The Cat’s Meow

If you think dogs are the most popular pet in the world, you’re mistaken.

It’s cats!

Dogs are straightforward: They wear their hearts on their furry sleeves. Cats, not so much. The feline is a mysterious creature — why do they do the things they do? As John Bradshaw once wrote in the Washington Post, “Cats demand we accept them on their terms but never quite reveal what those terms might be.”

While dogs always let us know their needs and requirements, cats are much more self-reliant, often preferring to be left alone. And why is it cats are so picky about to whom they give their love and affection?

Early felines were encouraged to hang around to keep rodents away from a house’s grain storage. It was a win-win for everyone. Of course, the cats needed the humans to protect and feed them when mice were in short supply, and they soon learned their needs were met best through displays of affection.

Eventually, as cats were domesticated, their social skills improved. They developed signals to use with each other, then translated those into interactions with us.

The straight-up tail is the biggest and most hereditary signaling cats present when welcoming another creature, be it a feline or human. A greeting with a straight-up tail or with a bit of crook at the end means your cat is welcoming you home.

This behavior is typically followed by head-rubbing or butting, or even licking (grooming) and kneading with the paws. Cats groom each other to show affection. Kneading replicates the young kitten kneading its mom’s belly to extract more milk. All this behavior transfers to their pet parent when they are demonstrating, as John Bradshaw says, “ a way of cementing an amicable friendship.”

What about meowing? Feral cats typically don’t! The connection between pet cats and pet parents has evolved to such a degree that cats now vocalize their wants, needs, and desires. And we humans have learned to interpret those meows. Every cat owner knows the difference between, “Where’s my dinner,” and “I need some love.”

Purring is perhaps the most mysterious behavior cats exhibit. They purr at contradictory times: Happy, agitated, in pain, hunger, or peaceful. Purring may simply be a versatile tool cats use to communicate in the moment.

Perhaps cats are considered mysterious because they insist on doing their own thing in their own time in their particular way. Oh, sure, they occasionally stare inscrutably off into space, but who doesn’t?

Cats do not suffer fools. They have keen observational skills and powers of discernment. And, of course, they’re soft and cuddly, and purr in our ears at bedtime. Who doesn’t love a cat’s affection?

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