The Guardian’s Tim Dowling thought he was writing a column about his dumb cat when he inadvertently described how the cat’s got him trained.
The short of it’s that Dowling and his family have a cat and a dog who thankfully get on really well and have become best pals. The dog was in desperate need of a grooming session recently, and when Dowling’s wife brought the pup home after getting a trim, their cat regarded the dog warily and bounced. He returned from the family’s yard only to eat and kept a watchful eye on the dog each time.
In Dowling’s estimation, the cat didn’t recognize the dog after grooming, which makes him stupid.
Yet cats can tell when their humans are coming home long before the key turns in the lock, probably due to their incredible hearing (detecting footfalls), their remarkable olfactory abilities, or both. They know where we are in the home at all times because they can track our movements several different ways, and they can even tell where we’re headed in a completely pitch black room thanks to their whiskers, which can pick up micro-changes in air density — but Dowling thinks they can’t recognize a groomed dog.
The more likely explanation is the dog smelled different, which upset the cat, or the haircut itself offended kitty. Felines are, after all, notoriously averse to change.
If your cat starts acting weird after you’ve rearranged your furniture, it’s not because the cat is an idiot who can’t navigate the room. It’s because felids of all kinds don’t like changes to their territory or their belongings, especially when those changes happen without warning. (And make no mistake, if your cat rubs up against something, whether it’s a couch, your dog or even you, you are included in that tally of his or her “belongings.” A cat is marking you with scent glands when she rubs against you, and what do you think scent-marking is for?)
Dowling disses feline smarts and praises them for their perseverance in the same sentence, but hilariously doesn’t realize his cat’s been conditioning him to provide treats on demand:
But cats are actually pretty stupid – their approach to problem-solving is only notable for bottomless persistence. As I sit at the kitchen table in the morning pretending to answer emails, I can hear the cat behind me, methodically clawing at the door of the cupboard where the cat food is kept.
I say: “Don’t be insane – I fed you half an hour ago.” But I think: I really don’t want to repaint that cupboard door. After about 10 minutes, I give in.
Later, he describes the same sequence of events:
The next day while the dog is at its appointment, I sit with my laptop in the kitchen, waiting for the driving rain to stop before I cross the garden to my office shed. Behind me the cat is sitting on its hind legs, working on the cupboard door with both paws, like a boxer hitting a speed bag.
“I can’t feed you three times in the same morning,” I say. “Imagine how weak that would make me look.” Ten minutes later, I give in.
Without taking the column too seriously, it’s obvious Dowling is a man who doesn’t know when he’s being played by his furry overlord.
The “stupid” cat has trained Dowling to feed him snacks on cue: Sit in front of the cupboard and do annoying things for a while, and the human will relent and dispense the good stuff.
Give in once and a cat will return to the same method again. Give in twice and it’s pretty much over. If you thought kitty was persistent before, now you’re going to see a whole new level of patience exhibited by your feline master if you get ideas about changing the routine.
It happens to the best of us, especially when in our human arrogance we underestimate our little friends.
When Buddy was still pretty much a kitten, I thought I was training him to come in from the balcony by shaking a treat bag. In reality he was training me, as evidenced by the fact that when I called him to come in and didn’t have a bag of treats at the ready, he would stop right at the threshold of the door and refuse to move until I bribed him with a snack.
It’s a cat’s world, and we just live in it.