Intelligence and Communication (The Essential Cat)

A cat is a very intelligent creature - as a usually solitary, self-reliant hunter it has to be. It has to learn to calculate, to solve problems and to be versatile. It is rather a waste of time discussing the comparative intelligence levels of various animal species. People often do it, but they have no reliable yardstick with which to measure this quality we call "intelligence". Cultural differences even between the various groups or races in a single species, homosapiens, are notorious for distorting the results of "intelligence tests". And this is the only species with which we can truly communicate by means of a common language!

An imperfect but at least objective method has been to compare brain weight with length of spinal chord. This gives a ratio that roughly indicates how much brain controls how much body. The human ratio is 50:1, a monkey's 18:1 and a cat's 4:1. But does this permit us to say that a human being is over ten times more intelligent than a cat?

Learning and memory

Cats do learn well, and for many of life's activities they must learn rather than rely on instinct. Hunting is not instinctive but learned from observation, as is the use of a litter tray. In the latter case the teacher is either the mother cat or a human companion.

Such learning by example merges with the ability to be positively trained. Cats can be trained to perform tricks, though they do not respond well to coersion (even though I admit that some circus big cats in the old days were "tamed" by unacceptably cruel methods). They are easier to train by rewards, but even so, cats don't show the eagerness to be trained that we see in dogs. Despite a plentiful source of attractive rewards in the form of tasty titbits, they will only co-operate if they feel in the mood. You can't buy cats - that's part of their independent nature.

The feline memory is well developed and most domestic cats learn such useful knacks as tapping on window panes to gain entrance, opening a door by jumping for the latch, finding their way home or coming to the call of a familiar voice.

Essentially cats live for themselves. They have no "work ethic" like some dogs, rodents or birds, and they will only work to attain a definite end - finding food for example. That apart, they adopt a rather aristocratic view of life and learn early on to expend energy only as necessary.

Sixth Sense

Do cats posses a sixth sense? It has often been claimed so. There certainly is an ait of mystery about the cat's personality and demeanour. Do cats perhaps know things hidden from us, sense things we cannot?

I believe that the cat has super-efficient natural senses that can detect things we cannot. When a cat suddenly raises its hackles when you are alone with it in the house, it isn't because it has seen a ghost, but because it is reacting to sounds or vibrations you cannot pick up. This ability evolved primarily an early warning system. The world must reveal far more to the highly sensitive cat than to less well endowed creatures like ourselves.

Social Behavior

Although cats are lone hunters, they are not anti-social. Indeed, they have intricate social interactions with their own kind. Furthermore, there is a complex feline society which, in the case of the domestic cat, forms an infra-structure to human civilization.

Inscrutable it may be, but the cat can communicate with its fellows in a variety of ways, such as those illustrated on the facing page. There are four principal methods.

* Vocalization: The cat's repertoire is plaintive mews, seductive purrs, incensed wails and irate screeches.
Vocalization: This cat is saying that it feels short of attention. Some are more"polite" in their demands than others.

* Body language: Facial expressions are emphasized by the markings which "make up" the features. Body postures or tail positions are also enhanced by coat markings.
Body language: A pose that speaks louder than words of this cat's desire for its dinner- something its owner can ignore at his or her peril.

* Touch: Cats communicate by rubbing noses, pressing bodies against, or grooming others.
Rubbing: Sensuous rubbing to indicate love and affection is one of the most attractive feline methods of communication.

* Scent: Using their sensitive noses, they identify other cats buy their scents, sniffing one another's heads and beneath tails, where odour-making glands are situated. They also mark out territory with scent "markers".
Friend or foe? The sense of smell is just one of the senses that is aroused when two cats meet. The complicated process of determining if a new "introduction" is friendly or not involves all of the cat's methods of aprraisal.

Look at the map of your town. Depicted there is the framework of civilized society - humble homes, great houses, meeting places, common land and network of thoroughfares. But that map is also the plan of the town's feline society, superimposed invisibly upon the man-made geography. The feline citizens also have an ordered division of the land for various purposes and ike ours, their society has its social strata, top cats in feline Nob Hill and proletarian pussies on the other side of the tracks.

Your cat, unless of course it is kept permanently indoors, is part of the cat community in your local neighborhood with a precise, though not necessarily unchanging, position in the hierarchy. It, like all other members of the community, must abide by rules and rituals that are laid down in a very precise way. All the cats in the neighborhood community know one another and their positions in society. A newcomer taking up residence is only allotted a position and territory after fighting for it.

The Cat Hierarchy

Cat society is essentially organized as a matriarchy. The unneutered queen with the most kittens reigns at the top of the pecking order. When she is neutered, however, her social status slumps. Makes take their place in the community in macho fashion by using brawn over brains. The meanest, toughest toms battle for power and prestige. Success in combat determines a tom's social niche. The organization is rigid, and a cat only occasionally loses its place by being vanquished by an up-and-coming young blade.

Unlike the position with monkeys, deer, or seals, dominant toms don't necessarily acquire large harems of queens. Queens seem to be very civilized and don't automatically give courtship rights to the all-conquering thug. Often queens will prefer as suitors toms situated well down the pyramid of power - shades of Lady Chatterley! Interestingly enough, top tom cats do however rule the biggest chunks of territory and it seems that, as with the landed gentry of days gone by, land rather than sex is the key to social status in feline society.

Neutered toms are always at the bottom of the social ladder, the feline equivalent of Skid Row. An entire tom begins to lose his position in the community as soon as he is castrated After the operation, the amount of male sex hormone, testosterone, declines in the blood and the pungent masculine odour of his urine fades. As this process continues, he descends rung by rung down the social ladder.

It isn't that neutered toms cannot fight, but rather that they lose their aggression. To his peers, the neutered tom's weakening scent is a potent signal, which is interpreted, I suppose, as effeminacy. In the world of tom cat mafiosi, you have to smell butch to be "one of the boys"!

Territorial Areas

Cats are territorial - they "own" patches of land. Even an "indoor cat" has its territory - a particular part of the room or a favorite chair. Where several cats live in a household indoor territorial rights gradually merge until all the cats jointly possess the house and mutually defend it against feline outsiders.

Outdoors, all cats, no matter how lowly they may rank in society, have some territory. Females and neuters hold fairly small properties, but ones which they nevertheless fight harder to defend than any grandee tom with a vast estate. The problem for the top toms is that the large areas of territory that they own are difficult to defend around the clock, if they are to be able to grab forty winks. A dominant tom in a country area with a sparse cat population may rule fifty or more acres while in the city a "property" may be as small as a back yard. Within a property the cat, like a human landowner, has its favorite spots for catching the sun, sleeping or keeping a lookout.

This cat is marking a tree trunk with urine. Such "visiting cards" can sometime also be left on furniture or even people's legs (to their embarrassment)

Scratching as a way of marking territory is done by many feline species, including the domestic cat and the tiger.

Leaving scent by rubbing against a solid object is yet another way of staking a claim to it.

The territory is marked as belonging to its owner in three main ways. The cat may spray the boundaries with urine (sometimes a tom may spray you - in which case you should be flattered that he sees you as a fixture in his estate). The second method is scratching (to leave visible and sweat-scented marks). Another way of territory marking is to rub a solid object with the head, which transfers scent from sebaceous glands in the skin.

If you move house, you can help your cat establish its new territory by discouraging other cats and breaking up fights. Soon the "local" will yield up the piece of land considered by the community to be appropriate to your pet's agreed social standing.

Public Territories

Outside the private territories land is organized on a "municipal" basis. There are hunting grounds, meeting places and no-man's lands; the latter might typically be places occupied by dogs. There is a formal network of walkways or roads that link all these places, skirting privately owned feline territories and non-cat areas. Some pathways are private to a particular cat. Others are communal. Some can be used at certain hours of the day bu cat A and at other times by cat B, C and so on. This system avoids conflict. "Main roads" have their traffic rules. For example, any cat moving along a main pathway has automatic and undisputed right of way over any other cat, whatever its social standing, approaching on an intersecting sidepath.

Meeting grounds are used for what can only be described as "cat clubs". Toms and queens gather from time to time to sit in these places in peaceful grounds one to six meters (three to twenty feet) apart. Although meetings may involve the mating of a queen in season, normally the gatherings have no sexual overtones. We don't really know why cats assemble like this. It seems to be an important part of their social life and perhaps they exchange information, news and gossip by some means. Or maybe they just, like the best of human friends, simply and silently enjoy one another's company.

Cat clubs are one of the things that are missing in the life of a cat kept permanently indoors. As solitary indoor cat may become lonely and bored and turn to bad behavior, like chewing carpets and urinating in forbidden spots. In such cases veterinary advice should be sought.