Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Cats: A Touchy Subject


     I'm always getting into trouble with my ramblings about cats. Not so much the ramblings themselves as the fact that I adore cats and harp on about them endlessly.

     But, just for the record, I am also a dog person. Timo is one of my best pals in the world and every time I go to see Beata in Kerry and I see him I think I'm probably as excited about it as he is!

Timo! The feeling's mutual.
     So let's get on with this touchy subject. Now that we've cleared the air about my lack of preferences for either cats or dogs (though you can't beat a cat's aloof and superior air) this post is about the right and the wrong way to go about touching up your cat.

Friend or Foe

     One thing's for sure. Although a feral cat (one that's been a domestic pet and gone pseudo wild) and a domestic cat broadly share the same Felis Sylvestris Sylvestris gene pool there are few similarities in the way we can approach them.

     When you put food out regularly for a feral cat as I do, you enter into a sort of uneasy Gaza Strip kind of relationship. There are certain things you must exchange as a matter of course to maintain the relationship - food, a bit of milk, a few biscuits, tolerating the occasional foray into your home - but on the whole the initial stages are frosty and paranoid.

     The chance of me getting any more than a sneaky peek at Freddy is a rare thing indeed. Normally he just watches me cautiously from a safe distance and scoots down as soon as my back is turned to scoff the food I put out. If I make any kind of attempt to turn back towards him he'll be off again. There's no chance of getting my hands on Freddy.

Freddy keeps a safe distance!
     This, however, is not a post about the beautifully superior Freddy and his anxiety over relationships with humans.

     There are several other candidates in the animal world who live around me who will, like Timo, throw caution to the wind and grab the opportunity for a cuddle. Take horses, for example. They're incredibly intelligent and sometimes very anxious creatures but if they trust you - even if it's the first time they've met you - they seem to be able to tell whether it's worth snuggling up to you.

Billy - the local 18 year old beauty!
     A horse, like a cat, will often use its Flehmen Response to get the measure of you with a brief sniff and what looks like a vicious snarl. We know, of course, that this facial contortion is anything but vicious and actually represents the equivalent of opening a brown envelope that just dropped through your letterbox! You're just never quite sure what you're going to find inside.

     Once you pass muster with these animals - the dog, the domestic cat, the horse and even the odd friendly feral cat - then you can take your relationship to the next level, touch.

It Ain't What You Do

     It's certainly how you do it. Cats have a habit of putting themselves in your path when they want strokes. Their bodies are covered in sensors that can make the slightest touch either the most pleasurable or the most excruciating experience. So we need to know the right places to touch.

     I was reading The Cat Whisperer by Claire Bessant recently. Though it's a fairly simplistic read she does have some interesting things to say about stroking and grooming. We all know that cats love having their head and ears stroked. The most rewarding thing about belonging to a cat is to elicit that marvellous purring sound that tells you the cat is enjoying the experience and reassured.

Purring... The reward for cuddling your cat!
     In this book we learn about how the head and ears are so satisfying for the cat. This is quite true and is confirmed by several other authors and cat experts. The head and ears are packed with glands that help the cat transfer its scent to you.

     There are other areas where the location of glands also makes the experience extremely rewarding for a cat. The line of the jaw and the general tail area, particularly the base of the tale if you can bring yourself to frequent that area, are hotspots that can heighten your cat's interest in you and help its recognition of you as one of its social group. But we also learn how the stroking experience can so quickly turn from you scratching the cat into the cat scratching you!

     In fact, the purring can be deceptive. Although there's an element of truth in the fact that cats seem to purr to increase their social bonding and show pleasure they also purr in times of stress.

Tales of the Unexpected

     I was watching a visitor stroking Pusia the other day. It seemed like an idyllic scene and the visitor loves cats so I was quite happy and relaxed. As we chatted and my visitor became more animated Pusia seemed to be purring contentedly but, having the relationship I have with her, I realised that the body language didn't quite fit the conventional understanding of a good purr. Pusia was clearly becoming quite agitated. Quite suddenly I saw her turn her head, track my visitor's hand in its course down her spine and then attempt to take a chunk out of it.

     This wasn't in character for Pusia. I have the occasional nip from her but I usually see it coming. Pusia's attempts to bite me are also rarely intended to break my skin. I know this for a fact as I've seen what she can do to a mouse!

     Pusia had, I think, on this occasion become irritated by the crime of what I call passive stroking. When I'm with Pusia - and this is the subject of much ridicule from both my partner and friends - I generally only have eyes for her and will jump when she says jump. She seems to appreciates this as a cat and consequently we have a somewhat focused but good relationship.

The Da Vinci Code for Cats

     When I stroke Pusia it is a conscious act on my part to give her pleasure, reassure her and to keep touching her in the right places that mean so much to a cat. This means I tickle her behind the ears, I watch her body language, I talk to her and if she indicates that she needs more space then I give it to her. 

     I never tickle her tummy or rub her fur the wrong way. I know not to do this because of her instant reaction if I do. I have only done it once or twice when we were new to each other but I know that her whole body language changes.

A bit of 'active' stroking.
     In short, I am 'actively' stroking her. It becomes a dialogue between us. It's similar to something else that Claire Bessant talks about in her book. If you spend time away from your cat and then return home only briefly just to head out the door again without even saying hello to your cat then you probably don't deserve to have a cat. It's a very intense relationship. It's quite different from having a dog and there's no such thing as 'Just a cat!'

Pusia has developed a system for letting me know when she's had enough.
     Pusia will, even so, occasionally give me the heads up on where we stand with each other! Her nips are usually good natured and slow enough for me to interpret them as non-threatening but, on the other hand, I don't push it and I react to her direction.

     My poor visitor wasn't quite as tuned into her needs. As our conversation progressed she was becoming more and more heated about her subject and her attention to Pusia became no more than a series of absent minded sweeps down Pusia's back. This 'passive' stroking needed some payback and so Pusia took matters into her own hands.


     A cat will quite deliberately enforce its Lebensraum, a term used by the Nazi war machine which justified expansion into other territories. Although, in this instance, I mean it will defend its right to have enough space of its own to live in. It does believe, after all, that it belongs to a superior species!

     Quite literally, this means when a cat needs space we should give it space. Cats are not used to being stroked all the time. Their social structure comprises intense grooming as kittens and then, if the cat is lucky enough to be part of a larger group, only short periods of grooming from peers but on a fairly regular basis. How would you feel if you were lying in the bath merrily scrubbing under your armpits and someone walked in and started stroking your head?

The signals are always there!
     If I see Pusia grooming herself or generally trying to sleep then I'm unlikely to go and disturb her with any unwelcome attention. Cats even have this superiors look on these occasions that puts you right in your place if you even attempt to rain down redundant strokes. I don't think I'm imagining it!

The Art of War

     The strategy described in The Art of War attributed to the high ranking Chinese general Sun Tzu advocates that all battles are basically won before your enemy even gets the chance to become your enemy. War is a necessary evil that should be avoided at all costs but executed deliberately and decisively before it can have disastrous consequences.

     I reckon Sun Tzu either was a cat or kept cats! How else can we reconcile the seemingly contradictory behaviour we sometimes see in cats? They are connected to us, for certain, but they sure as eggs is eggs keep us in our place with some pretty tough love.

     Yes, it's great to bond with your cat by stroking and, oh, it's so lovely to pick her up and cuddle her when the moment's right. In summary, however, there's one thing we need to remember to avoid any awkward situations with our cats.

     It's a touchy subject, all right, so if you see your cat sleeping just let sleeping cats lie!

It would be a shame to interrupt such a perfect slumber...