A cat lover talks about cross-species affection.
I know that Target thinks of me as his mummy cat and that Guido sees me as family too but it’s an opinion I only share with pet lovers. Parents may wax lyrical about their connection with their human offspring as much as they like but cat lovers very quickly learn that their love for their adopted family is second string at best.
“Cats aren’t people,” we’re told by the non-cognoscenti. “They don’t have feelings or thoughts. You’re imagining it. And that love you talk about is only around when there’s food.”
I know they’re wrong but I’ve been wondering why I know this and with Mother’s Day coming up, I’ve finally figured it out.
First, Target and Guido spend a lot of time gazing into my eyes. OK, sometimes it’s a hard stare at 4am that announces, “I’m starving. When’s breakfast?” but the cats come to see me when they wake up, when they come in after a walk, and at random times during the day.
If I’m in the office, they hop up on the desk, stare intently into my eyes and then give me a furry-purry head butt of greeting. If I’m reading, they plonk themselves between me and my book and look into my eyes before they start purring. That eye meet says it all: We look at each other and I see fully rounded souls looking back at me.
Second, if I’ve been out, the cats will look up, smile and greet me when I come home. A cat smile can be rolling over and showing a tummy that needs to be quizzled, or an ear and tail twitch combo that comes along with the meow of greeting.
Third, Target and Guido love being around me. As I’m writing this, Target is curled around my keyboard and Guido is lying on the chair that stands next to mine. They’ve got the whole house and garden but they like to be near to me. When not in the office, we sit on the sofa together, sleep together, and do our chores together.
Fourth, in challenging situations, the cats will give me the benefit of the doubt and do as I ask. Like yesterday when Guido was on the neighbour’s wall, yelling at the “Purrsian” who lives there. I couldn’t reach him so I called to him.
After about a minute of talking, Guido took a few steps backwards, away from his enemy. Another minute had him turning around and coming home. Guido really wanted to whap the Purrsian whom he’s convinced is out to get him but when I asked, he dropped the aggro and did as I asked.
It’s the same when we take our worming medicine or get stuck in a tree; I ask them to trust me and they do.
Fifth, there are a handful of people we like but a stranger in the house has both cats coming to me for protection. When
we’re at the vet, Target and Guido will press their heads into my hair and put their paws around my neck.
What does that all mean? It means that I say we have a strong bond based on mutual love and respect that mirrors exactly how parents talk about their newborns and babies too young to articulate their thoughts.
Parents recognise their baby’s love because these infants gaze into their eyes, smile at them, coo at them, want to be around them, work with them as far as they’re able when it comes to eating, changing nappies etc, and if there’s a stranger, they’ll cling to their mummy and daddy for protection. Attachment theory, a whole field of psychology, is devoted to this. My reasons for saying my pets are sentient, thinking, feeling and loving are exactly the same.
Am I being anthropomorphic? Looking at the evidence dispassionately, I admit that observation is hardly evidence. We are constantly being cheated by people who act out emotions they don’t have. Just think of professional actors, con artists and in a smaller measure we see it in sales people, politicians, and kids who want ice cream even though they haven’t eaten their vegetables.
Even machines can mimic emotions. Back in the 1960s, an artificial intelligence programme called ELIZA running a script called Doctor was able to fool people for short periods into thinking they were communicating with a real human being.
So while I acknowledge the possibility that I am deluding myself, a logical extension would mean that parents may also be deluding themselves that their infants are living, feeling, thinking creatures. Taking that a step further, how do any of us know anything about the nature of the people we communicate with?
I suspect some of us want to believe animals don’t feel because it’s easier. If animals have no emotions, no feelings, no real soul, then it’s all right to use and abuse them. Dehumanisation is in fact the prime argument for abuse, just look at any pre-war propaganda.
So, I look into Target’s and Guido’s eyes and I know they feel, just like I look into yours and know that you feel. And having said that, let me tell you about the wonderfully clever thing Guido did the other day …
Find Ellen, Target and Guido at https://www.facebook.com/ewhyte
Eight tips for picking a pet hotel
1. When pets are in close proximity, one sick animal can cause a crisis. A pet hotel that doesn’t ask to see your vaccination certificate and anti-flea schedule is not a safe place.
2. Cages all cramped together are a prison. Look for facilities that are spacious, clean and quiet.
3. A caring pet guardian asks about favourite foods, and wants you to bring toys and blankets from home so your pet has a “home away from home”.
4. If your pet is a “dustbin” who will eat anything, you’re very lucky. A good pet hotel will ask about your pet’s favourite brands and flavours.
5. Mental health is as important as physical health, so play-time should be part of the programme.
6. Read the contract carefully so that you know what happens in an emergency. Ask when vets are called, who is called and who makes these decisions.
7. See how the animals currently boarding there react to the staff. If the pets there aren’t happy, you may be looking at a place with cruel staff.
8. Always opt for a hotel that has 24/7 CCTV so you can see your pet while you’re away.