John Bradshaw, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, Basic Books, 2013.
[Note: The UK edition's title is Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed].
Cat Sense combines two things I love: cats (obviously), and using scientific methods to understand reality. There are many books on cat behaviour, but most seem to be based on observation and anecdotal evidence. This book applies the findings of recent scientific research, discusses both genetics and environmental or learned influences on cat behaviour, and also includes some stories about the author's own cats, which makes it a bit more personal.
As one could expect, the origins of the domestic cat are discussed near the beginning of the book. I have always been interested in how early humans started interacting with other species, leading eventually to us having farm animals and domestic pets. It is also interesting to learn more about the similarities and differences between our domestic cats and other feline species.
The various stages of a cat's life are discussed, from birth, through early learning and socialization, to typical cat behaviours such as hunting, mating, playing, and social interactions with other cats and with humans. Some of these aspects are illuminated with the results of new research. There is some rational discussion of the controversial topic of cats' hunting, which often leads to heated exchanges based on prejudice rather than evidence. It was good to see real evidence presented and explained here.
This topic of hunting is related to the issue of keeping cats as indoors-only pets. Personally I support this, and it will become more usual throughout the world as urbanization increases and more people live in flats (apartments). Also, hunting has turned from a desirable trait in a cat to something most humans dislike about their cats' behaviour. We can no longer say it is cruel not to allow cats to go outside, and therefore people should only have a cat if they have a garden. Instead, we have to find ways to help cats adapt to life indoors.
The book has an agenda, and I found it very interesting. The author's argument is as follows: At present, the only deliberate, human-controlled breeding of cats focuses on their appearance, which is what qualifies cats as belonging to pedigree breeds. Nowadays, almost all pet cats are spayed or neutered, most often before they are old enough to breed even once. Therefore, almost all the cats who are now breeding are strays or ferals. This means that the cats who are most friendly towards humans and best suited to a home life are not reproducing and raising the next generation of cats. Instead, it is the wilder strays and ferals who provide us with new kittens. There is some evidence that the behavioural traits we want to encourage have both genetic and taught aspects. If we want to have more friendly cats who are less interested in hunting and better adapted to living indoors with people and other cats, the author argues that we should consciously identify and breed domestic pets with these traits instead of spaying and neutering all young cats automatically.
After reading this book, I find myself agreeing with the argument presented. Yes, it would be better for us to breed cats for personality rather than looks. I don't consider cats to be merely decorative additions to the home, and while some may continue to admire the extremes of appearance created by the breeders, most people would prefer to live with a friendly, indoor, non-hunting cat. My own cats have always been rescued strays, and while they have adapted to indoor life, their feral origins can be difficult to overcome. Pandora, for example, never quite became the lap cat I wanted, and Eleni is still a bit fearful of strangers.
I wonder if we can achieve the author's enlightened vision, where breeders could identify the desired behavioural traits in young cats and select them for breeding, regardless of appearance. This would obviously depend on creating a popular demand for cats bred for domestic personality traits. Instead of choosing a kitten without really knowing much about its personality or its parents, people would be able to choose a lap cat, or a playful cat, or a cat who can be trained easily.
Another aspect the author mentions is the possibility of training cats. Most people assume that cats are untrainable, but with the right method, working consistently, and starting from an early age, it is possible to train cats. This could help cats adapt to the expectations of their owners and become happier in their homes.
I strongly recommend this book to everyone interested in cats, or animals in general. It is an interesting and thought-provoking read.