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Lessons for Life I learned from Cats



Since we have moved here to Gran Canaria, my husband and I have initiated a project for the protection of cats. We always have had cats ourselves but here we also care for homeless cats by trying to find homes for them and also for entire colonies of street cats. As a result I have more cats for company than ever before and the more I interact with them, the more frequently I feel that humans can learn a lot from them benefitting our lives. For a start by learning by imitation as psychologists call it (i.e. emulation) and also by interacting and truly getting involved with them provides us with any number of opportunities for the progression of our own personality.

Exaggeration? Well, let’s see where this goes ...

Let’s start with those things we can learn by watching cats:

Patience and Perseverance

Have you ever watched a cat hunting? If we humans – from a proportional point of view, of course – would only invest as much patience, perseverance and concentration in our goals as a cat does lying in wait in front of a mouse hole, most of us would probably lead a considerably more successful life. When they have spotted their prey, cats remain totally motionless for up to 30 minutes (ok, we do want to exclude the tip of the tail). And they don’t get their feelings hurt if they don’t succeed or ponder, whose fault it was that the mouse did not make an appearance . . . they merely attempt again and eventually they are successful.

Self-care

With this catchword grooming that cats so very much enjoy and constantly practice obviously comes to mind. They spend as many as three-and-a-half hours daily with grooming. (While it frequently happens that I don’t even sufficiently crème-up after taking my shower because I am already in a hurry). Cats sleep approximately 15 hours a day. (Here we are better off not to start comparing.) They just take sufficient time for everything important for their physical wellbeing. One just can’t imagine a cat that, like that white rabbit in Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” constantly looks at its watch and in a panic exclaims: “I am late, I am late!”

But in other respects as well, and at least if they have a choice cats don’t compromise in matters of self-care. Almost every cat owner is familiar with stories about outdoor cats that simply went looking for new lodgings in the neighborhood because for their very own reasons they were not 100% satisfied with their present domicile. And that by no means pertains only or primarily to cats that have been badly or not at all provided for by their caregiver! It can simply be a question of “Whiskas vs. Sheba”. Or that nice Grandma three streets down is always home and consequently petting- and open door services are always available, while the present can- and door openers unfortunately have to go to work during the day and therefore get the short end of the stick where the service competition is concerned. Better is the enemy of the good, after all. Anyhow, cats would never stay where they are being mistreated. They are unquestionably loyal, affectionate and faithful toward their humans (anyone who has any doubts, never had a cat), but their loyalty is not dog-like devoted, slavishly indiscriminating, but one that must be earned – and that can even be withdrawn should the occasion arise. A dog literally adores its worst caregiver something that never happens to a cat owner. When a cat is comfortable it enjoys hanging around and we should feel honored. If not, it just leaves. (By the way this is an aspect again shortly coming up for discussion on the subject “personality development by way of cat ownership”!)

Cats know very well what they want and how to get it – and likewise not. In the case of doubt they just sit on the bed at 05:00 in the morning and meow into their caregiver’s ear until they get their breakfast (I always ask myself how they know the exact location of my ear?) Anyway: To Meowing!! A study by the University of Sussex was able to demonstrate that cats meow deliberately in a very specific high frequency when they want something from their humans (food, love, whatever). With between 300 and 600 Hertz this meowing is very similar to the wailing of a hungry human baby – and therefore triggers a subconscious helper-reflex with the caregivers. Clever, no? They only utilize this meowing on these occasions; a feral cat without human contact has never been heard meowing in this way!

Well, I would not suggest that wifey from now segues into high frequency meowing in order to get hubby to take the garbage out – but a little of that velvety perseverance where one’s own needs are concerned would not harm those folks (primarily women!) who frequently tend to give in.

Playfulness

Cats will always and all their life be something a little bit of a kitten. At 19-years old my very much beloved (and unfortunately long since departed) cat Chin-Chin and despite multiple age-related ailments would suddenly and almost until her death suffer from sudden playfulness-attacks and act like a kitten. Pushing little balls around, catching toy mice or chasing after the red laser pointer was always great fun. Again something we humans tend to forget in our everyday life namely: staying in contact with our inner child and occasionally reserve sufficient space for senseless, self-absorbed playfulness instead of always rushing from duties to obligations. A very important energy source!

A propos playfulness: As we know, there are many folks who disparagingly characterize cats as being “cruel” because it is in their nature to continue playing with their prey a little before finally killing it. This is obviously pure nonsense. Cats are animals and animals don’t have human moral values and therefore they cannot be judged accordingly. It does not occur to a cat that it is “torturing” its prey when it plays with it prior to its death. This would require cognitive capabilities and those – as all of us know – have only developed in humans in the course of evolution. Whenever a cat deliberately permits a mouse it just caught to escape, catches it again and again deliberately permits it to escape, is merely another demonstration of its playfulness. Many cats are often even actually disappointed when the mouse at one point quits moving – just like a child whose favorite toy is all of a sudden broken. It is unfair to assume that the cat is supposed differentiate between chasing a Ping-Pong ball (that obviously does not feel pain) or a living creature suffering pain and fear in the process. The cat is literally incapable of that. The cat simply just needs to play. That is sufficiently important for it even to be willing to risk its lunch in the process because it frequently happens that the intended prey actually does take advantage of the opportunity and gets away for good.

Independence

In the course of an interview with the magazine “Stern” the American biologist Dennis Turner states: “The cat was domesticated 6000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians. But it is still always very natural. As opposed to the dog, it was only selected based on its appearance. Not according to behavioral aspects or character. It has not been since 170 years ago that cats have been systematically bred. Consequently they display more individual behavior than dogs.”

Every cat caregiver is probably familiar with that experience! Every cat is a unique little personality and training cats is considerably more difficult than training dogs. With dogs all you need is a treat and a firm voice – cats don’t function not nearly as simplistic. Cats are somewhat pigheaded and – as well as in other things – have pretty good ideas about what they want to do, and what not. Fetching something in response to something the caregiver throws about? No way! Why don’t you get it yourself, missy, you pitched it yourself! To occasionally and purely as a favor to missy voluntarily depositing a bagged lizard on the doormat? Absolutely! Cats are capable of very closely bonding to “their” humans but also always maintain their individuality at the same time. They don’t jump through hoops to be loved. That does not mean that they don’t appreciate to be loved- on the contrary. However, as opposed to dogs they do not make that extra deliberate effort to earn this love. And thus are actually perfect role models for that which true love should ultimately be: unconditionally and voluntary. Not conditioned upon a desired behavior, not generously granted as award for obedience (“Sit! Good boy!”) but apart from it and simply for its own sake.

Cats don’t love their caregiver according to that offensive motto: “I love you because I need you”. They obviously like to be fed and have their personal toilet cleaned. But then, those who have ever observed their little tiger like lightening kill a tiny prey (and if it was only a moth having lost its way into the apartment) will appreciate that there is still a wild animal hiding in every cat that could also make it on its own if it had to. No question, food plays a major role in the establishment of trust between cat and human but on the other hand, as far as the cat is concerned, it is not all there is to it. Although it may not be dependent upon us, it simply enjoys our company.

That is very nicely illustrated by this video created with a permanently in the apartment installed camera about the tomcat Kodi. It shows Kodi’s caregiver leaving the apartment, leaving Kodi alone at home. Kodi has everything he needs: a full food dish, a clean cat toilet, his toys: Nevertheless, he immediately starts complaining – and that is something even a non-cat fancier will notice without wearing glasses – and starts looking for his care giver. He clearly misses him. Kodi whines to himself for 45 minutes because he is clearly lonely (no worries, the video doesn’t last that long), but then immediately begins purring contently when the caregiver returns home picking him up. Merely a can opener? Probably not. Cats bond with us emotionally with us of their own free will and not due to (practical) needs. Their affection is not for sale.

Now we get to the most important aspects how we can learn from cats by interacting with them:

If you love something, set it free

Anyone who has ever attempted to befriend a (still) shy cat pretty quickly finds out: Chasing her, trying to hold on to her – no chance. The only way of winning her trust consists of always providing her with a free choice. To make her the offer: I am here and I would like to get to know you. And then wait until she makes her decision. Patiently and without pressure. With respect, carefully and not aggressively and not by attempting to force the issue. Responding to her and her signals instead of expecting that she responds to those of the future caregiver, instead. Leaving the evolution of the relationship to her instead of trying to dominate her. With cats it is necessary to build a friendly partnership on an equal footing, otherwise it won’t work.

I believe that those who say that they love dogs and hate cats are narcissists who are incapable of handling exactly this situation. A cat cannot be subjugated like a dog. She must be courted, conquered and whoever is chosen as a friend should then be flattered. On the other hand befriending a dog (unless this involves a severely traumatized animal), is easy. Normal dogs are continuously looking for human friendship and are enthralled when they are able to establish new relationships, cats aren’t like that. They safeguard their secrets now matter how close they are to us. Compared to them, dogs are an open book.

One must be able to stand it when the animal establishes the rules for a relationship and not the caregiver! When I come home I can always count on the dog going crazy with excitement. I want to cuddle? Absolutely! Waldi is always agreeable! I want to be left alone? Also no problem, he lets me dispatch him into his little basket. Try that with a cat! Cuddling takes place when she feels like it and when she had enough or just isn’t in the mood and one ignores the corresponding signal she demonstrates her displeasure and one may as well go looking for a band aid! And dispatching her into the little basket in case one would rather be left in peace but kitty happens to feel like playing? Good luck with that approach! Then she just lays down on the newspaper or the iPad or whatever else happens to obstruct the attention of the caregiver.

Cat lovers appreciate exactly this: the cats’ individualism and predisposition for freedom tolerating it without getting their feelings hurt or feeling rejected. They have internalized that which Osha has formulated so beautifully: “If you love a flower, don‘t pick it up. Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.” In my opinion the essence of love cannot be summarized more succinctly. Be as you are because I love you for who you are. Many a human partnership can take a page from that book . . .

Sensitivity vis-à-vis others

Cats are incredibly sensitive animals and extremely perceptive to the moods of “their” human. Go ahead, ask a cat caregiver – almost everyone will tell you that his/her cat knows exactly when he/she is happy or sad and interacts with him/her accordingly. For instance, my cats know exactly if I spend a day in bed because I happen to be lazy or because I don’t feel well. In the latter case they are immediately on the scene and alternate keeping an eye on me. In the first case they don’t act agitated and just pursue their daily chores. The tomcat Oscar residing in the U. S. nursing home Steere House in Rhode Island has apparently perfected this sensitivity for human conditions and for exactly that reason also made his way through the media a few years ago: He uncannily always laid down with patients whose death was only a few hours away. Oscar’s diagnoses are more spot on than those by the physicians on site – he is never wrong. How he is able to do that is unclear and also the why because the nursing staff describes him as otherwise being rather distanced and a tomcat not that all that much interested in human company. But then, when the chips are down, Oscar is reliably at his post!

Conversely caring for a cat also demands more human sensitivity than caring for a dog (with that I don’t mean to say that dogs should be treated insensitively, please!). First of all, for us humans a dog’s body language is simply easier to interpret than that of a cat. Dennis Turner explains: “Dogs have always been chosen to communicate with us humans. The cat was not. Therefore we must learn to deal with her.” Secondly, dogs are a lot more magnanimous than cats in tolerating potential inadvertent or even general behavior lapses by their caregivers due to incorrect interpretations. Inadvertently step on your dogs paw – it yelps but if you apologize wags its tail and always is immediately willing to forgive. It will also be wildly enthusiastic when you re-appear after two vacation weeks in order to “rescue” it from its holiday accommodation.

Try to do the same with a cat and you can expect totally different reactions! For inadvertently treading you can easily be excommunicated for a couple of days and not even to mention this business about vacations because in that case our kitties are downright unwilling to negotiate. Consequently cats “train” us a lot more openly to always pay attention to them and their needs than do dogs; negligence or lack of attention will immediately be punished. I believe that this is also something potentially benefitting many a human partnership . . .

Order and Reliability

All right, okay one can obviously be of different opinions regarding the value of these character virtues. In the old days they were not all that much appreciated as general conduct grades in the report. But there are certainly areas in life where they can come in very handily. And if they are not acquired by way of owning cat, they are truly never learned, at all. In matter of cleanliness, order and structure the little dears are very, very demanding. Don’t feel to clean the cat box, tomorrow will be soon enough? Go ahead and just try that once and you’ll find out that it is a lot less work to do that now instead of on the next morning by having to clean the consequences of kitty’s irritated commentary about the lack of service (in the form of a firm and/or liquid legacy right in front of the cat box as the best scenario and on the day bed or the couch, as in the worst scenario). Been out later than usually and not served kitty’s dinner on time? Very bad – you’ll be penalized for up to two days with an upset stomach or refusal to eat (by the cat). Okay, this does not have to get out of hand like Karl Lagerfeld’s arrangement with his cat Choupette by providing her with two employees responsible for looking after her well being (beginning with the daily selection of various cat menus, regular brushing and obviously the exact documentation of her daily activities so that daddy can be informed en detail at night). However even for a regular cat caregiver dilly-dallying where service is concerned, is not a good idea. In this role “Do it today, or later you’ll pay!” is a wisdom one very quickly internalizes – and that is something that can also be very helpful in other contexts. No chance for procrastinators!

Order and reliability also pertain to the cats’ disgust about any changes and disturbances of their routine and that is something a cat caregiver better figures out in a hurry. Quickly driving to IKEA and afterwards rearranging the furniture? Not if the peaceful coexistence with kitty is important. Sleeping in on the weekend instead of like usually on workdays serving the cat breakfast at 07:00? Dream on. With impunity leaving woolen sweaters or delicate silk scarves strewn about? Sure, but just once – afterwards no point in having them dry-cleaned into the old-clothes bag with them, instead. Sense of order should also be a prominent item on every cat caregiver’s to-learn-check-list. Oh yes, and naturally a sense of humor! That is something best developed quickly because otherwise at some point the cat giver’s frustration with the little darling’s unpredictability probably becomes inevitable. . .

The list of things we humans can learn from our cats can probably continued forever, but I think I better leave it at that. In a manner of speaking, cats are excellent personality-coaches. There is no question that they can turn us into better, more tolerant, nicer and more thoughtful people. If we let them.

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