I’m up in the Catskills this weekend, which means a friend has been looking in on Buddy and feeding him while I’m away.
He knows her and she’s helped me out by cat-sitting in the past, but it didn’t occur to me that it’s been quite a while since the little guy saw her.
Most cats would run and hide if their humans were away and a “stranger” suddenly entered the house. Not Buddy, apparently.
My friend unlocked the door, stepped inside and was greeted by all 10 pounds of the Budster in attack mode. Little man calmed down when he recognized her and realized she was there to feed him.
I’m sure he also gave her an earful, including “Where’s my servant?! This is unacceptable!”
For all our progress in communicating with our pets, learning body language and other non-verbal cues, we humans still don’t have a way to help them understand what a weekend getaway is, or ease their anxiety by reassuring them we will be home in a few days.
I expect I’ll get the cold shoulder when I walk through the door. It’ll last a minute or two until Bud’s resolve breaks down and he celebrates my return by meowing happily and getting his scent all over me.
A Brazilian research team wanted to find out if cats experience separation anxiety when their owners aren’t home, so they visited the homes of 200 cat servants, wired them up with cameras and microphones, and conducted a rigorous study in which they first established a behavioral baseline, then compared the cats’ normal behavior with their actions when their humans weren’t home.
In what might be the laziest, most assumptive attempt at conducting animal behavioral research thus far in 2020, the team from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora handed out questionnaires to 130 cat owners that asked, among other things, about the body language and behavior of their cats when they weren’t at home to witness it.
Did these cat caretakers have Palantirs that allowed them to spy, Sauruman-style, on their kitties at home? Nah.
“Since there weren’t any cameras observing the cats, the owners answered based on evidence from reports by other residents, neighbors or any signs the cat left in the home, such as feces, urine or broken objects, [study author Aline Cristina] Sant’Anna said.”
My neighbor’s friend’s Uber driver, who parked outside for 16 minutes, said my cat looked angry when he briefly appeared in the window, so I’m gonna go ahead and write in this here questionnaire that Mr. Socks has terrible separation anxiety. Yep.
But suppose the data was reliable, instead of fuzzy third-hand accounts from cat owners who quizzed their apparently nosy neighbors about what their cats do in their down time. How do we know a smashed vase is separation anxiety, and not the result of a cat with the zoomies just knocking stuff over?
How do we know a cat who misses the litter box doesn’t have a UTI, or refused to use a dirty box?
But it gets better, dear reader. This team of superstar scientists decided the reason some cats were supposedly depressed or destructive is because they live with male caretakers instead of women:
Cats with behavior problems also tended to live in households without any female adults or more than one female adult; households with owners ages 18 to 35 years old; single pet households; and households with no toys.
“Maybe, for different reasons, the animals raised in households with no female adults or more than one female adult were less likely to develop secure and mentally healthy types of attachments with their owners in the sampled population,” [study author Aline Cristina] Sant’Anna said.
Or maybe the authors are getting paid to make wild, unsupported assumptions and combine them with worthless data.
The CNN version of the story doubles down by quoting a self-appointed expert who expounds on the cats-and-females theory:
Additionally, female cat owners tended to be more affectionate and doting, said Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant for more than 20 years.
Cats might be a little more distressed in the absence of their owners if they are younger adults who are busy and not focused on the fact that they have a pet, the researchers theorized.
“They’re happy to have a pet, but they’re going out, being social, [going on] dates and having parties,” added Johnson.
For those who aren’t keeping score, we now have an academic and a certified behaviorist telling us cats who live with men or adults younger than 35 are more likely to be depressed because they, like, totally heard we don’t scoop the litter boxes as frequently or something.
That’s because all men refuse to be affectionate with their cats, and people under 35 are party animals who snort cocaine off the posteriors of strippers when they should be feeding Fluffy, according to our experts.
Johnson’s credentials include working at a hospital for cats and running her own “cat behavior house call and toy business.”
It’s worth noting that there are dozens of organizations that certify people as cat behaviorists. Sometimes the difference between a certified behaviorist and one without certification is the former simply paid dues to a member group that issues the certificates.
By now my opinion on this study is abundantly clear. The methods and conclusions wouldn’t pass muster in most undergraduate classes, let alone a research paper published in an academic journal. (The researchers published their work to PLOS ONE, an open access journal.)
What I don’t understand is, why bother? According to the study, 13.5 percent of the cats demonstrated at least one behavior consistent with separation anxiety, but for reasons I elaborated on earlier, the data is worthless. I’m not a fan of questionnaire studies in the first place, let alone questionnaire studies asking people what other people told them about difficult-to-interpret animal body language.
And lastly, I’m not a fan of this idea that there’s a certain “type” of person who is the best kind of cat owner.
We should be dispelling crazy cat lady stereotypes, not perpetuating them. Maybe men are in the minority when it comes to adopting cats, but nothing other than unfounded assumption suggests we men aren’t loving and affectionate with our little buddies, just like there’s nothing but anecdotal evidence to suggest caretakers younger than 35 neglect their pets.
The past few years have seen an authentic boom in research into feline cognition, behavior and emotion, and for that I’m grateful. But we can do better than this.
Heather Ziegler, a columnist for a local newspaper in West Virginia, recalls a Thanksgiving from her teenage years made memorable by her cat helping himself to the turkey:
My mother had taken the huge frozen turkey and placed it on top of the [freezer] to begin the thawing process several days before Thanksgiving. By the grace of God, we all survived this process over the years.
However, this particular year was a first for our family. A day or so before Thanksgiving, my mother went to retrieve the turkey. A scream was heard, peppered with a few harmless curse words. At some point, the family cat had discovered the turkey and had begun to enjoy a pre-Thanksgiving meal. The turkey was ruined and it was too late to thaw another bird.
The story has a happy ending of sorts: Heather’s mom and dad took all twelve (!) of their children out to dinner, where they were joined by their young cousins, whose police officer father had been shot a few days earlier and remained hospitalized. Thanks to the crafty cat, those kids had the comfort of their extended family on a difficult holiday.
Since then, Ziegler writes, The Turkey Incident has become a fondly-remembered bit of family lore.
As regular readers of Pain In The Bud know, turkey is Buddy’s favorite food in the universe.
Why turkey, and why not chicken, beef, salmon, duck or tuna? Who knows? He’s loved it since kittenhood and would eat turkey all the time if he could.
Thankfully he won’t be putting a damper on Thanksgiving: I don’t eat meat, and my aunt hosts Thanksgiving in her house. But maybe it’s time for a special turkey treat for the good boy in the form of Thanksgiving leftovers.
Whenever I look at photos of Baby Buddy, I try to remind myself there was a whole lot of crazy that came with the cute.
The surreptitious pooping underneath my bed. The relentless nightly war waged against my ankles and feet. The incessant meowing as if he’d reconciled classical and quantum physics and needed to tell me all about it right this very instant.
Actually he hasn’t quite given up that last hobby. He still tackles weighty subjects in minutes-long soliloquies delivered in meow, but he’s generally less insistent unless the topic involves food.
One of my fondest memories of Baby Bud involves that hyper talkativeness combined with boundless kitten energy and Buddy’s unique brand of crazy.
It started with bedtime. I was settling in for sleep and Bud was making it clear he would have none of it. So I sighed, making sure my feet were fully wrapped in the armor of a blanket to render kitten claws and teeth ineffective.
One of his favorite moves as a kitten was to wait until I was falling asleep, my heart rate slowing, before going kamikaze on my feet. He’d listen for the first snore, chomp down on my toes and gleefully flee before I realized what was happening, happily trilling and chirping after another successful ambush.
This time Buddy had something else in mind. As soon as the lights were off and I was settled in bed, he took off like the Roadrunner, ricocheting off the walls and yelling out “BRRRRRRUUUPPP!!!! BRRRRRRUUUPPP!!!” as he pinballed around the room.
This went on for several minutes until, without warning, Buddy skidded to a halt on my back, meowed the kitten equivalent of “OH YEAH!” and collapsed on top of me with an epic sigh of contentment. He was asleep within seconds.
I can’t do justice in words to how funny it was, except to say I was laying there belly-laughing with my kitten on top of me, afraid I was going to wake him up.
At the time it was also validation. This kitten was my first-ever pet, and he was clearly a happy little dude. That made me happy too.
I miss Baby Buddy, but I love adult Buddy even more precisely because I have more memories like this one to fondly look back on…and because adult Buddy mercifully doesn’t treat my feet like scratching posts when I’m asleep!
I’m not asking because I think cats are locked in an eternal good-vs-evil struggle between their deity, the God of Napping, and the evil forces of the Red Dot. We’re all well aware of that.
I’m asking because, well, my cat prays. He eases onto his hind legs, sits straight up, puts his paws together and gestures as if in fervent prayer, just like this guy:
Or this marbled tabby apparently in the middle of her evening vespers to the God of Yums, that from which all sustenance seems to come. The fridge.
And finally this kitty, who baffles his owners as he stands up, presses his paws together and shows excellent prayer form:
Buddy has some bizarre and amusing moves in his repertoire of feline quirks, but the “praying” thing is the one behavior I haven’t come close to decoding. I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw the little guy doing it one day when he was just a few months old.
First thing’s first: No one seriously believes cats are praying or know what prayer is, so I just wanted to get that disclaimer out of the way before my inbox gets flooded with variations of “HAHA U MORAN CAT’S CANT PRAY LOLZ”
Some people think the motion looks more like a begging gesture. Cats are asking for something when they do it, proponents of the begging theory argue.
I think we can rule that out. I’ve heard owners of other “praying” cats say their furry lieges wave their paws like that in various situations, and that’s been my observation as well. Bud does it randomly, and I’ve seen him do it while he was unaware of my presence. He couldn’t have been asking for anything.
There’s no research on this behavior and there’s virtually nothing about it on the web aside from a handful of Youtube videos.
Maybe it feels like stretching or provides some other form of muscle relief. Maybe it’s a cat’s way of limbering up. Maybe it’s an indication of a cat’s mind state, the same way relaxed ears and an upright tail indicate kitty’s happy and relaxed. Or maybe it’s a form of self-soothing for anxiety.
Those are all guesses, and none of them feel quite right. So help a dedicated cat servant out: What’s your take on this behavior, and what prompts cats to do it?
Chronicling the adventures of Buddy the Cat and his various criminal enterprises.