Into the Mind of a Cat
Binnie - my 16 year old girl cat, once a stray cat
I’d like to try and get into the mind of a cat. To go beyond understanding my cat and to try and understand what she feels, senses and thinks. And I don’t think that it is such a difficult thing to do for nature-sighted or connected people (CPs). We spend many years with our cats. We understand their habits. We understand how they live and we can communicate with them. Also a cat’s anatomy is very similar to ours. I don’t see cats as a them and us situation. I see them as another creature on this planet. We share the planet with them.
To get into the mind of a cat we need to think about how their brain processes stimuli, the quality of their senses and how their brain is hard wired (their natural instincts). There will be a very big overlap with humans on all these levels as we are both animals that need to breathe, eat and go to the toilet! We survive in the same way.
It seems that the differences come in the form of senses and hard wiring. It might be fair to say that one factor that separates cat and human in terms of what is going on in the mind is the difference in time over which we have both become domesticated. The cat has been domesticated for about 10,000 years and a lot of what it thinks and does is based in wild cat instinct. Human self-domestication would seem to be the period of humankind’s creation of civilisation, a much longer time frame (Homo sapiens has been around for 150,000 years for example and earlier forms of human go back millions of years). We are still driven by basic instincts but perhaps they are further removed from our lives than for a cat.
Cats are reasonably intelligent even when measured by our standards. And our methods of measuring intelligence are designed for us so we tend to miss the kinds of intelligence present in other creatures. I would argue that cats have a level of intelligence akin to a very young child and a sensory awareness that is often at a much higher level than an adult person. How do the senses impact on this level of intelligence?
A cat’s hearing and sense of smell are better than ours. Smell plays a much bigger role in their lives than it does for humans. It plays a central role in communication for a cat. It is also important for us in terms of communication but much less so. We send out pheromones and wear perfume etc. These are also methods of communication but a cat marks its territory through scent marks and physical marks. We build walls and doors and cats build a wall of scent. The age of the scent of urine for example tells a cat when another cat has been there. It is looking back in time.
A cat’s hearing is better too. The range of sound they can hear is much wider. They can pick up sounds earlier and respond sooner than us.
And we all know a cat’s sight in the dark is superior to ours. In normal light their sight is perhaps inferior or no better so they rely more on sound and smell, which are two very useful signals. Cats seem to use these senses more actively than humans. A cat’s ears are always swivelling even when supposedly asleep! And cats sniff at everything. It is the first thing they do when arriving somewhere.
How does this translate into getting into the mind of a cat? For a cat living in our world (and it is our world) life must be noisy at times. A bombardment of stimuli. This would seem to make them more anxious or at least potentially so. Life, however, is much simplified. This reception of stimuli is set against a background of the underlying drive to survive. And for a domestic cat that means looking to us, mother cat, for food and protection.
It is important to realise that we artificially keep cats in a permanent state of kittenhood. This affects how they react to the world. Anyway, in short, cats are picking up and processing more signals in respect of sound, smell and sight. They are more active in this regard it seems to me.
Do cats get bored? Do they feel happiness, sadness, anger, irritation, frustration etc.? My observations inform me that they do. Cats though have a greater capacity to live with these emotions particularly the uncomfortable ones. They don’t express them like we do. However, my cat will call me to do something (like get up or to let her into the garden) and if I don’t respond her voice will show signs of irritation and I don’t think this is misreading the sound. Her voice clearly shows irritation. I am sure she can feel the emotion of irritation and if that is the case any other emotion is possible. And on that basis I don’t think we treat cats well enough in taking these emotions into account. I think we tend to ignore this aspect of a cat’s life.
And cats can get bored. Cats need stimulation that mimics natural wild cat life. They are still pretty close to being wild cats after a short 10,000 years of domestication. The instincts of a cat need to be exercised and if they are not it is unnatural and what is unnatural is unhealthy. Domestication and indoor living works against meeting this demand. Cats tolerate boredom or inactivity well because they tolerate everything well and because they are efficient hunters so would normally spend long periods at rest.
Cats can feel lonely too. Being left alone all day while we work shows this. They show joy and pleasure when we walk through the door. My girl would be right behind the front door when I got home.
To recap, cats receive lots of sensory stimuli at a higher level than us and feel emotions. They also conceal these facts. That can give the wrong impression. I think that there is a lot going on in a cats brain but it is all at the instinctive and sensory level. Our minds are full of lots of clutter concerning day to day living. Cats don’t suffer this problem so I would say that a cat’s mind is clearer. Life is much simplified for a cat but they are processing more sensory signals.
The human is very uncomfortable in his skin. He is an orphan in the natural world. He has lost his connection with his roots, nature. We headlessly lurch from one crisis to another. It is sad to see. We generate false expectations that cause discomfort. Cats live better in the moment and their expectations are simplified. The expectation to be fed at a certain time and to be let out to go into the garden are there but it is on that kind of level.
Lower levels of expectation are healthy. Simply living in the moment is more mentally healthy.
Recognition and Memory
My cat can recognise me from a good 30 yards and more on a purely visual level. She is 16+ years old (about 90+ in human terms). This indicates good eyesight and good memory. My cat can recognise my voice from similar distances and further. Memory for sound is very much in place. Cats have good memories. When I split up with my ex. 16 years ago she kept the boy cat, I kept the girl cat. When I saw her some 4 years after the split and met the boy cat again he recognised me.
When I come back to the cattery after a two week holiday my cat recognises my voice instantly. As cats have good memories they can store bad experiences and as they can feel emotions they can suffer emotional distress from bad experiences that occurred many years earlier.
This is a very brief look into the mind of a cat. It is all based on my personal observations of my cats and so is simplified and unscientific. For a cat, life is simpler, it is surrounded by sensory stimulation, no questions are asked and no dilemmas pondered. Unfairness of life and expectations are out. Life is in the moment but it is intense at an emotional and sensory level at times.