Cats: aloof, self-sufficient pets for those who don’t have time for a dog? Not according to author Thomas McNamee, whose recent book, The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions (Hachette; LJ 4/15/17), is both an affectionate love letter to his own cat Augusta and a perceptive analysis of feline psychology and biology that shatters common assumptions about these animals. McNamee shares some of his insights, weighs in on the controversial indoor vs. outdoor cat argument, and muses on why it is that cats hold such an important place in our hearts.
LJ: What are some of the greatest misconceptions about cats that most people hold?
TM: Too many people, especially men, think cats are emotionally insensitive—“aloof.” In fact, they can be very finely attuned to your mind and feelings, and vice versa if you learn how to pay attention.
Cats are taken for routine veterinary exams much less frequently than dogs. They hide illness and injury well, but they do get sick, and they do get hurt.
Some people punish cats for misbehavior. It never works. All it does is teach them to be afraid of you. Rewarding good behavior with a little treat works extraordinarily well. You just have to be consistent. They appreciate consistency.
How has what you’ve learned about felines changed you as a cat owner?
I’ve learned to be observant. Cats don’t reveal themselves as readily as dogs do, but once you learn what to look for, they are remarkably eloquent.
My wife and I don’t leave our cat Isabel alone when we travel, as we used to do with Augusta. We just had a person who’d come in and feed her twice a day and pet her for a few minutes. It took us a long time to realize how loneliness really dulled her. Once we did, we had to work to bring back her normal, joyful self.
I’ve come to realize how important hunting behavior is to every cat. They don’t have to actually kill things, but their play needs to emulate a complete hunting sequence—the wait, the spring, the chase, the attack, the kill. It makes them happy, and not having it leads eventually to anxiety or withdrawal.
You say that when you own a cat, “you have the opportunity to witness the wild close up.” Can you expand on that idea?
The domestic cat is only a few thousand years of evolutionary descent from her wild ancestor, the North African wildcat. A lot of your cat’s weird behavior is the same as the wildcat’s, and once you understand it as such—the rubbing, the sniffing, the need for a high observation post, her obsession with her litter box—maybe you’ll cut her some slack.
What are your thoughts on the often contentious debate about whether cats should be kept indoors or allowed to roam?
That’s a tough one. Augusta grew up in Montana. [She was] outside almost every day and in danger from a multitude of predators, and then when we moved to San Francisco, we still let her out to roam the little backyards separated by high fences. We really didn’t know where she went, except we did know she couldn’t get to the street, because the buildings are all contiguous. Still, there were dangers—hoodlum alley cats, for example. We made the decision because we believed it gave her a fuller life.
Every humane organization will tell you that what we did was an outrage. We’re still doing it with Augusta’s successor, Isabel. She goes to Montana in the summer and hunts (though we never let her out at dusk or dawn or in the night), and she prowls the backyards in the city. Isabel was attacked by a raccoon a couple of years ago in San Francisco and was hurt pretty badly, but once she healed up, she was rarin’ to go back out. She brings us rats through the kitty flap in the kitchen door, usually half alive. I throw her out, and then she kills them in the garden. She is never happier. Is this terrible? A lot of people would say so.
You do a lot of research on the nature of cats, speaking with “cat whisperers” and even visiting a feral cat colony in Rome. Did anything you learn surprise you?
I was surprised to learn, first, how many millions of feral cats there are in the world, what miserable lives they lead, and at what a catastrophic rate they continue to multiply.
At the feral colony of the Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome, the cats are well fed and well cared for, and they’re all neutered, but people keep sneaking in nonneutered cats and whole litters of kittens, and so even there—probably the best-managed feral cat environment in the world—the population is not fully controlled. Luckily, they have a great adoption program. In most other feral cat populations, half of the kittens die before they reach six months, and all too often the adults are half starved. The popular method called “trap, neuter, and return” is certainly the most humane way to control these populations, but it fully succeeds only rarely, alas.
I was also surprised to learn how many people’s cats have problems such as peeing outside the litter box, tearing up furniture, or fighting with their housemates. Fortunately, there are now quite a few behavior specialists who can ameliorate those problems. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of charlatan “cat whisperers,” and it’s not easy to know how to choose the good ones.
What about cats makes them so appealing?
What is it about Caravaggio that makes him a great painter? What is it about Shakespeare that makes his plays endlessly fascinating? What is it about Château Lafite that makes it taste so good? What is it about a cheeseburger that makes it so appealing?
OK, but seriously, folks, let’s try this. Cats embody the otherness of nature, the unreachable and foreign mystery of nature, while at the same time we see ourselves essentialized in them.
What can a sleeping cat be dreaming? We’ll never know, but the utter relaxation of a sleeping cat—isn’t that a purity of peace that we recognize deep in our souls? And the kill, even of a feather on the end of a ribbon—isn’t that a savagery we recognize as well?