The Story of Cats
Not everyone has an opinion on all things. But when it comes to the subject of cats, everyone seems to have, at the ready, their own thoughts about them: Cats are “independent,” “mysterious,” “I love them,” “I hate them,” “They’re adorable,” and so on.
People seem to feel strongly one way or the other about cats. Occasional ambivalence aside, they either love them or dislike them. Perhaps old superstitions about cats persist even in the internet age.
As a result, cats have a long history of being treated a bit unkindly, not only in physical terms but even in the spoken and written word: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat;” “You cannot swing a cat without hitting whatever;” “Dogs come when they’re called, cats take a message and get back with you later;” and, “The problem with cats is they get the same exact look on their face whether they are looking at a moth or an axe-murderer.”
Myths and untruths about cats are still uttered frequently. “They bring bad luck.” “Cats are untrainable.” “Cats don’t get along with dogs.” And the worse, “Cats steal baby’s breath.” *
So maybe it is time that the spotlight is turned on these misunderstood creatures and examine the facts as we dispel the myths.
Last month, a series about dogs dominated the Watoga Trail Report for four weeks. It still did not even come close to exhausting all of the facets of our romance and fascination with these creatures.
Afterward, it was suggested to me in the gentlest of manner by certain friends, cat fanciers all, that perhaps equal time should be given to their “best friends.” Not wishing to appear canicentric or giving short shrift to cats, this issue of the Watoga Trail Report will be devoted solely to the story of the cat.
First, let it be said that although research has enlightened us immeasurably about the dog, the same cannot be said of the cat. This is precisely how the cat intended it. Cats are truly a creature of great mystery, and they would much prefer to keep it that way.
But before we delve deeper into the psyche and motivations of the feline species, I must share a cartoon that you may relate to if you share your home with a cat. This was a double-panel cartoon by Gary Larson of The Far Side fame.
The first panel was titled something to the effect of “What dogs hear when we talk to them.” And it went something like this, “Blah, blah, treat, blah, blah, blah, go for a walk, blah, blah, Who’s a good boy?, blah, sit, blah, blah get in the car, blah, blah, blah. And so on.
The second panel was titled, “What cats hear when we talk to them.” And it went like this, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
For my part, I find cats to be entertaining, affectionate (except for one infamous black cat possessing a diabolical nature of such extent that we named him Fierce) and always willing to take an afternoon nap with me, a quality that cannot be faulted in any of God’s creatures.
That said, let’s take a deeper look into the world of cats, domestic cats in particular.
Cats and humans have not enjoyed nearly the same length of relationship as have dogs and humans. To date, the earliest archaeological evidence of tame cats and humans living in close proximity to each other was found in a human grave dated at 7500 B.C. The cat was probably tamed by the Neolithic farmer to control rodents. **
It is common knowledge that Ancient Egyptians not only had cats but had elevated their status to god-like. One of their gods, Bastet, was depicted as half cat and half woman.
Killing a cat demanded a severe penalty, often death. Cats in Ancient Egypt were held as sacred and were mummified before burial. Mummification was generally reserved for royalty and high government or military officials.
Today there are some 60 distinct breeds of cats and they are the only species of Felis silvestris (Wildcats) to be domesticated. Domestic cats are still quite similar to their wild cousins in terms of their anatomy.
Modern cats have a strong flexible body with exceptionally quick reflexes. It is true that a cat can right itself in a free fall and land on its feet if the drop is greater than approximately about three feet. This legendary agility may account for the fact that, unlike wolves, the cat is a solitary hunter relying on stealth, speed and agility to catch its prey.
The cat’s sense of smell is bolstered by the Jacobson’s organ located in their mouth. This organ functions to allow the cat access to smells and aromas not available to humans – compounds such as certain pheromones used as a means of communication through the spraying of urine and scent glands.
Being a carnivore, the cat has sharp teeth and claws. The cat’s claws are protractible and retractable and they are able to extend or retract the claws on one or more paws. Cats help keep their claws sharp by keeping their claws retracted when not in use and walking on the pads of their paws.
The cat has evolved with additional advantages for hunting in low light. They have remarkable night vision facilitated by the ability to reflect light passing through the retina back into the eye, allowing them to see in low light. Additionally, the pupil can expand to nearly the whole dimension of the eye.
A cat’s whiskers, found on the face and other parts of the body, serve several functions. They aid in navigating in tight locations giving the cat feedback on width and height.
Additionally, the whiskers can gather information about their environment by sensing air currents. If that is not enough to keep the cat safe in dark or tight spots, the whiskers trigger blink reflexes to protect the eyes. Cats possess all of the sensory apparatus to navigate safety in dark and exceedingly confined spaces.
The range of frequencies heard by the cat is much greater than that of humans, and even the dog. They can hear in the ultrasound range which is how much of their prey, such as rodents, communicate.
Cats, like dogs, are social animals. They not only make friends with humans but seem to show affection to some dogs and other domestic animals. Perhaps they were easily domesticated because of their existing propensity to socialize, ability and willingness to communicate, intelligence and love of play.
It is simply untrue that cats cannot be trained. They are every bit as trainable as dogs and they enjoy the process. Cats can be trained to sit, jump through hoops, play fetch, hide and seek, and even walk on a leash. When walking a cat on a leash be sure to purchase a cat harness, and clip the lead to the top of the harness to protect the fragile neck.
Cats are often derided for playing with their prey before killing it, sometimes called the cat and mouse behavior. There is a simple evolutionary answer to why they do this. They just want to be sure that their prey is injured sufficiently that it cannot endanger the cat.
Most cat owners have had the experience of their cat presenting them with a mouse or other such prey. Disgust may be a natural reaction by us humans, but research shows that the wild progenitors of our tabby did share excess kills with others by order of dominance. So, maybe we should feel flattered that this dead rodent was laid at our feet.
All 50 states have laws that protect cats right along with dogs and other pets. Some countries, though, continue to consume cat meat, notably China, Korea, Vietnam, Switzerland, Peru, Cameroon and even in some areas of Australia. This was outlawed in the U.S. by the Dog and Cat Meat Prohibition Act of 2018.
There is a brisk trade in cat-fur commodities in other countries including items such as coats (requiring the skins of 24 cats according to one source), hats, blankets, stuffed toys, shoes, and gloves. Unfortunately, they are sold here in the U.S. to unsuspecting customers.
I have been saving one item about the cat until the conclusion for good reason. This dispatch represents Watoga State Park and because of this it must be emphasized that a park, or any wild area, is not a place for a cat to be roaming about freely.
The reason is obvious; as we have just learned, cats are extraordinarily skilled hun-ters. As such, they put all small creatures and birds at risk; like chipmunks, squirrels, shrews, voles and a wide range of bird species.
Cats kill an estimated 3.7 billion birds and up to 20.7 billion mammals each year in the continental U.S. They have driven some species of songbirds to extinction, particularly on islands.
According to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute most birds and small mammals are killed by feral cats. They estimate that there are 80 million un-owned cats and 84 million owned cats in the U.S.
Population control measures by our very own Humane Society of Pocahontas County are making great strides in reducing the effect feral cats have on our wildlife. I urge you to support their efforts by donating or becoming a member.
Finally, if you have ever wondered if a cat will protect a human, I urge you to watch a You Tube video titled “Hero Housecat Saves Boy from Dog Attack” – Today Show – May 15, 2014.
From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
* For more information on precautions about babies and cats go to ASPCA.org/ pet/cat-care/cats-and-babies
** Neolithic – the last part of the Stone Age when agriculture was developing in the Near East.
References: HowStuffWorks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, ASPCA, Humane Society of the U.S.