For National Cat Day: The Very Latest in Feline Science

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Yesterday, October 29, was National Cat Day, which is intended to encourage adopting cats from shelters. As readers know, Yves and I are both ailurophiles. Here, sadly, are Yves’ obituaries for her New York cats, Blake and Gabriel. I do not have a cat, but have been adopted by a cat whose summer residence is under the church porch next to my garden desk. Here is my tiny apex predator among the lilies, barred with the sun, and apparently having spotted something in the distance that might be worth attacking:

At one point I invented a name for the cat, but I have forgotten what is is. Anyhow, it makes more sense to me to think of the cat as this one cat. SInce it’s now nippy, the cat — I assume — has moved to its winter quarters. I hope it returns next summer!

So, in honor of National Cat Day, and in honor of our various cats, here are answers to your cat questions, according to science!

What Is The Best Way To Pet a Cat?

Why would petting a cat be at all problematic? Live Science:

Domestic cats also display relatively modest genetic divergence from their ancestors, meaning their brains are probably still wired to think like a wildcat’s. Wildcats live solitary lives and invest considerable time and effort communicating indirectly — via visual and chemical messages — just to avoid having to see each other. So it’s unlikely that domestic cats inherited many complex social skills from their relatives.

And who wants to pet a wildcat? Still, if you do, pay attention not to what you want, but what the cat wants (which is a good lesson for other aspects of life, come to think of it):

The key to success is to focus on providing the cat with as much choice and control during interactions as possible. For example, the choice to indicate whether they want to be petted or not, and control over where we touch them, and how long for. Lots of cats do like being touched, but lots probably don’t — and many tolerate it at best. Ultimately though, when it comes to cats, it’s important to respect their boundaries — and the wildcat within — even if that means admiring their cuteness from afar.

Live Science then goes on to give an enormous list of signs of cat enjoyment (“Giving you a gentle nudge if you pause while you’re stroking them”) and signs of dislike or tension (“Biting, swiping or batting your hand away with their paw,” or slashing you, as my Mother’s Maine Coon Cat used to do).

What Is It With Cats and Boxes?

Everybody has seen how cats like to sit in boxes. Here is one variety of explanation from Mental Floss:

“There’s that adage, ‘Think outside the box,'” says Carole Wilbourn, a New York City-based cat therapist. “Cats like to think inside of the box.”

There should be a science fiction novel about cat people that has this behavior as a premise. More:

Cats, Wilbourn reasons, take comfort in cramped spaces because it makes them feel more secure and dominant. “I think part of it goes back to when they were kittens and inside the womb, feeling safe and comforted. There’s a feeling of coziness, being able to do what they want to do, and just feeling untouchable.”

Science has been able to support this theory. Animal behaviorists have studied stress levels in newly arrived shelter cats and found that felines with access to boxes had lower stress levels and faster adjustment periods than those without [PDF]. Even if they’re not quite as protected as they think they are—you can pretty much do anything to a cat who is inside a box as you could a cat who is outside of one—their perception may very well be that they’re insulating themselves from harm.

Curling up in an undersized shelter has an additional benefit: it helps the cat retain more body heat. Cats tend to like running at a temperature between 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a reason you might also find them hanging out on a radiator, laptop, or other heat-emitting device. “When a cat is warm, the cat feels relaxed,” Wilbourn says.

If you’re still perplexed by the preference, remember that you’ve probably endorsed it by melting at the sight. “People see a cat in a box and say, ‘Oh, that looks so nice and peaceful,'” Wilbourn says. “It’s a positive association. It’s easy for a cat to get blissed out in a box.”

I don’t buy Wilbourn’s explanation, because I don’t think cats like to go backward, let alone back to the womb. From Live Science:

Seeking out confined spaces is an instinctual behavior for cats. In the wild, these areas allow the animals to both hide from predators and surreptitiously stalk prey.

“Cats like boxes because they are cryptic animals; they like to hide,” Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told Business Insider. “And a box gives them a place of safety and security.”

While inside a box, cats feel that they cannot be snuck up on from behind or the side — anything that wants to approach them must come directly into their field of vision. In effect, such hiding spaces allow them to watch the world around them without being seen.

And if something interesting passes in front of the cat — be it prey or a toy — it can dash out to get the object, and then quickly return to its safety spot.

Cats are cryptic animals. I’ll say! Here is a video of Maru, the famous Japanese box-adjacent cat. I found it on the Internet:

Leading naturally to the question–

Is Watching Cat Videos on the Internet Good for Me?

Yes. NBC News:

“Some people may think watching online cat videos isn’t a serious enough topic for academic research, but the fact is that it’s one of the most popular uses of the Internet today,” [Jessica Gall Myrick, a media researcher at Indiana University in Bloomington] said in a statement. “If we want to better understand the effects the Internet may have on us as individuals and on society, then researchers can’t ignore Internet cats anymore.”

Myrick tapped into the overwhelming popularity of cat videos to conduct the study, which relied on survey results from approximately 7,000 cat video viewers.

The participants in the survey said they felt more energetic and more positive after watching cat-related online media than they had before tuning in. They also reported feeling fewer negative emotions — including anxiety, annoyance and sadness — after viewing their favorite Internet cats.

Myrick’s study was published online June 12 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. The report follows an earlier study in which Japanese researchers reported that looking at images of cute animals can improve workers’ performance on the job by increasing their attention and promoting careful behavior.

So don’t worry about that. I mean, unless you spend hours watching cat videos, have a device to store thousands of downloaded cat videos, and so forth.

Do Cats Know Their Names?

The verdict is only partial. From NPR:

Researchers conducted a series of experiments in which a person would speak four different words and then say the cat’s name. According to the study, the words chosen were “nouns with the same length and accents as their own names.” If the cat acted differently when it heard its name, the scientists would know that the cat could distinguish its own name from other words.

The reason for saying four words before the name was to “habituate” the cats — or get them accustomed to hearing words spoken. Cats often move their heads or ears when hearing words spoken, but that response diminished after four words. Only then was it time to say the name — and see how the cats responded.

“We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences,” the researchers wrote. “This is the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances.”

Do the cats actually understand that the name represents their identity? That part is unclear, lead study author Atsuko Saito of Sophia University in Tokyo told The Associated Press. What is clear is that the cat’s name is “salient stimulus,” the researchers said, “and may be associated with rewards, such as food, petting, and play.”

Hmm. I think the results might be stronger than the researchers think. When I feed the cat, there’s a lot of stimulus. I do it at the same time, I announce that it’s feeding time, I rattle the dry food, there’s the sound of the tin opening… That’s a lot of salient stimulus. But I never say the cat’s name, because I forgot it. If the cat’s “name” is the only stimulus, it’s hard to think that the cat is not responding to an identifier unique to itself.

How Do I Get a Cat to Like Me?

Once again, Mental Floss. This article has lots of useful tips, but I want to call out the one point I disagree with:

A study conducted in Italy showed that felines who stayed mostly indoors (they had one hour of supervised access to a small garden each day) were more “in sync” with their owners than felines who were allowed free access to the outdoors. The indoor kitties were more active during the day, when their owners were likely to be active, and less active at night, when humans like to sleep. (Many people believe cats are nocturnal, but they are naturally crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk.)

The cat, unbelievably, follows me across the street to the ATM when I go out to forage at night (which terrifies me, since I don’t want the cat to be hit by a car), and then started following me to the Circle-K when I go to buy snacks (which also terrifies me) and waits outside; in fact, the store staff recognizes the cat. The cat is definitely an outdoor cat, but it’s hard to imagine being more “in sync” than that.


This article in Science explains why I like cats so much:

In the first study to directly compare how cats and dogs communicate with people, [Ádám Miklósi, a cognitive ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest] and colleagues conducted the pointing test at pet owners’ homes. The cats performed as well as the dogs. But, foreshadowing a headache that would plague the field of feline social cognition, several cats “dropped out” of the study, according to the research paper. Some stopped paying attention. Others simply walked away from the testing site.

Cats don’t need me. They choose me. Maybe, one day, the cat will choose a different summer residence. Good for the cat!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. JCC

    Interesting, the best cat I ever lived with was a stray that chose to live with me shortly after I returned from Iraq, and she surprised me by braking my heart when she died 12 years later (at the guestimated age of 18 or 19). A real beauty.

  2. Adam1

    I’ve always said owning a dog is like having a forever toddler. You always need to know where they are and who they are with and they always want your attention. Cats… they’re like teenagers. They mostly can take care of themselves and when they want your affection they’ll come looking for it.

  3. neighbor7

    Cat poem by Tolkien (too much twee rhyme, perhaps, but true for all that):

    The fat cat on the mat
    may seem to dream
    of nice mice that suffice
    for him, or cream;
    but he free, maybe,
    walks in thought
    unbowed, proud, where loud
    roared and fought
    his kin, lean and slim,
    or deep in den
    in the East feasted on beasts
    and tender men.
    The giant lion with iron
    claw in paw,
    and huge ruthless tooth
    in gory jaw;
    the pard dark-starred,
    fleet upon feet,
    that oft soft from aloft
    leaps upon his meat
    where woods loom in gloom —
    far now they be,
    fierce and free,
    and tamed is he;
    but fat cat on the mat
    kept as a pet
    he does not forget.

    (“Oft soft from aloft” is very catlike….)

  4. BoyDownTheLane

    Thanks for this. I love cats. I started as a child with Mittens and Ooo Foo (so named given the expression used by my father when they came into the house). Mittens lived to be 22. Others have come and gone in the five decades; the most memorable was the kitten, a gift from my daughter, whose neck was wrung by my psychopathic neighbor when it jumped out of the garden and attacked her ankle, full teeth and claws. I had named it “Boo”. It would hide under the blanket and attack my toes and fingers.

  5. Hana M

    This post made my day! Thank you!

    On cats in boxes, this is not totally analogous since it refers to prey animals, rather than predators but Maru’s peaceful expression once in the box makes me think it fits cats as well.

    Temple Grandin, who revolutionized farm and slaughterhouse management in the US, is autistic. As a child she hated being hugged by people but found being restrained (as for example, tightly wrapped in a blanked) very soothing. She invented what she called a “hug machine” that she could step into and activate to gently apply pressure to her body. Later, she modified the hug machine to restrain cows and sheep for upright slaughtering (the only humane way). The animals stay totally calm and didn’t seem to even react to the bolt or knife (in the case of kosher slaughter).

  6. marieann

    The two cats that share my life are not fond of boxes, actually they are scared of them.They also don’t like enclosed spaces, that includes rooms with a closed door. I have lived with kitties for 50 years and these two are perplexing. I often wonder if they are aliens masquerading as cats.

    1. Jen

      I had a cat like that. I adopted her from the humane society when she was about 5 months old. Prior to that she’d lived in a barn. She didn’t like boxes, bags, or any situation which she could not see a clear exit path for the first 16 years of her life. Then one day she decided to explore a box. She decided boxes were good, but still didn’t care for most of the other enclosed spaces that other cats love.

  7. ambrit

    Your first sub-head should be: “What is the best way to be a cat’s pet?”
    Along those lines, the late Fritz Leiber wrote one of the best cat science fiction stories ever. “Space-Time For Springers.”

  8. Rhondda

    Crepuscular is a lovely, new-to-me word. Thanks, Lambert for this enjoyable and shareable piece.

    I don’t always address my dogs by their names. Or my cats, when they were alive. I use a variety ‘pet names’ that are a bit baby talk for good morning greetings, coming home, when they come to ask for something/present themselves with intention….

    What do you call the garden cat, when you speak to him — or her? Hello, Cat?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I just speak to the cat. I do not address it. “It’s dinner time!” “What a lovely cat!” “You brought me a present!” (I have to keep a shovel by my desk; we shouldn’t blind ourselves that predation is what recommended cats to us, back in the Egyptian granaries; I should check Seeing Like a State* to see if it has anything to say about grains and cats).

      I couldn’t get to a section on the history of the domestication, so-called, of cats; see Science here and here. Apparently, cats were domesticated twice; once in Turkey, once in Egypt. They spread from Egypt, having by that time adapted to humans by purring, etc. (I also couldn’t get to some wonderful videos of how cats are treated in Istanbul.)

    2. GF

      I too am new to the word. Earlier this morning (the first time I came across the word) I read the word in our local paper but it concerned bird feeding behavior. It seems birds are crepuscular and feed heavily in the early morning and late afternoon/early evening. The article was reminding readers to make sure there is food in the feeder (if one feeds birds) when the weather turns cold as the birds need the energy before sleeping and right after waking in the morning after using large amounts of energy overnight to keep warm. So, I am wondering if maybe the cat became crepuscular as a result of birds being so plentiful at these times of day?

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Crepuscular is a lovely, new-to-me word

      I showboat a little with fancy words, I confess.

      However, I also believe that words have power, and it’s to share that power with others.

  9. bassmule

    For I Will Consider My Cat Geoffry (Christopher Smart)

    For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
    For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
    For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
    For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
    For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
    For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
    For this he performs in ten degrees.
    For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
    For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
    For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
    For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
    For fifthly he washes himself.
    For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
    For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
    For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
    For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
    For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

    For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
    For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
    For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
    For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
    For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
    For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
    For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
    For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
    For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
    For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
    For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
    For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
    For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
    For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
    For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
    For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
    For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
    For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
    For the English Cats are the best in Europe.

    For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
    For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
    For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
    For he is tenacious of his point.
    For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
    For he knows that God is his Saviour.
    For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
    For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
    For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
    For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
    For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
    For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
    For he is docile and can learn certain things.
    For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
    For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
    For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
    For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
    For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.

    For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
    For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
    For the former is afraid of detection.
    For the latter refuses the charge.
    For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
    For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
    For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
    For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
    For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
    For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
    For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
    For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
    For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
    For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
    For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
    For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
    For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
    For he can swim for life.
    For he can creep.

  10. Stephen V.

    Our local No Kill City Shelter–so-called –will
    euthanize a cat perceived to be anti-social (and therefore to them, unadoptable).
    Not so good in a place with a high ignorance level and lots of abandoned cats.
    There is a way to assess and possibly socialize feral cats which I wish I would have found 10 years ago instead of 2 weeks ago. The first guy we tried this on was in my lap on day 2 after trapping, but this is highly unusual.

  11. richard

    Crepuscular is like the coolest thing a living creature could possibly be. A bunch of little Jim Jarmusch characters out there.

  12. a different chris

    I have an awful cat that “does not like to be touched”. The reason she is awful is that she insists on touching me, to the point of inconvenience. She will crawl up on my chest and put her face to within an inch of mine, but if I then try to pet her she will be very unhappy about that. Not unhappy enough to leave, unfortunately.

    My other two cats, both males, are wonderful in all ways. And you can pet them wherever and however you want, from light scratches under the chin thru belly rubbing to poundings like you would a big dog, they will be in heaven.

  13. Mattski

    Yes. It’s dogs’ slavish neediness that depresses me. That and the fact that this seems to please many people.

  14. Hilary Barnes

    Surprised that no mentions of Rudyard Kipling’s The Cat that Walked by Himself “and all places are alike to me.”

    1. GF

      My favorite cat book, and timely at this season, is Cleveland Amory’s “The Cat Who Came for Christmas” which is part of a cat trilogy “Cleveland Amory’s compleat cat : three volumes in one”

  15. Wukchumni

    My take on cats, is they like high spots or hide-a-way spots to hang out, in an inherent fear of being stepped on by us.

    Imagine if we had 30 foot tall overlords in our midst if we played the starring role as felines, ye gads!

    Our kindle (a family of cats, before it turned into an e-book) is fun to watch. Daddy-o was a deadbeat tom, the only male around that coulda done the deed, a cow-cat that looks just like Lambert’s feline accoutrement, as does his one of his sons, while the other looks more akin to his Abyssinian mom.

    Dad cat shows up 4 years after (he’d been getting fed by the neighbors, who were fed up with having to feed him, so he mooched over here) starting the family, and has had to kowtow to number 1 son, who was at the top of the pecking order.

    Nobody in the family really wanted to accept him initially, but a couple years in, they’re mostly kismet.

    Blackie, an all-black model (talk about lack of original names!) showed up 4 years ago and adopted us, a classic outsider in the scheme of things.

    1. newcatty

      We have had many cats in our lives. I think it is essential to keep in mind that thought here are common characteristics of cats, like any other being, that cats are individuals in their own selves. We now have two female cats who have lived with us around ten and eight years. Both came from different city’s humane shelters. The oldest is a beautiful cat from a neighboring city with affluent residents. She is a sweet, mellow and affectionate cat. Now! We decide to adopt another cat in a different town. It is springtime and the humane society is inundated with kittens! They hold an “adoption event” at a local mall. We walk in the door of a small store used for the occasion and it’s wall to wall with cages, and there is a kid’s swimming pool on the ground in the middle of the floor. We just stand in awe for a moment looking at the scene. A person ( volunteer) comes to smile at us and asks us if we are interested in adopting . I reply yes, but are interested in adopting a female kitten. Most of the cats in the cages are a little older than kitten age. She looks down into the kiddie pool filled with very young looking kittens. She says there is one female in the group. I gasp, as there are at least 20 or so little cats all squeezed together in the pool. Some are tussling with other kittens, some are curled up in a ball, some are lying still among other kittens. Volunteer points to a tiny black and white kitten. Here’s the girl she grins at us. She reaches down to pick her up and hands her to me. I realize she must be barely 6 weeks old. She had been given medications, vaccines and was spayed. She still had not healed all of the way from the surgery. She lay in my arms very quietly. I said, of course, we will adopt her. We were provided with a cardboard carrier and the volunteer gave us a little blanket for the carrier. She settled in quietly.
      We arrive home. We open the door to carrier and let her decide to come out to her new world. She bounds out and just races around the room for a few minutes. She finally let’s me pick her up to show her the food and water bowls and the litter box. She then squeezes out of my hands. She is a wild thing for first year of her life. Luckily, I find a wonderful vet who is very knowledgeable about helping feral kittens adjust to a family life. This one suggestion really helped our wild kitten. She said that because the kitten had been so very young when seemingly separated from her mother and siblings that she never got to have social development of mom’s guidance or playtime with siblings. She instructed us to buy a sturdy stuffed dog toy that was about same size as kitty. We found a fuzzy, study toy that resembled a small beaver, with no teeth. Kitty loved to wrestle and bat her toy throughout the day…especially while sitting with her toy on a hard wooden rocker in the living room. This lasted for some months. She was able to settle down more and more as time went on. She went through two toys! She now is still delightfully playful, sometimes, very much her own self and chooses to be affectionate, when she, well, chooses. She and older cat have their own identities. They are not demonstrably close, but interestsingly are in sync in their daily routines. Hope, if anyone needs any thoughts on how to help a kitten adjust from a rough beginning in life , that our tale will be of help.

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