What a Cat Wants, What a Cat Needs

What a Cat Wants, What a Cat Needs
”Hmmmm.…how spicy do I want to get”

Cats are killers. Ruthlessly so. Any animal under 1 kilogram will tell you the same. They're like orcas, publicly adored by humans but known in the animal world as perverse monsters who torment and toy with their prey. Just because they make good memes doesn't mean they're civilized. Now, I’m a fan of nature, I don't take sides. I can't judge predatory animals for what they do. But I'm well aware of the dark side. Cats can be really cruel, which is why they'd do so well in the "torture as entertainment" social media currently platform known as "not-Twitter-anymore".

"I am the warrior. Tearing down the walls of heartaaaache, meow, meow..."

But under this murder instinct lies deep vulnerability. House cats, after all, are only about 5 kilos.¹ Any animal over about 20 pounds probably doesn't need to fear being eaten by a cat, unless they die alone in their apartment. Or unless the cats have just watched Jurassic Park and get the idea to hunt in packs from malicious and over-proportioned velociraptors.² Humans, most of the time, are much more dangerous to house cats than the reverse.

As a species, we're obviously a terrible threat to every other living thing on Earth. But on an individual level too, humans are just plain dangerous. Cats know this. They have a long memory for those days when they were persecuted by the Catholic church. We use to bury them in walls for some reason. There's a whole festival that's still celebrated in Belgium based around the ritual tossing of cats out of medieval belfry towers. The relationship, it's fair to say, has had it's tense moments.

The right gear is important. So important.

As a veterinarian, I'm in a bit of a difficult position. I want to help cats, but the mix of fear and inborn aggression adds up to a tricky recipe. One of the saddest realities about being animal medicine is that our patients mostly hate us. In fact, a lot of people never bring their cat in for that exact reason!

From a cat's point of view, there's are a couple different options when at the vet's office: bury your hatred deep down, flatten yourself to the ground and cry for pity (feel free to soil yourself if you like)... or, spring forward, knives out, at the jugular. Your call. We tend to lump cats into "spicy" and "non-spicy" varieties, as though they're pepper ratings on a menu at a Mexican restaurant.

Fascinatingly, new research suggests this choice will depend on at least seven, feline-specific "personality" traits including genetics, early kittenhood experiences, level of stress, pain, and fear. All of which might change the behavior at any given moment. Believe it or not, we're in a golden age of feline emotional research. We are now delving deep into the spectrum of behaviors these tiny little carnivores display inside our homes. It's mind-blowing. Russian scientists may have invented an app that reliably translates meows into at least three unique phrases. But any cat will tell you that things are more complicated than that Russian meowbots.

"What did Father Guiseppe ever do to get assigned to the Church of St. Friskies?!"

Truth is, it's quite exciting to deal with a five-pepper alarm feline. I usually pretend I'm some benevolent Godzilla trying to subdue an injured tiger. It's not a battle, it's an act of compassion. We've got a lot of helpful tools like low-stress handling and kevlar gloves. Dexmedetomidine injections help. Animal welfare within veterinary clinics has made leaps and bounds decade-over-decade, and we're now improving the feline veterinary experience with systems like cat-only entrances and keeping the olfactory experience in mind.

It's only fair that we're seeing it from their perspective. If I put you into a zombie-infected horror hospital and chased you with a chainsaw, you wouldn't necessarily sit still for your tetanus booster. Just because cats are natural born killers, doesn't mean they're invincible. They're mesopredators, the term for a mid-sized carnivore that could be ecologically considered both predator and prey. They act like both

Cats are amazing, but ruggedly individualistic animals! Their rich tapestries of behavior include "I will eat your face off " and "I will put your soul at peace with my therapeutic purring on your lap". It's not gonna always make sense. And it doesn't need to. They never asked to be domesticated, like those sad sack labradoodles panting eagerly any available human face, desperate for attention. Nah dude, the cat abides, and we'll all just get to deal with it.

"I don't know if I'm going to be good or bad, but I'm definitely going to go shred that sick point break."

  1. That's ten pounds, in case you happen to be an ignoramus.
  2. The species in the movies is much closer in size to Utahraptor. Who, extraordinarily, were discovered as the first movie was coming out. Velociraptors, incidentally, were also mesopredators.
Greg Bishop

Greg Bishop

A veterinarian with unquenchable creative impulses. Unquenchable? Hmmm... creative "tendencies"? Well, it depends on how well I slept last night. Also a writer, illustrator and whatever-elser.