Friday, June 27, 2014

Reviewing Cat Sense, the NY Times best seller

Cat Sense, How the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet weaves together history, anatomy, biology and cultural studies to educate readers on how and why your kitty does what he does. Author John Bradshaw claims that cats desperately need the kind of research from which dogs have benefited. Because people employ dogs for sniffing out drugs, cancer and human bodies, as well as rely on them as personal service dogs for everything from blindness to anxiety disorders I understand why science and industry would expend more resources on studying canines. Bradshaw’s concerns seem to arise however from felines solely in the role of companion animals and how our changing societies can accommodate carnivorous little hunters as house pets. The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, and the Smithsonian Institute (in their infamous January 2013 NY Times piece on predation) have all come down hard on allowing cats outside. Alley Cat Allies, based in Washington, D.C., is on constant alert to communities issuing ridiculous “catch and kill” regulations for any cats found roaming outside. (The city of Edmonds, WA, is one example.) As human density increases, our kitties along with many other species often suffer from lack of their own territory and intolerant neighbors.

Cat Sense is interesting (an often disturbing) for the historical perspective on feline domestication it provides. Evidence from Egypt shows that cats were kept as pets as long as 4,000 years ago and about 2,000 years ago their sacrificial killing became a major industry when purpose bred cats were mummified by the literal millions. From the 13th to the 17th centuries, the Catholic Church was responsible for the torture and killing of many millions of cats because of their supposed association with the devil and witchcraft instead of deities. Finally in mid-18th century Europe, cats became fashionable pets amongst the aristocracy. For new cat guardians or those who really enjoy science, there’s quite a bit of material of cats’ anatomy and behaviors resulting from cats’ innate need to hunt, establish territory and if unaltered, mate. Bradshaw could have saved himself some academic research simply by volunteering at a cat shelter and discussing observations with caregivers and those involved in trap/neuter/return. In more than one statement, Bradshaw comments that kittens as young as six month old can conceive due to modern cat nutrition. The “Fix at 4” campaign sponsored by Best Friends promotes sterilizing your dog or cat at four months because many people mistakenly believe they cannot get pregnant this young. His research does turn up excellent and grounded rebuttals to the theory that cats are slaughtering birds everywhere.

I appreciate that Bradshaw addresses maintaining harmony in multiple cat homes and discourages declawing. However, his overall premise that breeding and socializing will make calmer, more affectionate housecats is far removed from reality. He allowed his own cats to produce a few litters before spaying them and posits that sterilizing all the tame cats will leave only the un-socialized feral cats to breed, thereby producing less desirable “pets.” He sites one area in Southampton UK that had more than 98% of their resident cats altered and actually had to travel outside the area to procure kittens. The rest of the world needs to study how Southampton accomplished this! I imagine that in the lower income areas of every major city you will find cats suffering from having litter after litter and eating garbage. In India, cats are actually trapped and eaten by the impoverished gypsies. Many shelters routinely transport animals to other shelters where their chance for adoption is better; this practice is not new and Bradshaw even comments on this. Kittens taken out of feral colonies and socialized with a variety of people and other cats, as Bradshaw’s research demonstrates, allow for fine and friendly companion cats later in life. Breeding more cats just so we can possibly reduce their prey drive seems absurd, not to mention insulting to the 5-8 million homeless animals entering the shelter system every year in the United States. Building a cat enclosure, playing regularly and/or harness training him if he is amenable may help in the micro picture, but mostly allowing our kitties to be shy if and when they want to be and changing our expectations, not feline genetics, will bring us the most satisfaction as cat guardians. I personally like my cats a little wild!

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