An Introduction to the Feline Emotional Mind

I have always loved dogs and cats, having lived with both since I was a child. Several years ago I wrote a book, Dogs Never Lie About Love, about the emotional lives of those wonderful animals. It was a very popular book. I noticed, however, that in conversation with readers of that book, they would often make disparaging comments about cats-usually something about how cats don't really have an emotional life, that cats are basically indifferent. I knew this was not true, though it was untrue in ways that were not always obvious. Too many people tend to see cats as uncomplicated creatures with few emotions, at least none worth thinking about in any depth. I am convinced that, on the contrary, cats are almost pure emotion.

It is impossible to calculate the number of cat books that have been written, but there are something like five thousand currently available. Most of them are pet care manuals; of the rest, some are bad, and a few (included in my section on recommended reading) are very good indeed. Why one more? Because something is lacking in all the books I have read about cats: a serious consideration of their emotional complexity. It is not that the authors of these cat books doubt that cats have emotions, it is just that nobody has made a concerted effort to delve into their emotional world. The late Roger Caras, who was president of the ASPCA and probably America's most noted cat expert, remarked that the cat has insinuated itself into human consciousness "without revealing any of the secrets about its own feelings." This book attempts to reveal some of those secrets.

Because my wife, Leila, and I had moved from Berkeley to Boston to London over the last few years, we were unable to keep our animals with us. (My dogs are living with my friend and ex-wife, Terri, in Oakland, California; my cats of that time are living on an organic vegetable farm in Occidental, California.) I decided that when we were finally settled some-where, I would find several cats to live with us and I would try to write about their feelings, as I had with dogs. I was not only curious about cats, I loved cats, loved watching cats, loved spending time with them, and most of all, loved thinking about cats.

The opportunity arose when we moved to New Zealand (because it is a paradise for children and we have two young children). We began building a house on a beach near Auckland, and as I looked around and saw the subtropical rain forest that surrounded the beach, the sparkling turquoise sea, the long path through what looks like a jungle down to the beach where no cars can drive, I thought: "This is an ideal place for cats." How would I find them? Of course, no sooner does one think such a thought than cats begin to appear. It is as easy to be found by a cat as it is to find one. I went first to the SPCA, for it is always a good idea to go to an animal shelter, where cats are waiting for a home. They told me about a woman, Jane, who lived with 120 cats; she had found a particularly appealing stray. Appealing, that is, for affection. When she bent down he reached his front legs up to her and put them around her neck, pushing his head under her chin. Moreover, though large and strong, he did not fight with other cats. He was not afraid of them; he just was not aggressive. This was unusual for a stray cat, and she wondered if he had belonged to some-body. She put up notices, waited, and checked around, but no-body called for him. Maybe he had been on his own for a long time, but he was determined to belong to somebody now. He was so unusually friendly, both with people and with other cats. Would I take him? I said yes, and the very first night, Yossie (as we named him, because our five-year-old son, Ilan, was learning Hebrew and said this was a good Israeli name) slept on my chest. The curious thing is that this was a ploy, or a decision he made in his cunning little feline heart; for after a week, when he knew that he was there to stay, he stopped doing it and has never done it again. Yossie is a big-about fifteen pounds-tabby, with green eyes, a long bushy tail, and striking black and brown markings on his back. He was, the vet estimated, just under two when he came to us. His life, I suspect, has not always been easy.

Like many people, I thought of cats as solitary creatures who at best tolerate other cats but are happier on their own (this is why so many people in apartments get one cat rather than two-a mistake, I now believe). Yossie, however, seemed to long for company, and not just ours. Jane took me with her one night on her rounds to feed feral cats-these are cats of whom some are stray, but most were born in the wild, though from domestic parents. Here were animals who could just as easily have wandered off to lead completely solitary lives should they have chosen to do so, yet they lived in cat colonies. The social life of these colonies was complex, if obscure to those on the outside looking in. All of these animals had been trapped, neutered, and released (the kindest thing to do with feral cats, as it ensures that no more homeless kittens will be born in their colony). Some of these cats, because they are all originally domestic (wild cats are a different species of cat altogether), would undoubtedly miss the company of friendly humans and other cats. Because they were neutered, their need for one another's company had nothing to do with propagating their genes. It must be that cats liked company. I decided, then, that Yossie needed a friend or two, or three, or four.

In theory, I strongly believe cats should be sought rather than bought, rescued rather than bred, since millions of unwanted cats are killed every year in shelters across the United States (except for the few wonderful shelters that have a no-kill policy and let such cats stay on for the rest of their natural lives). La theorie, c'est bon ("Theory is fine"), said the great French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, but things happen otherwise.

I was visiting a woman who knows a great deal about cats, even if she does breed them, Twink McCabe. "Here is one cat where things went a little wrong," she said as she showed Leila, me, and Ilan, a little orange-and-white kitten. His ears were too long, his eyes too far apart, his nose too large (as if cats ever cared or even noticed such anthropocentric standards). So Miki (a name to go along with that of his friend at this cattery, Moko) came into our lives. Miki's friend Moko (the name means "tattoo" in Maori, and he looks as if he were lightly marked with a tattoo), half Burmese and half Siamese, was not a failure, and they were much attached to each other (and still are). Both were three months old. Did it not seem cruel to separate them, rather like adopting one twin from an orphanage and leaving the other to languish, bereft, alone, and rokenhearted? Or so it was put to us. I am not good at resisting the entreaties of a five-year-old or the mewing of kit-tens. Moko gave the appearance of a ghost-cat, with his pale white wild hair (he is a La Perm) and faint brown stripes going up his long legs. He looked more like a serval or even a lemur than a domestic cat and was as highly strung as a wild animal. Noli me tangere ("Don't touch me") seemed to be his motto, yet at the same time he longed to be petted.

Leila is a pediatrician. Her life is dedicated to relieving the suffering of human children in developing countries, and while she adores animals in theory, in fact she was raised with-out them and could easily have continued that way. She had been a gracious host to my three dogs, but it was clear she suffered no love at first sight. Moreover, she was allergic to cats-mildly so, but still allergic. However, she too succumbed to the blandishments of son, husband, and two cats. But three cats, she said, was her limit. The allergy, strangely, only got better with more exposure (self-immunization?), and soon Leila was discovering the joy of sharing a house with three felines.

I sought out people who knew about cats, and on yet another visit to a different cattery I saw my first ocicat. How repulsive to want a cat merely because of how it looked, I theorized as I stood mesmerized in front of Minnalouche (named for the cat in the beautiful poem "The Cat and the Moon" by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats), an ocicat. These cats are so called because they have the same markings as ocelots (though they are not genetically descended from them), dark brown spots and stripes edged with black on a tawny back-ground. Our little Minna Girl, as Ilan likes to call her, is gray with black stripes and dots. She looks very much like a jungle cat, though she was tiny (only about two pounds) when we first saw her. Well, do as I say, I tell Ilan, not as I do. I justified myself to Leila by explaining that these cats were my research tools-living subjects. It seemed to me a fair exchange: they would get a good life, for as long as they lived, and I would be able to study at firsthand feline feelings.

A few weeks later, I happened to be hiking near the house of a woman who raised Bengals (Felis bengalis). Bengal domestic cats are only some five or six generations removed from their ancestor, the Asian leopard cat. They have a marbled look, with dark brown circles and a golden glitter. I am a total pushover for certain lines, including "I have never known such a friendly cat as this one." So Megalamandira, also about three months old, came to us (I liked the Sanskrit-seeming sound of this name that I made up). Megala is a cat, not a leopard; but his leopard blood shows sometimes. For example, he does not meow. The sound he makes is more like a birdcall, a kind of chirping, much like the Maine coon?s delightful and happy "brrrp." Nor does he walk like a normal cat: he crouches and slinks along the floor, as if he were still in the jungle.

I would probably have continued like this for another dozen cats had Leila not finally put her foot down. Five was enough, she said, and I could see that she meant it. So five it would have to be, even though nine, since I have identified nine primary emotions in cats, one for each emotion, would have been ideal!

Lest it be thought that in describing four kittens and one cat, I would not be getting the response of a mature animal, it should be noted that between four and five weeks of age, a kitten's brain is more or less fully mature. It's senses, as well, are already as acute as those of an adult cat. This is undoubtedly because kittens need to be independent to survive at a very early age, and by four or five months most are self-sufficient. As for intelligence, consider the complex reasoning abilities needed by a kitten to negotiate his or her life. I observed this watching Miki as a very young kitten learning to sheathe his claws. When Miki first came to us at three months old, he wanted to climb my leg. I was wearing shorts. This did not bother him; he climbed my bare leg. As his claws went into my legs, I cried out in pain. He sheathed them immediately. Already by the next day he had learned, by experience, to sheathe his claws: he pawed at my legs, with no claws out, to get me to pick him up. He has never made the mistake of climbing my bare leg again. A few weeks later I was wearing blue jeans, and this time Miki did not sheathe his claws to climb onto my lap. He "knew" that the jeans were not going to be hurt. Imagine how complex the reasoning, however it is performed, must be: Miki must recognize that "I" and my clothes are not the same entity. He realizes that jeans are not a living being and cannot be hurt by claws. He knows that I am wearing something over my "self," the one that can be hurt by claws. I do not believe he sits down and reasons this out or spends time contemplating the mystery of "being" and "nonbeing." He is (thank God) no Heideggerian! Nevertheless, he knows the distinction as well as any child knows it. This is a very sophisticated philosophical ability and no small achievement.

There has been much argument about what are the "basic" emotions for humans. The list varies from three to twenty-five to seven hundred. Paul Ekman, who studies the human face across cultures, says that regardless of language, culture, and history, there are six basic facial expressions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Many people who study emotion say there are seven basic emotions, since in a study of thirty seven countries, all of these terms were found to be commonly used in different languages: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, shame, and guilt. Entire books have been written about the emotions not included in this list-empathy, pity, remorse, curiosity, contempt-and whole libraries have been written about the one emotion most difficult to study scientifically (note its absence from the list): love.

If it is difficult to get scholars to agree on just what the word emotion means, and just how many there are in any given culture, imagine how hard it would be to get scientists (or anyone else, for that matter) to agree upon what emotions are for cats and how many they have. Many people who study the behavior of cats claim that they have nine basic senses-sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, temperature, balance, and senses of direction and of time. I came to believe that cats have nine primary emotions-narcissism, love, contentment, attachment, jealousy, fear, anger, curiosity, and playfulness- because as I began keeping track of them, these are the ones that kept recurring. It is by no means an exhaustive list; cats can also be sad (even depressed?), affectionate, compassionate (to other cats, to people, even to dogs), disappointed (though they don't show it the way dogs do), nostalgic (you can hear it in their voices), bored, embarrassed (which they show by licking their paws in indifference), indifferent (though this may be feigned), contemplative (they are very patient in anticipating what will happen next), annoyed (at their humans for going away), confused (that you don't appreciate their offerings of headless mice and disemboweled rabbits), and just plain pleased with themselves, an emotion particularly easy to come by for cats.

What is the nature of their attachment to us, though? They are not pack animals, so-unlike dogs-they do not transfer to us feelings and loyalties meant for their own kind. It is not that we give them security; rarely does any animal threaten a cat (except dogs). They like our food but can catch their own.

They do not need our warmth with their great coats. Perhaps their attachment to us can be explained in part, at least, as a kind of transference-a nostalgia for or reenactment of the time when they were kittens. Even adult cats are able, in our presence, to recapture the serene, playful joy of childhood, where we act in loco parentis (strictly maternal, though, since male cats have zero interest in being fathers).

We live with cats in greater intimacy than with any other animal, except dogs. I believe this has given cats access to emotions they would never have had occasion to feel in their wild state, pleasure in the company of a member of different species, for example. We are like catnip to cats, a drug, and the addiction works both ways. People rarely merely like cats; they are indifferent, hate them, or adore them. For those of us who love them, the reward is great, for with no other animal is it easier and more enchanting to cross the species barrier, an almost universal desire throughout human history, than with cats.

Read another excerpt:

Narcissism: One of the Nine Emotional Lives of Cats
Meet Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Go back to The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats main page


Excerpted from The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson Copyright 2002 by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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