Over the years there have been many books written on understanding what animal behaviour means, research which suggests that various animals are more intelligent than suspected, and variously successful attempts to teach animals to use sign language. Like all right-thinking people who share their home with a cat I fully believe that cats are intelligent. I also believe that they are less prone to deceitful behaviour than humans. However, their intelligence is less comprehensible than that of a child.

My mother came to visit yesterday so we went out for lunch at the excellent Cordial and Grace. The Sewing Parlour was booked out to a girl’s birthday party. For the most part they were not intrusive – apart from taking full advantage of the stair at each end of the Parlour to pass through the café area in bathroom convoys. However we did overhear a group of them talking about one of them having run out of thread, to which their suggested solution was suggest she call the supervisor’s name repeatedly to attract attention. This inspired my wife to enquire whether I was glad we had cats instead of children. I, of course, preferred cats but not on the grounds of communication skills.

I have read several books on cat psychology, which all at their core place the root of specific behaviour in the same place as in humans: a pattern of acts which is perceived as providing a benefit in specific circumstances. So understanding a cat is the same as understanding a human, with one critical difference: complex language. While understanding very young children might need the same technique as understanding animals, once they can talk they can begin to give insight into what they perceive.

Una Jasper Box
This is not the same box! My box was larger and contained a cushion and a toy!
(© Dave Higgins – BY NC SA)

As an example, sometimes Jasper flees when I approach and sometimes he comes marching forward to receive his tithe of appreciation. I can gather data and see that he is more likely to run if I approach to a certain distance rather than stopping and letting him come to me. However sometimes he will round the sofa and run because I am sitting on it and sometimes he will not run when I approach, despite being in the same posture on the same beanbag as the last time he ran. Were he a child I could ask why the circumstances are different. I might not get a perfect answer but I could find what the perceived difference between my approaches was.

Of course even before they have learnt to fully express their perceptions children are taught that certain thoughts should not be expressed so our understanding of humans might be better seen in the behaviour and not the explanation. However, whether actions do ultimately speak louder than words on a grand scale, potential conflict (whether social or physical) will often be on the borders between “just good enough” and “slightly too bad” where every whisper needs to be heard.

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