As George Carlin famously observed, cats don’t accept blame — but that doesn’t mean they don’t apologize sometimes.
Let me preface this by saying I neither expect nor demand apologies for the standard methods of Buddesian destruction. If Bud swipes my phone off the table and it cracks, that’s my fault for leaving it where he’s known to conduct his ongoing gravity experiments. Likewise, there’s no sense getting upset with him when he paw-slaps a set of keys four feet across the room, or when I return from the kitchen to find the remote controls on the floor.
That’s Buddy being a cat. Getting angry at him for it would be pointless, and expressing that anger would only make him fearful and stressed.
There are times, however, when even Bud realizes an apology is in order. As I’ve documented before, the little guy sometimes redirects his fear or aggression to the nearest person, which is invariably me, and almost mindlessly lashes out with claws and/or teeth. After working on it together, he’s improved dramatically and knows how to handle his fear and frustration peacefully. Still, every once in a while he gets really freaked out or overstimulated beyond what he can handle, and he’ll clamp onto a foot or forearm, drawing blood.
That’s when I react. I don’t yell at him beyond telling him to stop, but he can see from my reaction that he’s gone way overboard and done something he shouldn’t do.
He starts the apology phase by running off to the next room or running around the one we’re in, making uncertain “brrrrrrr brrrrrr” noises. (Precisely the same noises he’s made since the day I brought him home as a kitten, when he would poop in the corner of my bedroom underneath my bed. That’s always been the sound he makes when he’s unsure and maybe a little worried.) If I go to wash and dab antibiotic ointment on the cuts, he’ll sit there quietly watching me. He’ll watch until I say “Hey, Bud!” and then approach slowly until he sees me holding out my hand and starts nuzzling against it and purring.
I’ll usually say something like “It’s okay, but you shouldn’t do that,” kindly but firmly. He probably doesn’t grasp my words, but he understands my tone of voice and meaning.
We can only guess exactly what our pets are thinking, but I believe Bud’s telling me he regrets hurting me, didn’t mean to, and he wants to make sure we’re still okay.
As for cats reading us, the video below does a good job of explaining what cats pick up in our tones of voice, body language, facial expressions and even pheromones. Cats may not have been living with humans since the hunter-gatherer days like dogs have, but they still trace their domesticated lineage back 10,000 years, and just like dogs they’re hyper-attuned to the moods and intentions of their closest humans. Partially it’s because they depend on us utterly as their providers of food and water, but when cats and humans share a bond, there’s a strong emotional side to that attunement as well.
When you think of a crime scene, you probably picture uniformed officers manning the perimeter, crime scene tape cordoning off the room where the deed was done, detectives trying to reconstruct what happened, and techs collecting evidence.
Those techs might swab surfaces for traces of a suspect. Drinking cups and water bottles might be dusted for fingerprints, stray hair might be bagged and sent back to the laboratory for analysis. Discarded cigarette butts, door handles, buzzers — they can all yield evidence, to say nothing of cell phones, USB sticks and smart appliances.
But what about the pets? If a suspect was especially careful not to leave prints or touch anything at the crime scene, could the fur of a cat harbor DNA?
A team comprised of scientists from Australia’s College of Science and Engineering at Flinders and the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department wanted to know if cat fur could indeed hold critical evidence at crime scenes, so they conducted a study involving 20 pet cats from different homes, and what they found could provide an important tool for law enforcement. Their findings were published in the journal Forensic Science International.
If detectives are trying to piece together the identities of robbers who, say, broke into a home, brutalized the people there at gunpoint and stole their valuables, they can’t interview the victims’ pet cats about what they saw, but it turns out they can swab the kitties’ fur and have an excellent chance of retrieving useful DNA.
The research team swabbed the fur of pet cats in their test households, took DNA samples of the adults living in those homes — who were the stand-ins for victims — and asked the human participants to fill out surveys asking about their cats, what they do on a typical day, and whether or not they have interaction with people outside the home.
After the team conducted DNA analysis on the fur swabs “[d]etectable levels of DNA were found in 80% of the samples and interpretable profiles that could be linked to a person of interest were generated in 70% of the cats tested,” the study authors wrote.
While most of the samples matched the DNA of people who lived in the homes — as expected — samples from six cats revealed the presence of DNA from other people. The research team didn’t take DNA samples of minors, and two of the positive fur swab samples came from cats who lived in a home with a child and slept in that child’s bed most evenings. But four other samples turned up “mystery” DNA even though no one else had visited those homes for at least several days.
For DNA from pets to have any real evidentiary value, prosecutors have to prove a “chain of custody” of sorts, establishing that suspects could not have had contact with the animals in question unless they were inside a home where a crime has taken place. If the cat is allowed to roam outdoors every day, for example, it becomes much more difficult to prove a suspect’s DNA was transferred to a pet inside a home rather than on the street.
That’s why the research team is hopeful, but also cautions that their study is a first step toward understanding more about how human DNA is transferred to fur, whether it requires a person to be physically present (as opposed to their DNA being passed along secondhand in stray hair or skin cells), how long a cat’s fur can harbor human DNA, and other questions prosecutors will have to answer.
“This type of data can help us understand the meaning of the DNA results obtained, especially if there is a match to a person of interest,” said study co-author Mariya Goray, a DNA transfer expert. “Are these DNA finding a result of a criminal activity or could they have been transferred and deposited at the scene via a pet?”
The team recommends more research “on the transfer, persistence and prevalence of human DNA to and from cats and other pet animals and the influences animal behavioral habits, the DNA shedder status of the owners and many other relevant factors.”
If they do answer the aforementioned questions and prosecutors believe they can establish a suspect’s presence at a crime scene thanks to feline-provided evidence, it might not be too long before we see a cat-centric episode on future seasons of Law & Order or CSI, both of which are scheduled to be revived as police procedurals enjoy a resurgence on TV.
It’s more accurate to say feline facial expressions are far more subtle than their human or even canine equivalents, and it takes an expert — a veterinarian or behaviorist with specialized training — to accurately read them.
This is a brand new frontier for veterinary science, and it’s all thanks to the feline grimace scale, a system developed by researchers at the University of Montreal in 2019. Using video clips of cats in various moods and stages of pain or pain-free expression, the researchers built a system that could reliably determine how a cat is feeling. (You can read more about how they did that here.)
“I call it the Rosetta Stone for interpreting how a cat is feeling,” veterinarian Liz Bales says in a new video at dvm360. “It turns out that very subtle changes in cat’s facial expressions can tell us whether or not they’re in pain. It includes the position of the ears, the opening of the eyes, the expression on the mouth, how the cat is holding its whiskers, and how they’re holding their head.”
Each of the five elements of feline facial expression are scored on a three-point scale, then added up. The result provides an accurate assessment of how a cat feels.
“It’s amazing, and it allows us to interpret feline pain in a way we never could before,” Bales says. “The hard part is, it can be a little bit tricky to learn. It is learnable, but I specialize in this and I’m still struggling to get it right every single time.”
Despite the challenge, she says, it’s well worth learning.
“The applications of this are so far and wide, and I think as the technology grows and it becomes easier and easier to use the grimace scale, the more exciting it’s going to be.”
Thanks to an app named Tably, cat servants don’t have to know how to read the most subtle feline facial expressions anymore. By running a photo of your cat through the app’s algorithm, Tably can read your cat’s expression for you.
Bales says she envisions a near future in which pet parents monitor their cats’ health and mood daily, and the scale becomes the standard for end-of-life care. With a “validated, consistent way to measure pain, we can look into more pain drugs for cats, what’s working, what isn’t.”
“A cat in pain looks like a resting cat to most people, but now we have this tool,” Bales says. “And I think as the tool evolves and we give cats a way to really speak for themselves through this Rosetta Stone of the grimace scale, then the more we understand that we can do for them, the more we’re going to do for them.”
We wrote about the feline grimace scale and Tably last year, and noted it had a lot of promise for veterinarians and us cat servants. At the time Tably was in beta and had a web app that allowed anyone to use the technology.
Unfortunately the web app seems to have disappeared, and the app is now available only to iOS users. Since we switched from an iPhone to Android, we can’t access Tably for the time being. (Let’s hope an Android version is forthcoming.) But if you have an Apple device, the app is definitely worth checking out.
This is why we always say it’s better for cat servants to regulate themselves than allow the government to get involved.
A Karen in Australia issued a $280 fine to a homeowner for allegedly allowing his cats to roam — after she lured the kitties onto the street herself.
The entire bizarre spectacle was captured on security cameras at the home of Julie and Steven Stephens, a couple in Toowoomba, about 80 miles west of Brisbane. The uniformed Karen, who is employed by the Queensland council, totes a clipboard in one hand as she walks up the Stephens’ driveway in broad daylight.
As one of the curious cats approaches, Karen reaches for a pen in her pocket and starts scribbling on her clipboard, apparently eager to get started on the paperwork, before slowly backpeddling so the kitty will continue to follow her. When the cat reaches the sidewalk, the unnamed woman scoops it up and walks to her government-issued vehicle parked in front of the Stephens’ home.
Steven Stephens was watching the episode unfold via his camera system and bolted outside to stop the government employee from taking his cat, he told Yahoo News Australia.
The Karen wasn’t able to “impound” the cat, but she wrote Stephens a hefty fine for “allowing his cat to roam,” and promised she’d be back to inflict more misery.
“She said she would be back in two weeks with the police to take all but two of our dogs,” Mr Stephens said.
We’re unable to embed the video, but you can watch it at Yahoo News Australia.
Unbelievably, Toowoomba Regional Council “CEO” Brian Pidgeon doubled down and quoted the relevant section of law on pet roaming when a local newspaper asked him about the incident. Pidgeon did acknowledge his employee was accused of luring the Stephens’ cat, but said he couldn’t talk about that because he’s conducting an “internal investigation,” which is bureaucrat-speak for figuring a way to worm his way out of the situation. There is, after all, clear video showing the Karen luring the cat away. There is nothing ambiguous about what happened.
Stephens admitted he and his wife have “too many” dogs according to local law, which has set arbitrary limits on animal custodianship, but said there are good reasons for that. The dogs sooth his wife, he said.
“A few years ago she had a severe car accident, her partner at the time died, she has a metal plate in her head and now has severe depression and anxiety,” Stephens said. “The dogs help with her anxiety.”
The family has been so rattled by the incident, and apparently has so little faith in their local government to treat them fairly, that they told Yahoo News they’re looking to sell their home and move to “a larger parcel of land in the bush.”
That in itself is an extraordinary admission, indicating they don’t expect basic courtesy, honesty or professionalism from the local authorities.
Now imagine how this would have played out if the Stephens family did not have security cameras. The council worker would have said their cats wandered off the family’s property of their own accord, and that would have been it. The Stephens would be forced to pay the fines, have a legal battle on their hands to get their cats back, and would be fretting over the impending confiscation of their dogs.
I know I sound like a broken record with regard to how local governments, guided by bunk “research” studies, impose themselves on pet caretakers, especially those of us who have cats. That’s why it’s important not to give them any reason to interfere — and to make sure everything is recorded, as the Stephens family wisely did.
Who knows what the government Karen’s motivations were. Was she trying to meet a quota? Does she dislike animals? Does she enjoy flexing the little bit of power she has, or inflicting misery on others? By preempting legislation on cat ownership and roaming, we can avoid putting ourselves at the mercy of such people in the first place, which is in the best interest of cat caretakers, and most importantly cats themselves.
Feline fact fail
I’m sure Nigel Barber, PhD., is a nice guy. I don’t mean to give him any grief. But when you present yourself as an expert on a topic and you write an authoritative column on a trusted site that has millions of readers, you really should make sure you’re not spreading misinformation or providing a picture of a situation that is decades behind the current science.
In a column for Psychology Today titled “Does Your Cat Love You?“, Barber rattles off a list of cliches, half-truths and outright falsehoods about cats, the kind of thing you might have expected 20 or 30 years ago before a wealth of research helped us dispel incorrect assumptions about felis catus.
After mucking up the domestication timeline, Barber says cats are “fearful of people,” “tend to withdraw from strangers,” and paints an outdated picture of aloof animals who technically don’t need human care to thrive. He also says cats attack people, including their caretakers, without warning or provocation.
Then there’s this nugget:
“As essentially wild predators, cats can be quite unpredictable. Many owners who are devoted to their cats complain that the cat often scratches them unexpectedly. One acquaintance had the cat declawed and found that the pet reverted to using its teeth on her!”
Can you believe it?!?! A woman had her cat declawed, and the cat bit her!
It’s not just that we know cats give off plenty of nonverbal warnings when they’re uncomfortable, or that declawing makes a cat much more likely to bite. Organizations like the Humane Society, SPCA, The Paw Project and others have been saying that for years.
It goes well beyond that — studies, including the most comprehensive study to date on the effects of declawing, have proven without a doubt that cats are much more likely to bite when they’re subjected to the cruel and painful declawing procedure. (See “Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats,” a 2017 paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.)
That’s because declawing a cat not only inflicts a lifetime of physical pain and psychological trauma, it robs felines of their primary defense mechanism, making them feel much more vulnerable. Without claws with which to warn off unwanted handling, the poor declawed cats have only one defensive weapon available to them — their teeth.
An evolutionary psychologist should understand that, and should also understand that scratching is a natural and necessary behavior for cats. It’s not right or wrong, it’s cats being cats. Mutilating innocent animals to protect inanimate objects like furniture is objectively wrong and cruel. When you adopt a cat, scratching comes as part of the package along with all the positives like unconditional love, amusing antics and calming purring.
There are ways to dissuade and train your cats to mostly avoid scratching furniture, but no one should expect their cats will never put a claw on their couches. If you don’t want your furniture scratched, don’t get a cat. End of.
I’m pretty sure Buddy does not know my name, and why should he?
He doesn’t hear my name spoken often, and in his mind I’m probably “Big Dumb Benevolent Human And Butler,” or BDBHAB. That’s a mouthful, even in meow, thus the much easier-to-say “Big Buddy.”
But a new study from Japan claims cats “possibly” know the names of their humans.
First, the parameters of the study would have eliminated the Buddies from the start: the research team from Kyoto University enlisted only cats who lived with at least two other felines. This is because they also wanted to find out if cats knew the names of their furry roommates as well.
The 48 cats who participated in the study lived in regular homes or cat cafes. The team played a recording of their human calling the name of one of their buddies, while a monitor showed an image of a cat. Sometimes the names and the images matched, and sometimes they didn’t.
The cats took longer looks at the images when the feline image shown didn’t match the name they heard, which the researchers said was indicative of surprise.
Separately, 26 cats were run through a similar experiment. In that scenario, the researchers played an audio clip of the cat’s human’s name and showed an image of either the human caretaker, or a cat. Like they did with the first experiment, cats looked longer when the images didn’t match the names, expressing apparent puzzlement.
In case you’re wondering, it does seem to matter if a cat grows up in a home rather than a cat cafe. When the name and face matched, researchers called that a “congruent condition.”
“Half of the trials were in a congruent condition where the name and face matched, and half were in an incongruent (mismatch) condition,” they wrote. “Results of Exp.1 showed that household cats paid attention to the monitor for longer in the incongruent condition, suggesting an expectancy violation effect; however, café cats did not.”
The reasons are fairly straightforward. In a home setting, cats almost always interact with their human family members, while felines in cafes interact with different employees on different shifts, and with customers, who might be regulars or strangers. Either way, the cats living in homes are much more likely to hear their own names and the names of their feline roommates.
“The latter probably have more opportunities to observe interactions between the owner and each of the other cohabitating cats, which might facilitate learning of the face–name relationship,” the team wrote.
The Kyoto team pointed out that many wild animals, particularly mammals and birds, make sounds that correspond to animals, objects or abstract ideas. Monkeys and birds, for example, use a range of different calls to communicate to each other when they’ve found food or spotted a predator heading their way.
The stakes are much lower in a home setting, but evolutionary traits can still serve cats and dogs well. One reason pets may be keen to recognize the names of their furry roommates, the research team speculated, is competition. After all, Socks would want to know if Oreo is getting more treats or head scritches.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.