Scores of books, and now no doubt web pages, have been written about the ownership of cats, the taxonomy of cats and even the psychology of cats, by people who know far more about the cat (Felix domesticus) than I ever will. This page is therefore just a monograph of our life with our two cats, plus the sometimes surprising interaction between them and our other animals, including reptiles and rodents.
I confess that for some years, since we started keeping reptiles and rodents, I was adamantly against us having a cat in the house. My main problem was that of how it would react to our other pets, and vice-versa, particularly towards its traditional protagonists the rodents. My wife, however, secretly longed for a cat, as she confessed to me later: she had already had one, who due to changed circumstances had ended up living very comfortably with her mother and more or less adopted her, despite my mother-in-law's annoyance with furniture scratching and other feline behaviour around the house. Tara actually had several happy years there before being put to sleep at a good age following illness.
They say cats adopt people, and it seems to have been true in Thomas' case. He was the largest of a litter of kittens in the shop, so large in fact that it was easy to mistake him for the mother by the time he was old enough to be sold. For some reason he seemed to develop a bond with my wife, who would refer to him as "Thomas" and make a fuss of him every week she went in and saw that he still had not been sold. Actually the adoption thing might have been my wife excusing her attachment to the young male, but later I noticed that cats do seem to bond quite strongly with a person (see below).
What finally clinched it, though, was an outbreak of house mice in our house. They seem to have come in via a bag of hay from where they gnawed their way out and caused us great annoyance, leaving little droppings and gnawing at the carpet. Even when you saw one it was just too fast to catch, scuttling off at unbelievable speed to safe haven. I tried to get the savannah monitors to chase them down, but apart from the fear I had that they might consume them and thus inadvertently take parasites on board, Widget and Digit showed little inclination to chase after such nimble warm-blooded prey, which surprised me somewhat. Reluctantly I agreed that Fiona could bring Thomas home. Within a week or so he had caught all the mice, laying them dead on the carpet or tossing them from paw to paw with the abandon of the warm-blooded carnivore. From that point on his position as resident pest controller was assured.
Thomas, in fact, continued to grow bigger, until eventually he really became a very large adult, heavy but not fat. From quite early on he liked to go outdoors whenever the weather was not too inclement, and it wasn't long before he started extending his territory, a tendency among most animals. One night I was working late in the study when I heard a noise outside. I pulled back the curtain to see a huge tom go leaping over our wire fence, followed shortly after by Thomas in full pursuit. His size and pugnaciousness left me in little doubt that he was prime contender for top cat of the neighbourhood.
Unfortunately it was this expansionist behaviour that got him badly injured. One night in the late spring of 1999 my wife and I saw him outside the front of the house, in the road (admittedly a cul-de-sac). My wife wanted to call him back in, but he seemed keen to roam so I let him be. It turned out to be one of those decisions you live to regret for a long time. The next time we had a phone call from a nearby veterinary clinic informing us that Tom had been brought in by a driver, having been found badly injured by the side of the main road. His rear leg and opposite rear hip were both damaged and he could not walk. Emergency surgery followed by an operation or two later were necessary to save his walking. We realised it was going to cost money, and in fact it cost us probably over five hundred pounds at the time. But my wife and I both believe that once you take an animal into your home, you are committed to it, so we paid up, wishing at the same time that we'd thought to take out veterinary insurance. Apart from the short-term hospitalisation and trauma of his accident, we also had to keep him confined in a largeish cage in the bathroom to prevent him from damaging his leg and hip while they healed up over a period of weeks. At the same time, incidentally, we decided to have him neutered, since it is believed that neutered males tend to wander less, being less fired up by testerone.
Eventually, after much commitment to the discipline of keeping an extrovert cat confined for his own good and some skilful and dedicated work from our mammal vets, Thomas was allowed to come out of the cage. We did it gradually and still confined him at night. One thing I noticed was how handy it is to have cats defecate outdoors: the stench of cat faeces and urine can sometimes be foul, even in a large and well-provided litter tray. Of all the animal faeces I have smelt since we started keeping animals, I have to say that the cats' are easily the worst. In the New Year of 2000 we allowed him the complete run of the house, and once the clocks went forward again we allowed him to use the cat flap again. As if to vindicate our decision, Thomas managed to keep out of trouble and a few weeks later began bringing in dead mice again.
Unfortunately this recovery of feline zeal sometimes backfires. Most people, myself included, are quite happy for cats to eliminate mice and other wild rodents (especially if they are found within our homes) but are not too pleased with birds or frogs being stalked and killed. One day Tom obviously thought he was onto a winner because he brought in one dead bird which he laid in front of his female companion Kissa (see below). My wife was then horrified to see him bring in another one, a small bluetit. Detective work on her part led her to discover that in fact the predatory tom had come across a nest of bluetits in our neighbours' garden. These bluetits had been coming for some years, and while our neighbours understand that the cat was performing naturally according to its nature, they were understandably upset, especially as we found only one injured survivor, the rest of the birds having either fled or been killed. The plain fact is that cats are killers of other wildlife, although there are exceptions (again, see below). This seems to occur mainly outdoors - due to their reasonable intelligence, they seem to quickly learn the difference between captive animals held in high regard by their human keepers and unwanted human commensals (such as mice in the pantry). It still annoys me with the benefit of having kept so many different animals that people talk about snakes as if they were the most evil predators on the planet and yet fail to realise that cats are in fact equally lethal - more so, in fact, since they have a warm-blooded system to keep fed, whereas reptiles need far fewer meals. The other "problem" with cats (I hesitate to call it that, since it is part of a cat's nature) is that some of them, sometimes, do seem to enjoy killing for the sake of the hunt rather than for food. It seems to be ritualised in the way they will bring their victim in (sometimes alive) and lay it at the feet of another, usually a human but sometimes a fellow cat.
To give Thomas his credit, he is no mere cowardly stalker of small creatures. One morning we heard some thumping chasing sounds and a shrill squeak. My wife turfed me out of bed to see what was going on, and on entering the study I was astonished to see a fully-grown grey squirrel cowering in the corner behind the computer table. There followed about ten minutes of bluff and counter-bluff with Tom trying to get at the squirrel, which I am sure in most cases would have seen a normal-sized cat off. In the end, fearing the study would be wrecked or my cables gnawed, I grabbed the squirrel by the tip of its tail (squirrel bites are quite nasty), hung it out of the window and released it onto the roof of the outhouse, whence it scampered off down the fence. I don't know who was more relieved.
It was a few months before my wife started thinking that Thomas might like a companion. At the time we were thinking about producing a few kittens for some friends, so we decided to purchase a female this time. Once again my wife chose, and this time she selected a smaller kitten who seemed quite lively, having the same "Felix"-type patterning as Thomas (black overall with white paws and the odd white stripe, plus the white "zipper" down the belly). Since we used to nickname Thomas koshka (Russian for cat), we decided simply to name the new arrival kissä (pronounced kis-sa, the "a" as in at), which is Finnish for cat.
Right from the start Kissä turned out to be quite different from Tom. Although she did the usual high-spirited kitten things (chase tail, chase toy bug, etc), she showed a strong inclination towards me, whereas Tom had always been devoted to my wife. This devotion to a single person is by no means uncommon in animals - parrots display this tendency very strongly unless they have another parrot for company - but it is interesting that the cats chose a person of the opposite sex. Whether this has any sexual basis I am not sure, but again male iguanas can come on quite strongly towards female humans during the breeding season. However the cats seem to confine their affections to the platonic ones of stroking, rubbing up and licking, and hinting strongly that they would like a fuss made of them.
The most obvious difference between the two cats, however, is their size. Even as an adult Kissä is significantly smaller and more delicate in appearance than Thomas, who looks enormous besides her. This does not prevent her from going up to him sometimes and quite unnecessarily biffing him on the snout with her paw, whereupon the inevitable occurs and he seizes her, grasps her around the neck and gives her the old "backpaw duffing", holding her captive while pummeling her with his rear paws. I never intervene unless it gets really bad, since really she asks for this sort of punishment. This usually precedes a half hour or so of the two cats chasing each other, trying to hide from each other, leaping out at each other and most noticeably thundering up and down the stairs as if enjoying the noise they make in doing so. Apart from Thomas, however, Kissä seems wary of taking on any other animals. One night she came out after dark with me and refused to come back to my calls, sitting quite unconcerned on the fence. Suddenly a huge pair of paws appeared, obviously those of another cat, and began swiping her, at which point she fled straight back indoors. This proved a salutary experience, and we did not let her out again until she had been spayed.
This brings me to the point of spaying, neutering and feline sex. Some people think it cruel and imagine that the cat must suffer both physiological and psychological pain (ie the pain of having testes removed or the emotional pain of not being able to have kittens). In fact the cats do not seem to suffer apart from obvious soreness for about 24 hours - Kissä in particular was very moody and disgruntled during this period. Since then she does not seem to have behaved any differently and still acts with Thomas as she did before, except that obviously she does not go into heat. It was noteworthy that after Thomas was neutered but before Kissä was spayed, her going into heat would still cause him to chase her and mate with her, even though obviously no sperm was produced. Apart from these times, however, they would chase each other up and down the stairs, try to hide and then pounce on each other, etc, behaviour that they still carry on now. Spaying and neutering is really also a socially responsible move unless you are seriously intent on breeding your cats, in which case you probably would not want to let them out into the neighbourhood for any old moggie anyway. The animal sanctuaries in the UK (and I suspect elsewhere in the West) are overflowing with unwanted cats and dogs, many of whom are kittens or puppies that just "happened". The fact is that cats are also incredibly fertile and could easily set off a chain of hundreds of descendants within a few years. Since there are no wild non-human predators to keep these numbers down, prevention is the only method.
Having said what I did about cats being killers, some of the following observations may surprise some readers:
Both our cats are very wary of rats. While there is no doubt about their lethality towards mice, they tend to give our rats, particularly the full-grown ones, a wide berth. At first they would sniff at their cages, particularly if the rats had been temporarily parked on the living room floor, but the rats show no fear of either cat, and in fact Xena, a large female, took a bite at Thomas' tail. Whether this was one of those life events that imprints itself on the psychology of an animal ever after I do not know, but after that he seemed very nervous towards her, shunning her if possible. Kissä still shows an interest in them, but one suspects this is because they have not yet bared their sharp incisors at her yet.
Lizards proved to be another interesting case. Early on Thomas had a salutary shock when he came into the study, curiosity as usual getting the better of him. At the time Widget, the largest of our two savannah monitors, was still alive, and both he and Digit were basking. As soon as Widget saw Thomas pressing his face up against the glass of the vivarium front to check out its occupants, he turned, drew a deep breath, puffed himself up and then charged up to the other side of the glass before letting out an angry hiss at the intruder. Thomas froze in astonishment for a moment and then fled the room as fast as he could. Territorial honour satisfied, Digit returned to normal and wandered back to bask. (I was convulsed with laughter). Later, even when both cats were adult size and Widget had sadly died, Digit seemed quite unbothered by either of them. He will sometimes come out of his tank for a walkabout in the study, and when he does he will simply push right past them, or even more remarkably keep on walking straight towards them as if they did not exist. When he does the latter both cats will usually take one or two startled steps nervously backwards, even if they thrust their heads towards the reptile as if seeing who dares to have such temerity. On another memorable occasion they were both dozing on the landing when Digit actually came out of the study for a look. Both felines kept their distance, even when he thrust his head under a shirt laying on the floor and promptly started to nap.
The biggest surprise, though, was that both cats have proved to be also wary of smaller lizards, even geckos. Uther is another example of this. Kissä is fascinated by the male Gerrhosaurus major, who is not as long as her and certainly less than a quarter of her weight and size, and she often stands on her hind legs to peer into the plated lizards' vivarium. As Uther is often right on the other side of the glass trying to peer out (he also likes his walks in the study), this makes an interesting picture. Yet early on, if the glass door was slightly open, he would push his snout out, whereupon she would back off slightly. If he kept going, dropped out onto the carpet and started walking around, she would certainly take a few steps backwards. If he skittered past her she would often follow him avidly, snout thrust straight forward close to his back, but I have never seen her try to hurt him. Neither seems unduly perturbed by the other unless one makes a sudden or unexpected movement that startles the other. More recently I came across them both in the usual vivarium position, each taking little exploratory licks at the other. Kissä even does this with Jemooga, our male Fat-Tailed Gecko, when I am feeding him. At first I was worried that she would try to pounce on him or that he would be terribly stressed, but in fact she just wants to scrutinise him as closely as possible and he does not seem overly bothered by her presence (although it's annoying when I am trying to get him to eat). Kissä has a similar response with Spike, our corn snake. It may be that English cats are unaccustomed to the somewhat different modes of behaviour and appearance of reptiles, just as most of their owners are.
Having said all of the above, I must add an important qualifier: from what I have heard from other cat owners, cats do chase lizards and snakes around the house, particularly in the tropics where such reptilian visitors are a normal part of life. For that reason I would never leave the cats unattended with any of the other animals in a position where they could get at them if they wanted to. It may be that cats can recognise in some way the difference between an uninvited wild animal and one with whom their mutual owner also has a domesticated relationship, but it is better not to take chances.
It is true that cats are clean in the sense that they groom themselves frequently. However, while I would not wish to belittle this, do not expect a cat to keep itself free of fleas this way, or not to pick up bacteria or other parasites, especially if it uses a litter tray, where it will spend some time trying to bury its faeces or urine. I always wash my hands after handling a cat, just as I do after handling one of our reptiles or rodents. At the very least you should do this before handling food or anything else that's going to go into your mouth, and this should be impressed upon children particularly. It's not an indictment of an animal, simply a fact of life.
While cats do not have the pack mentality of dogs, it is my belief that they do still need to know who is the "top cat" in their territory. At times you may find a cat staring right at you. In this case I always stare back, not aggressively (unless it's a bad cat!) but steadily, not averting my gaze in any way until the cat breaks off its own stare (usually after several seconds). This seems to be a sort of contest for ascendancy. Again, while one does not hear much about cat obedience, cats do seem to respond to a degree of subordination if it is exercised responsibly (ie not simply bawling at the animal every five minutes). A useful and safe training tool is a plant spray, available cheaply from most DIY stores or shops. If a cat will not respond to a repeated warning, eg to get down from off the top of a cage where they could stress the inhabitants, then a short but accurate squirt with water will produce the desired result - it is an old adage, but true, that domestic cats hate being made wet. If this is applied consistently they soon learn the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, and sometimes will stop misbehaving if their name is called in a warning tone. They even seem to develop a sense of right and wrong, or at least a conscience. Kissä and Thomas both used to love sneaking into Digit's spacious vivarium, particularly late in the day, to take advantage of the warm atmosphere in there. While Digit seems annoyed rather than stressed by this I felt it was undesirable to have them encroaching on their territory, and acted accordingly. Now, if I catch either of them in there, at the sight of me they come bounding out and shoot out of sight before I even open my mouth.
Cats are not always as easy as people think. They need feeding twice a day, they do require veterinary attention at at least some point during their lives, they don't always use the litter, especially for urinating, and they do scratch furniture and knock things over by jumping up. But they are quite relaxing creatures when they are not requiring attention. It is true that they are independent creatures - Thomas goes in and out through the flap as he pleases - but the happy corollary of this is that they can look after, and amuse, themselves. Like their larger and more predatory brethren in the wild, domestic cats also seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping, especially (so I have observed) during the day. Perhaps best of all, though, cats do usually display a need for affection, even if on a sporadic basis. Ours are actually quite loving and will curl up with my wife or me for a rubbing and tickling session, purring with pleasure and - highest accolade - returning the favour with a lick at the human's fingers. My wife in particular, who has a hard and responsible job in medicine, finds the companionship and affection of a cat very therapeutic.
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