires of this process and, I'm sure, would gladly have me walk around for hours. It is me that tires of it since she is quite heavy to maintain on my folded arms.

Having said all that, I'm sure cats can be quite curious too.


From "Curiosity killed the cat" or strategic territorial mapping? to Cat Behavior

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"Curiosity killed the cat" or strategic territorial mapping?

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Dec 04, 2010 Cat boredom
by: George

Thanks for your interesting comments and kind words. Yes, I do think cats seem to sleep too much due to boredom, especially home-confined cats. But often they might seem to be sleeping but have, simply, closed their eyes (nothing new to see!), lowered their heads and perked up their ears.

You can usually tell if you just woke up the cat because it will appear drowsy, yawn and stretch. But when you disturb a quiet cat, they appear immediately alert.

When we humans try to assess the intelligence of a cat or dog, we foolishly evaluate it not only by our standards but also against the kind of intelligence humans have. We should, instead, try to judge their intelligence primarily against what cats have evolved into and the conditions in which they adapted their intelligence.

They are extremely successful predators and highly adapted to that function. And this is the intelligence they have. We are successful predators too, and so are dogs, and this is probably why we all get along so well together (humans, dogs and cats). But we arrived where we are by very different routes and within very different contexts of conditions. It is only through the differences, and not the similarities, that we can understand the intelligence of cats.

Dec 03, 2010 Agreed
by: Michael

Hi George. I have never read before what you have written and I have a decent number of books and have read a lot of Internet information.

But I am convinced that you are correct. Your thoughts lead to a number of follow up questions for me.

The concept of being bored comes to mind. Cats do need mental stimulation and the wild cats get it in abundance as survival is much harder and their ranges are much larger. The home range of a domestic cat is sometimes artificially very small it seems to me. This might lead to a lack of mental stimulation. This in turn leads to a gradual dumbing down of the domestic cat in relation to the wild cat. The domestic cat often cannot cope if abandoned outside.

I find it takes about 6-9 months for a cat to get used to a new home. Cats do like or need mental stimulation but also like the comfort of routine and familiarity. It seems to be a balance between the two that is required.

Domestic cat to wildcat comparison

Thanks for the insight.

Michael Avatar

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