Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/May 1890/Cats and their Friendships

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I HAD for ten years a cat whose intelligence interested me greatly and was considered remarkable by all persons who took notice of her. Her confidence in her master and mistress, her evident enjoyment of their society, her happy faculty of putting herself upon an understanding with them, her familiar interest in matters of the household, the shifts and devices of which she was master, and her sagacity manifested in ways as various as the exigencies she had to meet, evoked frequent admiration and praise. These manifestations led me to look into the subject of knowledge in cats, and I have found that she was not singular, or even exceptional, in the quality of her faculties. She appears to have been a type to which a great many of the more happily trained members of her race can easily measure up. My observations have been naturally extended to other animals, and have led to the conclusion that most domesticated species and many wild ones are capable of and often manifest equally high degrees of mental development. But cats—and dogs too—are more at home with us, have more opportunities to learn, and come under closer and more constant observation than the others.

The cat belongs to a large and highly specialized family; to one that is clearly distinguishable from the other families of animals, while the resemblances between its own members is so strong that even the careless, unprofessional observer will hardly fail to assign at a glance an individual of any of its species to it. All the members of the family are, according to Wood, light, stealthy, and silent of foot, quick of ear and eye. They are exceedingly graceful in form and movement, have flexible bodies and limbs—walk, we might say, on tiptoe—are alert and swift in action, and are exceedingly cunning. Between many of them and the cat itself there is hardly any prominently visible difference except in size. Curious resemblances in features of line or expression may be remarked between the portraits of the Felidæ in Wood's Natural History and cats with which the observer is acquainted. A copy of the photograph of the head and breast of a tiger at rest, in a portfolio by our side, might be easily mistaken, except for a few differences in the shading of the hair, for a life-size portrait of the cat that has given the occasion of this article. St. George Mivart recognizes fifty living species of the cat family, forty-eight of which he includes in the genus Felis.

The history of the domestic cat has been traced back to the ancient Egyptians, among whom the earliest notices of it appear on the monuments of the second empire of the twelfth dynasty (about 2400 c), at Beni Hassan. It seems to have appeared there just after the Egyptians had made considerable conquests in Nubia, whence it may have been brought, already domesticated, among the spoils of war. The mummified cats in the Egyptian PSM V37 D102 Egyptian cat felis maniculata.jpgFig. 1.—Egyptian Cat (Felis maniculata.) tombs are not identical with our house cat, but seem to belong to a native species (Felis maniculata, Fig. 1) which is said to be still indigenous in Nubia, where it is found on the western side of the Nile, in a stony district in which brushwood grows.

The domesticated animal was slow in making its way from Egypt into the neighboring nations. The Hebrews were apparently without it, and it is not once mentioned in the Bible. No evidence has been found that the Assyrians and Babylonians were acquainted with it. According to authors who have investigated the philological branch of the history, these people possessed a binary nomenclature for animals, with generic and specific names, and included their lions and panthers among the dogs—a thing they would hardly have done if they had been familiar with house cats. It was not known to the Greeks and Romans till a comparatively late period; and all the earlier representations of cats on their monuments are referred by the authorities to the wild cat or some other animal than the domestic cat. According to the most careful conclusions on this subject, the mouser of the Greeks and Romans was a weasel, and led an independent, not a domestic, life. The Aryans of India had cats at a very early but not at their earliest period; for while the names of the animal are all Aryan, it was not, according to Pictet, designated by any simple term such as would have been given it in primitive times, but by composite names, having such meanings as "house-animal," "rat-eater" and "mouse-enemy." The name of the wild cat (Fig. 2), however, embodied a root common to many of the European languages. It becomes in Persian, pushak; in Afghan, pishik; in Kurdish, psiq; in Lithuanian, pnijé; in Irish, pus and feisag; and in Erse, pusag and piseag; whence the English "puss." It is derived by Pictet from a Sanskrit root puchha or pitchha, that means "tail" and therefore points to one of the most striking external features of the animal. The name by which the cat was known to the later Greeks—αἾλονρος—and which was originally applied to the weasel, refers to the same feature. It is compounded from two words that give the meaning of "wavy tail."

The Latin name of the cat tribe (Felis) appears to have been originally applied to the weasel and other mousers, and afterward to the wild cat. The word catus or cattus came into use in about the fourth century, and is found first in the agricultural writer, Palladius, who recommends that cats be kept in artichoke-gardens for protection against mice and moles, and remarks that men had previously been served for this purpose by weasels. The PSM V37 D103 Wildcat.jpgFig. 2.—Wild Cat (Felis catus.) name catta is found later in the Greek church historian, Evagrius Scholasticus, about a. d. 594. Historical inferences have been drawn from the absence of the remains of cats in the ruins of Pompeii, and from the fact that the name common to all the other Romance languages does not occur in Wallachian. It is concluded that the domesticated animal had not become common when Pompeii was destroyed, in a. d. 79, or when Dacia was isolated from the rest of the Roman world by barbarian conquest, in the third century. Mr. W. Boyd Dawkins infers, from his researches in the caves in which the Celts took refuge from the Saxons, that cats were unknown in Great Britain before about the year 800.

Cats easily commended themselves as efficient vermin-destroyers to such extensive grain-raisers as the ancient Egyptians; and a people so ready to deify everything needed little prompting to put them in their pantheon. They may also have made themselves useful in killing snakes, an occupation in which, if the stories are true, they sometimes become very expert. Rengger, who has written of the mammals of Paraguay, declares that he has more than once seen cats pursue and kill snakes, even rattle-snakes, on the sandy, grassless plains of that land. " With their rare skill," he says, " they would strike the snake with their paw, and at the same time avoid its spring. If the snake coiled itself, they would not attack it directly, but would go round it till it became tired of turning its head after them j then they would strike it another blow, and instantly turn aside. If the snake started to run away, they would seize its tail, as if to play with it. By virtue of these continued attacks they usually destroyed their enemy in less than an hour, but would never eat its flesh."

Cats are represented on some of the Egyptian monuments as accompanying their masters on hunting expeditions. In a wall-picture on a tomb at Gurneh, a hunter is represented in his boat in the marshes as about to hurl his throw-stick at a covey of birds, while a cat by his side is on the alert to spring upon the game he is expected to bring down. Another picture (Fig. 3) represents the cat seizing a bird. This would involve going into the

PSM V37 D104 An egyptian fowling scene.jpg
Fig. 3.—An Egyptian Fowling Scene. 1. Sportsman using the throw-stick. 2. Keeps the boat steady by holding the stalks of a lotus. 4. A cat seizing the game in the thicket. 5. A decoy bird. 6. Fishes, the emblem of water.

water, an act to which our modern cats usually have a very strong dislike. If the Egyptian cats had the same feelings, they must have come under the discipline of skillful trainers. But there have been fisher cats in modern times. Mr. Ross, in his Book of Cats, tells of one that lived in 1829, which caught fish with great assiduity, and frequently brought them home alive. She taught another cat to fish, and they used to go out together, PSM V37 D104 Cats tails.jpgFig. 4.—Cats' Tails. sometimes taking opposite sides of the river. Another story is quoted by the same author, of a cat at the battery in Plymouth, England, that was in the habit of diving into the sea, bringing up fish, and leaving them in the guard-room for the sailors. She was seven years old, and "as fond of the water as a Newfoundland dog," and hunted regularly along the rocks at the water's edge for her game, "ready to dive for it at a moment's notice." A cat described by Mr. Lawson Tait was a remarkable fisher, and would wade into a small pond up to her shoulders to catch her game. She was " always fond of dabbling in the water." Mr. Harrison Weir[1] tells of a cat which used to go into the water up to her shoulders to bring in the fish which her master drew up with the hook, and which stole out the minnows that had been placed, for safe keeping, in a well of cold spring-water.

The domestic cat is not identical with the Egyptian cat, and, therefore, if descended from it, must have undergone modifications in the process. It is not known whether it has interbred with the wild cat; but it is possible that some of the varieties have originated in that way. The marks of difference between the species are very plain. The most obvious one is the shape of the tail (Fig. 2), which in the domestic cat is long, slender, and tapering, while in the wild cat it is shorter, stumpy, and bushy. The fact that no tendency has been observed in either of these

PSM V37 D105 English tabby cat.jpg
Fig. 5. — Mrs. Scott's English Tabby "Coppa." First Prize at the Crystal Palace Cat Show, 1886.

forms of tail to revert to the other is in favor of a permanent specific difference. The minor varieties of cats are numerous, but the important ones are not many. A line is drawn between the short-haired and the long-haired varieties. Of the former are the tabbies (Figs. 5 and 10) — brown, blue, or silver; red and spotted tabbies — of various colors, with their delicate stripings, cloudings, or spots; the Chartreuse, blue, or Maltese, which has long, slate-colored fur, and a bushy neck and tail; the Spanish, or tortoise-shell (Fig. 11) — white, black, and reddish-brown, mixed, whose closer resemblance than that of the others to the Egyptian cat has suggested that the animal may have come to Europe by way of the Strait of Gibraltar; and the Manx (Fig. 6), a curious variety, says Wood, on account of the entire absence of a tail, the place of which member is only indicated by a rather wide protuberance. " It is by no means a canny animal, for it has an unpleasant, weird-like aspect about it. ... A Manx cat, with its glowing eyes and its stump of a tail, is a most unearthly-looking beast." The manner in which its peculiarity has been perpetuated has not been accounted for. The long-haired cats include the Persian PSM V37 D106 Manx cat.jpgFig. 6.—Manx cat. (Fig. 7), a gray-blue and silky animal, having a tail of great length and covered with hair six inches long, which it carries arched over its back like a squirrel's; and the Angola, a beautiful animal, and knowing it—"gorgeous in its superb clothing of long, silky hair and bushy tail." It is one of the largest of domestic cats, and one of the heartiest eaters. Then there are the Chinese cat, large, with fine, glossy hair and hanging ears; the royal cat of Siam (Fig. 8), clear tawny or buff, with black muzzle, face, ears, and feet, suggesting the figure of a pug dog; black cats, which belong among the tabbies; and white cats, concerning which the belief prevails that if they also have blue eyes they are deaf. This connection has been accepted by Mr. Darwin as an instance of correlated variability, and is explained by Mr. Lawson Tait—the white color or albinism being regarded as a result of arrested development—by the fact of the common origin in the epiblast of the three structures affected—the fur, the iris, and the tympanic membrane.

The bent of the cat's mind was pleasantly defined a few years ago by a writer in the London Spectator, who said there could be no doubt as to the view Puss took of the philosophy of nature and life. She is quite satisfied that the world and everything in it were made and exist for cats. This appears in all that well-bred and cared-for cats do, and in every accent and tone of their voice. Puss possesses herself with the air of a proprietor of the best place and the best food; expects to be waited upon; demands a share of every dish; and looks upon us as at once her Providence and her servant.

Cats are not demonstrative like dogs, and do not submit to training like the horse. The dog has been credited with unbounded affections, and the horse with almost human sagacity; but the cat still suffers under the bad character that Buffon—who can not have been acquainted with any reputable specimens of the race—gave her. She is said to be selfish, spiteful, cruel, crafty, treacherous, loving places and not persons, and in every way unworthy of fellowship in the household. J. G. Wood answers these accusations by saying that the cats with which he has been most familiar "have been as docile, tractable, and good-tempered PSM V37 D107 Persian cat at the crystal palace cat show 1886.jpgFig. 7.—Mrs. Valance's Persian, "Fluffy II." Crystal Palace Cat Show, 1886. as any dog could be, and displayed an amount of intellectual power which would be equaled by very few dogs, and surpassed by none." To all persons who have given their confidence to Puss and received hers in return, they need no answer.

Numerous traits of the sort that make all the world kin appear in the cats—human-like qualities and affections that bring them into sympathy with their masters. Such traits will be made manifest to any one who even partially takes Puss into fellowship; and whoever puts himself on good terms with her will find his association marked by wonderful examples of intelligence and affection, and will be ready to declare that there is no cat like the particular one with which he is dealing. The declaration will be true in a measure, for individuality is one of the most conspicuous traits of the species. A considerable literature has been written in demonstration and illustration of the more pleasing aspects of feline character, on which I have drawn for incidents from works that will be mentioned in course; and more freely from articles on animal intelligence in Nature and the Revue Scientifique, and from a Cat Competition, organized several years ago by the Republican Journal, of Belfast, Maine, in which many contributors gave the stories of their pets. Evidences are afforded in these observations of the habitual exercise by cats, in the ordinary course of their lives, of such qualities as recognition of their friends and attachment to them, capacity to form friendships with men and animals, exercise of self-denial, willingness to do favors or to help, understanding of language, ability to make their wants intelligibly known, humor, foresight, knowledge of right and wrong, the use of means to ends, capacity to adapt means to circumstances, the time-sense, and many other forms of intelligence. Lindsay, in his Mind in the Lower Animals, shows also that they, with other brutes, are liable to mental diseases not unlike those to which the human mind is subject.

Théophile Gautier, remarking on the difficulty of conquering the friendship of a cat, says that "she is a philosophical animal, PSM V37 D108 Royal cat of siam prize winner.jpgFig. 8.—Mrs. Vyvian's Royal Cat of Siam. Prize-winner. By permission, from Harrison Weir's Our Cats and all about Them. Published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York. orderly, quiet, tenacious in her habits, a lover of order and propriety, and one who does not bestow her affections blindly. She will gladly be your friend if you are worthy of it, but not your slave. In her tenderness she regards her own free will, and will not do for you what she judges to be unreasonable; but once she has given herself to you, what absolute confidence, what fidelity of affection!" Wood says that there is perhaps no animal so full of trust as a cat that is kindly treated, as there is none which, when subjected to harshness, is so nervously suspicious. Cats keenly recognize these distinctions in character, even among members of the same family, and govern themselves accordingly. Pertinent to this point is the newspaper squib of the maid who told her master that she knew Tom had returned from school, though she had not seen him, because the cat was hiding under the stove.

"Tad," of Burnham, Maine, used to meet his master, a night watchman, every morning at the store-door, and accompany him home. After the master died, "Tad" continued to go for him and wait; then, not finding him, would return home and wander about the house as if in search of him. "Hannah" of North Monroe, Maine, began to take care of the baby as soon as it came; increased its attentions when the child could walk; would go after him and call him back when he started to wander out of bounds, and then go to the house and mew for help till some one came to take the truant in charge. "Thomas," of Sandy Point, Maine, was accustomed to be fed with crumbs from the table by a single member of the family, and to go and call him to dinner if he was tardy. My cat in like manner used to look to her mistress and to no other person for tidbits from the breakfast-table. "Daisy," of Belfast, who stayed with her mistress during an illness, missed her from the room and went out to look for her. Meeting her unexpectedly, she looked up, says the mistress, "as frightened as if she had seen a ghost. My voice, however, reassured her, and, if ever a cat smiled, I am sure she did." Another cat of the Belfast group, not a favorite and shy toward all other persons, became attached to a sickly infant and its faithful nurse, never failing to respond to its cries by going to its cradle and soothing it by purring and caresses till it became quiet. The cat of M. Arbousset, a French missionary in Africa, refused food when the child to which it was attached died, sought and mourned for its friend in a marked manner, and in a few days was found dead on its grave. The suggestion has been made, and is worthy of consideration,

PSM V37 D109 Archangel blue cat.jpg
Fig. 9.—Archangel Blue Cat. By permission, from Harrison Weir's Our Cats and all about Them. Published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York.

that when pets die in this way soon after their human companions, it may be because they caught the disease from them rather than from intensity of affection. But this can not apply to the cat told of in the Leisure Hour, which, when the child its playmate died, refused food at first, but afterward, having found its companion's grave, spent most of its time there, going to the house for its meals. A critic, in the Saturday Review, claims to have known more than one instance of a cat, ordinarily constant to its own habits of comfort, breaking through its self-made rules to sit outside the door of an invalid as if waiting for news. The Rev. J. G. Wood's "Pret" was capable of the most earnest manifestations of gratitude. One day, when, having been forgotten, she had become very hungry, she flew "like a mad thing" at the meat and milk her master gave her; but hardly lapped a drop before she went to him purring loudly and caressing him to express her thanks; then went to the plate, "but only just touched her nose, and again came to thank me" — actually refraining from enjoying the food she was so much in want of till she had repeatedly acknowledged her obligations for it.

A story is quoted by Mrs. Cashel Hoey from the London Spectator, of "Nero" who, loving all the family and showing his love for each in different ways, especially loved his master, and was usually the first to hear his step. He could distinguish the click of his master's door-key, and would run to answer it; was distressed if his master failed to return at evening, and would go look for his portmanteau, to see if that was gone too — that being his sign that master was taking a journey. If the portmanteau was in its place, he was satisfied; if not, he would lie down and refuse food. If he knew the master was going away, he would PSM V37 D110 Finely marked spotted tabby cat.jpgFig. 10. — Finely Marked Spotted Tabby Cat. By permission, from Harrison Weir's Our Cats and all about Them. Published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York. try to hide himself in the cab; and if master appeared with his hat on in the daytime, supposing he was going out, would try to take it off; but if at night, was contented, for master had come home.

The cat's strong attachment to its home, and indisposition to change it, are not peculiar to it, but are common to all animals, including man. The trait is often manifested, and sometimes in remarkable ways, in dogs, horses, and cattle. In man it is frequently illustrated in the affection known as "homesickness." The ability which animals display under its influence in finding their way back to their old accustomed haunts from long distances and by difficult or tortuous ways, or even by roundabout roads, when return over the direct route (as when it includes the crossing of bodies of water) is impossible, is the wonder of naturalists, and up to this time one of the unsolved problems of animal psychology. It has received the name of "the homing instinct" and is regarded by some naturalists as constituting an additional sense. The dog seems usually to be more ready than the cat to follow his master in a change of home, and to reconcile himself to the new place, but this may be because he stands in a different relation toward him. The dog is sure of at least one fast friend wherever he lives, while the cat can not always reckon even upon that. In many families, where she is tolerated, as, according to Buffon, only because she is less objectionable than the rats and mice, she has no one to caress her or show affection to her. In this case, when her situation is barely endurable, she naturally fixes her attachment on the place where she has found cozy retreats and knows all the hunting-grounds, rather than upon persons who have given her no consideration, and of whom she perhaps stands in fear. Whether the cat will in the long run prefer its old home, deserted or inhabited by strangers, to a new home, along with the persons it has been accustomed to meet, may depend very much upon the treatment it has received from those persons. My cat was removed three times in ten years; and, aside from the temporary embarrassment caused by finding herself in a strange place, readily adapted herself to the new quarters, and showed no disposition to go back to the old haunts. Lindsay, in

PSM V37 D111 Finely marked tortoise shell cat.jpg
Fig. 11.—Finely Marked Tortoise-Shell Cat. By permission, from Harrison Weir's Our Cats and all about Them. Published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York.

his Mind in the Lower Animals, refers to cases of cats following their masters from house to house, from place to place, and accompanying them on visits to other people's residences, as unconcernedly as a dog. Wood tells of a family on the coast of Scotland who removed to the opposite shore—sailing around instead of crossing the country—leaving their cat with a neighbor. But the animal followed them, and found them in some way, presenting itself after a few weeks at their door, "weary, ragged, and half starved." It had left its old home and gone out into the unknown to seek the family with whom it had lived. A case precisely similar, except as to the local topography, is related in Chambers's Journal, of a cat in a military chaplain's family at Madras. This animal also, having found its old friends on the other side of the city, several miles from their former home, went back and brought her kitten. Some of the incidents bearing upon this feature have an aspect of eccentricity. The young cat of a neighbor of the writer's disappeared from the house and was not found or heard of for six months. At the end of that time it returned and made itself at home at once, but grown and so changed that, though its familiarity was remarked upon as singular, it was not recognized till its identity was accidentally established by the discovery of a peculiar though obscure mark. Dr. A. Corriveau tells in the Revue Scientifique of a cat which was lost in a similar way. Five months afterward it was found in the house by the side of its companion, travel-soiled but plump, and recognizable by a red spot on its forehead. It had a very pleasant visit with its old mate and friends for a week, and then disappeared as unaccountably as it had done before. It is told in the Life of Sir David Brewster, by his daughter, that a cat in the house entered his room one day and made his friendship in the most affectionate manner—"looked straight at him, jumped on his knee, put a paw on each shoulder, and kissed him as distinctly as a cat could." From that time the philosopher himself provided her breakfast every morning from his own plate, till "one day she disappeared, to the unbounded sorrow of her master. Nothing was heard of her for nearly two years, when Pussy walked into the house, neither hungry nor thirsty nor foot-sore—made her way without hesitation to the study—jumped on my father's knee—placed a paw on each shoulder—and kissed him exactly as on the first day."

These incidents pertain to only one of the human-like traits that have been named as to be found in cats. The study to which they introduce us is an alluring one, and opens the more expansively the further we proceed in it.


Prof. Mendelejeff, in his Royal Institution lecture, found an analogy between the unseen world of chemical changes and the visible world of the heavenly bodies. Our atoms, he said, form distinct portions of an invisible world, as planets, satellites, and comets form distinct portions of the astronomer's universe; "our atoms may therefore be compared to the solar system, or to the systems of double or of single stars; for example, ammonia may be represented in the simplest manner by supposing the sun nitrogen, surrounded by its planets of hydrogen, and common salt may be looked upon as a double star formed of sodium and chlorine. Besides, now that the indestructibility of the elements has been acknowledged, chemical changes can not otherwise be explained than as changes of motion; and the production by chemical reactions of galvanic currents, of light, of heat, of pressure, or of steam-power, demonstrates visibly that the processes of chemical reaction are inevitably connected with enormous though unseen displacements, originating in the movements of atoms in molecules."
  1. Our Cats and all about Them. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.