Copyright 1996, 2002, 2003 Sarah Hartwell

This article is part of a series looking about cats and cat care in Britain from the late 1800s through to the 1970s.


Soderbergh, P M; "Your Cat" (1951) (using 3rd edition; 1959)
Soderbergh, P M; "Pedigree Cats, Their Varieties, Breeding and Exhibition" (1958)
Tenent, Rose; "Pedigree Cats" (1955)
Mery, Fernand; "The Life, History and Magic of the Cat" (1966) (originally published in French)
Cats Protection League (various leaflets from 1960s & 1970s)

Other sources are as credited in the text with additional personal information and commentary.


According to Konrad Lorenz (Austrian Behaviorist) in 1954: "The short feline attack is only to gain time while finding a way of escape. There is, however, one contingency in which a cat may make a prolonged and earnest attack in this hunchbacked attitude, and that is when she is defending her young. In this case she approaches her enemy when he is some distance away and she moves in a peculiar fashion, galloping with an up and down and sideways motion, for she must continually present her imposing broadside to the foe. Though this broadside gallop with laterally held tail is seldom to be seen in real earnest, it can very often be observed in the play of young cats. I have never seen it in mature tomcats except in play, for there is no situation in which they are obliged to attack an enemy like this. In the suckling female cat, this broadside attack brings with it an absolute and unconditional readiness for self-sacrifice, and, in this state, even the gentlest cat is almost invincible. I have seen large dogs, notorious cat killers, capitulate and flee before such an attack. Ernest Thompson Seton graphically describes a charming and doubtless true occurrence in which a mother cat in Yellowstone Park put a bear to flight and pursued him until he climbed a tree in terror."


The Associated Press lately seemed to find an element of romance in the story of a cat in Maine which had lost a leg in a trap. His human associate fitted him with a wooden peg - and must have fitted him well, for any cat would spend hours trying to get that sort of contraption off before he ventured to walk on it; and when the cat caught a rat he held it down with his other forepaw and beat it to death with his wooden leg. Fiction? Not wholly. He may have killed the rat, eventually, with his teeth; but any cat who caught a rat would slap it round a bit, and it would be a natural muscular reflex to swing on it with the arm that happened to have a wooden peg attached.

Stories of catsí manipulative skill about the house may also be exaggerated, but there is more in them than those ignorant of the species realise. E. L. Thorndike, the psychologist, has been scornful of this type of cat story. Thousands of cats, be says, have gone to the door, found it shut, and turned away frustrated, without getting any publicity; but let one single cat reach up and paw the door knob, and immediately he figures in all the books on animal inteffigence. Maybe so; but most cats understand bow a door is opened even if they cannot do it themselves. A good many cats are either naturally imitative, or else clever enough to try what they have seen human beings attempt with success. I know a cat who dials the telephone, but that is probably mere imitation; her family does not pretend that she has ever lifted the receiver off the hook or actually succeeded in getting a number.

But sometimes it looks like imitation in the hope of success. My cat has never tried to turn a door knob; he can pull a screen door open from outside, with his claws, but when he comes to a wooden door that is closed he simply sits down and scratches at the crack. (He never scratches at the wrong crack, the one where the hinges are.) Experience has taught him that sometimes the door is off the latch, in which ease he can pull it open - and also that if he says he wants to get out, and any of the human members of the family are present, the door is likely to be opened for him. He likes to drink water out of the bathtub; if somebody runs a little for him he drinks as much as he wants and then pulls out the plug. That may be the accidental result of a mere impulse to play with a shiny chain; but it seems plausible that he has seen other people pull the plug when they are through with the water in the bathtub, and knows what will happen if he pulls it. This is no proof of any great mechanical skill in even this one particular cat, to say nothing of the entire species; it is merely observed evidence of more general intelligence than enemies of the cat are willing to admit. Some of them indeed admit almost nothing - not even those reflective qualities for which the cat is most esteemed by connoisseurs.

The most vigorous attempt to debunk the cat which has come to my attention - its unfavourable conclusions all buttressed by laboratory experiment - is a book published in 1928 by Georgina Gates, then assistant professor at Barnard College, entitled The Modern Cat: a Study in Comparative Psychology. Perhaps none of the science of that romantic year need be taken too seriously; much of the physics of 1928 seems to be only antique heresy now, while as for the economics of 1928 - ! However, let the cat answer the indictment, which is comprehensive enough. The cat has few ideas; she "sees no colours, distinguishes no pitches"; objects are ill defined to her, she "lives in a blur," with no memories and no anticipations. "She is no philosopher," says Dr. Gates, "no mechanician, no student or critic of human affairs; merely a distant relative, poverty-stricken with respect to the most valuable of all possessions, but cherished for her air of aloofness and that aura of mystery which surrounds her." In short, a poor relation of our noble species.

Now with all respect to the scientific approach, this seems to me to betray very little knowledge of cats outside the laboratory; and it anthropomorphises the cat more thoroughly than do even the youngest children. it implies that what is useful or pleasant to us must be useful or pleasant to cats too, and that they are deficient in so far as they lack it. The cat is condemned for not being a successful human being. How many human beings could be successful cats?

Certain experiments are cited as proof that the cat is tone-deaf and colour-blind. Colour-blindness is a considerable misfortune to men and women but much less serious for the cat, who does not have to watch traffic lights; who has other senses to help him distinguish objects and other pleasures to replace those which colour gives us. The charge of tone-deafness rests on the researches of an earnest investigator who found that cats could not distinguish (or at least did not find it worth while to show that they distinguish) between different notes on the piano. So what? Why should a cat be interested in the notes of a piano? When he wants music he makes his own.

Anybody who knows cats outside the laboratory knows that their hearing is far superior to ours. Even if they cannot distinguish between the notes of the piano (I remain unconvinced of that) they can detect and identify countless sounds too faint for the human ear, or too obscure for the human understanding. The widespread belief that cats are "psychic" is partly a residue of old superstition, but partly it rests on the observed fact that cats are sensitive to certain impressions which human senses miss. Probably their better hearing is responsible for most of this, their sensitiveness to electricity for the rest of it - a sense which most human beings wholly lack. In the sense of smell the catís superiority is still greater. It tells him much that we learn by sight, much that we get by conversation or reading, and probably some things we never get at all. Those who despise the cat for his alleged insensitiveness to the notes of the piano might ask themselves what he would say of a species so dull, so crude, so poverty-stricken that its language actually has no word for the nasal equivalent of colour-blindness; which is as insensitive to the innumerable delicate distinctions of scent that the cat perceives as he may (or may not) be to the different tones of musical instruments.

"The cat lives in a blur," does he? Well, he does not act in a blur; when he has something to do, somewhere to go, he goes and does it with speed and precision. At a distance, in broad daylight, his vision is probably less precise than ours; but he identifies such objects, and at such distances, as his needs require, by the co-ordination of other senses. And at night - ! Stumble over a cat in the dark and he will be surprised, though unless you step on a foot or a tail he will be too courteous to express indignation. Turn on the light, and you can read in his eyes as much pity and disdain for a poor creature who cannot sec in the dark as scientists feel for a poor creature who does not know (or care about) the difference between G sharp and B flat. Dr. Gates remarks that if you put a cat in front of a mirror he will not recognise his own reflection, probably will not realise that this is the image of a cat. Which is true. But if there is another cat, a strange cat, near by the chances are that he will know it before you do; certainly he will if the other cat is around a corner, or if it is dark.

Most of this depreciation of the cat is anthropomorphizing. We have enormously developed one sense at the expense of all the rest; by far the greater part of the material used by the human mind is collected, in one way or another, by the eye. Unfavourable judgements on the catís perceptive powers by members of a species whose other senses are far weaker (in the case of smell, almost atrophied) are as uninformed, as uncomprehending, as the ideas of a celibate on matrimony.

Nobody who knows cats believes that they have no memories or anticipations; they remember and anticipate much that we do not care about and are indifferent to much that interests us; but why not? It is their business to be cats, ours to be human. But what about the most valuable of all possessions, in which the cat is said to be so poverty-stricken? This is reasoning power; the catís deficiency in which is proved, to Dr. Gatesís satisfaction, by one of Thorndikeís experiments. He took twelve alley cats, put them before a complicated set of boxes to find a devious way to food, and timed them. Only one found the way easily; as a group they were faster than racoons, but slower than monkeys or Columbia students.

One must respect the findings of a properly conducted experiment, but need not accept all the conclusions drawn from it. Any educated alley cat (and those who learn slowly die young) knows that food comes in garbage cans, not in trick boxes. Confronted with a novel situation, food in an unfamiliar container, the cats were slow to adapt themselves to their environment. But it does not appear that Thorndike was so inhumane as to push them to the verge of starvation; if he had, probably every one of those cats would have got the food before it starved, which after all is the passing grade for an alley cat. Finding oneís way out of mechanical complications is, it must be remembered, more of a human than a feline necessity; and more of a human (or, as the experiment suggests, a simian) aptitude.

But the unfavourable conclusions were based chiefly on the way the cats went at it; they pawed round apparently at random, sometimes trying the wrong way over and over. "Man learns, the cat scrambles," Dr. Gates concludes; but she admits that a Columbia professor who did not know how to swim, if he fell into so unfamiliar an environment as deep water, would flounder as awkwardly as Thorndikeís cats. "The cat uses manís second-best procedure, hit-or-miss struggling," instead of coolly, patiently reasoning his way out. How many men do any better? Pick up the first twelve human beings you meet, put them into a human situation of equivalent novelty and complexity, and most of them would scramble too.

In justice to Dr. Gates, it must be remembered that this was written in 1928, when the human race seemed to have some grounds for complacency; she could hardly foresee that another decade would teach us that we are not much better off than Thorndikeís cats. There is plenty of food in the world, plenty of everything we need; but mankind has got himself into a complicated set of boxes - psychological and emotional - and does not seem able to find the way through. Some men are patiently trying to think it out; but most of what is going on looks like hit-or-miss floundering, and often a stubborn persistence in what is obviously the wrong way.

I will give the psychologists another illustration of the catís defects as a reasoner, demanding no payment except the privilege of asking, "So what?" The cats in the New York Aquarium, employed to keep out rats, have been taught not to eat the fish. On arrival they are given electric eels to play with, and after they have had a few shocks they conclude that anything in the Aquarium tanks (or more probably anything with the Aquarium smell) is electrified too. Or, as Mark Twain once summarised it, a cat who has once sat on a hot stove will never sit on a cold stove.

And the human race? Most of the shoestring speculators of 1928 had resolved by 1932 that they would never fool with the stock market again. Yet a good deal of money has been made in the stock market since 1932. We all despise the people who donít know what we know. My cat has been trained not to catch birds; but each summer when he arrives at his country home he meets a new generation of birds who do not know that he will let them alone. As he lies peacefully under a bush and listens to their frightened shriekings all about him he wears an expression of utter contempt - such contempt as a psychologist might feel for a cat who was slow to find his way through a set of trick boxes.


The fact is that ailurology, like anthropology, is a social science; and we have all learned by now that the exact technic of the physical sciences has only a limited application in such fields. Dr. Gates [Georgina Gates, author of "The Modern Cat: a Study in Comparative Psychology", 1928] indeed appears to suspect this: after her long debunking of the cat she qualifies by quoting Virginia Roderickís conclusion that "there is no answer to most questions about the cat; she has kept herself wrapped in mystery for some three thousand years, and thereís no use trying to solve her now." At any rate the insight of the artist will come much nearer a solution than the meticulous experiments of the laboratory scientist. Anyone who knows cats will acknowledge that the one best thing ever written about them, the concentrated quintessence of so much ailurology as we know, is Kiplingís "The Cat Walked by Himself." What that cat thought, what any cat thinks as he walks in the wet wild woods by his wild lone, waving his wild tail, no one can surely say. Not just what we should be thinking, certainly - but perhaps something not altogether alien to our ideas and feelings.

That cats experience the simpler emotions - desire, anger, fear, contentment - no one would deny; but they can have more complex emotions too, both good and bad. My act, given three seconds to get ready, can run any dog out of the yard; but once a dog tearing in at high speed came on him unexpectedly from behind a bush, and General Gray behaved as other veteran troops have behaved in a similar situation. He ran; and being a cat, he ran up a tree. There he halted and collected himself and looked down at that dog; and you could see shame in his face, the sense of an imperative obligation to retrieve his self-respect. A moment later he came down the tree and chased the dog out of the yard, as usual.

Not only the catís intellectual but his emotional range is a good deal wider than can be measured by laboratory methods. This does not prove that he is a philosopher, but still less can the scientists prove that he is not. He looks philosophic, he behaves philosophically in his own affairs; he can act with speed and power when he needs to but he avoids all waste exertion, all effort that has no purpose to a cat; when there is time he weighs his decisions - no cat ever went through a door held open for him without measured pondering of the arguments for and against the step; he does what he wants to in so far as he can, and except in peril of his life wastes no energy on the impossible. What he thinks of human beings no one knows; but we can occasionally make plausible guesses. One of the most engaging tail-wavers in literature is Viktor Scheffelís black tom cat Hiddigeigei. Only a character of fiction, to be sure; you may say it is Scheffel, not Hiddigeigei speaking when he concludes some derogatory observations on human behaviour:

Menschentun ist em Verkehrtes,
Menschentun ist Ach und Krach;
Im Bewusstsein seines Wertes
Sitzt der Kater auf dem Llach!

Human activities are twisted [wrong],
Human activities are by the skin of one's teeth; [hasty]
In the awareness of its judgement
Sits the tomcat, laughing

But so I have seen a Persian cat on the roof watch the guests stumble out from a cocktail party across the road; if his verdict was not the same as Hiddigeigeiís then you can read nothing in a face.

Those who know cats best, at any rate, feel that they have a sort of wisdom denied to us. Why let yourself be kept by a cat? Because there is little human companionship so satisfying as that of a friend of superhuman dignity and poise, who looks wise, behaves wisely in his own affairs, and regards your tribulations with an affectionate - and silent - sympathy.

The late Clarence Day once speculated on what the world would be like if the species that became dominate had been super-cats instead of super-monkeys. Life would be, he concluded, much more brilliant and beautiful and exciting. How did it happen that this noble species fell behind a tribe of feeble chatterers who in the Tertiary jungles could have been no more than an inconsiderable nuisance? The cats were too philosophic, he concluded, and too individualistic; the simians progressed by their insatiable curiosity and their capacity for co-operation. But this was written some twenty or twenty-five years ago; super-simian co-operation is not conspicuous at present, and simian curiosity has led to the finding out of many inventions such as submarines and bombing planes. Cats fight, but for reasons that usually make more sense than ours; and they stop fighting when they have settled the point immediately at issue; they have not risen to the concept of totalitarian war. They may yet get a chance to see what they can make of the world; unless, as Harlow Shapley once suggested, we simians leave our planet in such condition that it will be a fit inheritance for no species but the cockroach.


I have mentioned the word Ďfalse-heartedí as being often applied to cats. Professor Konrad Lorenz says in the chapter on cats in his dog book (an extremely interesting book from the point of view of animal psychology) that this judgement is one of the instances where human foolishness has perpetuated itself in proverbial form. "No cat is false-hearted! A dog can put on an act; there are some extraordinary actors among dogs. But a catís face is a faithful mirror of its every mood. Anyone who understands even a little about cats will know what they are thinking and what they will do in the next instant. The expression of the eyes, the position of the ears and tail, the arched back, the bristling fur are unmistakable signals; and, on top of these, there is usually the warning of the catís voice just before the attack. These sounds, incidentally, are quite different in the case of a real enemy and of a trusted person who has deliberately or accidentally provoked the cat too far."



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