The Cat’s Meow

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What’s the chief difference between dogs and cats? Anyone who has ever known a cat knows the answer. Dogs are man’s best friend. But cats remain forever and always their own best friends. I did not need to spend $27.99 to learn this but we’ll come to that.

The cat has a long relationship with man. Domesticated to deal with pests like mice and rats, they were worshipped in ancient Egypt and persecuted in Europe in the Middle Ages. Some cultures believed cats to be emissaries from other worlds—or that they were in cahoots with Satan. Black cats, witches and all that. Winston Churchill loved his cat, Jock, referring to him as his special assistant. Lenin, Hemingway and Jack Kerouac loved cats. 

Mark Twain adored cats, too, observing: “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” I feel the same way. The Humane Society of America says there are 95.6 million cats in this country.  (More cats than dogs, by the way.) I know two of those cats—Luke and Hamlet.

I have a long relationship with these felines and I can tell you this with certainty: you don’t know them any better the longer you know them. They remain impenetrable, mysterious, Zen-like creatures.

John Bradshaw, author of “Cat Sense” (that’s where the $27.99 went), believes that cats regard their owners as extended members of a cat family. My cat, Luke, thinks I am a cat. A cat he knows and trusts. (A cat that knows how to open cans, too.) My neighbor’s cat, Hamlet, visits daily. He also thinks I am a cat. We have him on a modified American eating plan. He takes breakfast and dinner here. I do not know where he gets lunch. Bradshaw believes that my cat thinks that I am his mother. I don’t look anything like his mother but we’ll let that pass.

The subtitle of the book is what intrigued me. “How the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet.” What more can I do? My cats (I have owned three in 34 years) live like kings, eat the most expensive cat food and have free rein. The first two, Grace and Diesel, lived to be 20. How could I be a better friend? Buy them cars?

Cats are said to be most adaptable. But I think cats are stubborn, sly and shrewd. In my experience, life is always on the cat’s terms.

Think about dog obedience schools, places where red-faced ladies with English accents in tweed suits bark (literally) orders at dogs. Dogs apparently don’t mind this. They are trainable. Man domesticated the dog, but Bradshaw says man has not completely domesticated the cat. Exactly! It’ll never happen. Can you imagine anything more preposterous than a cat obedience school? A cat-leash law? A cat whisperer? That would be a good way to get scratched.

Anyone who knows cats wonders about the things they do. Why do they knead before they settle down in your lap? Bradshaw thinks it might be a reflexive thing from kittens kneading their mother to stimulate her milk. What’s the deal with the cat walking around with its tail straight up in the air? Apparently, it means they are happy to see you. And all those noises they make? Well, they may be trying to communicate. But maybe not. We do know that every human language has a representation of the cat’s meow—a universal sound known around the globe—but we don’t know exactly what it means. Cats like it that way.

One time, I saw a little sign in a gift shop, an aroma-therapy parlor full of wind chimes where the smell of potpourri could kill an asthmatic. The sign was directed at cat owners. “A cat is not a little person in a fur coat.” Anyone who knows cats understands that’s wrong. A cat is a little person in a fur coat. That is precisely its appeal.

Cats are color-blind. Cats do not like change or car rides or cages. You might get the odd cat that enjoys a car ride, but that’s fairly rare. An old vet once told me that it takes two people to put his 9-pound cat in a carrying cage—and it takes three people to get that cat out.

Cats are finicky, suspicious and nocturnal. Very well rested. Hard not to admire a creature that can sleep 22 and a 1⁄2 hours a day. Cats appear to like it when people speak to them in a high-pitched voice. But we don’t know why. My theory is that cats like it when we make fools of ourselves.

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