The Science Behind Why Herding Cats is Like…Well…Herding Cats

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Trouble jumps into our basket for mittens wheneveer he knows he’s done something wrong.

Lady and Trouble have spent their entire lives with my children, who don’t care much for the few worldy goods they own. There were no couches that couldn’t be shredded or shelves of heirloom china. Renters (my former self included) don’t think twice about how perfectly a cat’s claws fit into screens–or how much they cost to replace. So “training” has been an ongoing struggle.

Before we allowed Lady outside, she clawed indiscriminately on leather, upholstery, and one antique cherry wood secretary. She would also look directly at us while knocking things to the floor, or hooking things with one claw to toss them. My house has been stripped bare of breakable things, just like the last time we had three-year-olds around.20150717_083046 Marking, so far, has been limited to claws and saliva (knock on wood, spit three times, throw salt over my shoulder). Now that the cats are both roaming freely, day and night, they seem more determined to scratch. This is why I found myself cross-legged on our deck this morning, patiently applying strips of tape to our screen door–sticky side out, a trick that has limited damage to the secretary.

To quote Caitlin, “Cats: helping disencumber humans of belongings for 5,300 years.”

Actually, humans and cats have hung out together for nearly 10,000 years, if not more. It’s no illusion they are difficult to train–some would say impossible. A great article from The Atlantic explains the reason “Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Cat” is that they’re still wild. Ten thousand years of treats and squirt guns and tongue clicks that have brought mighty Orcas to their metaphorical knees have failed to domesticate the domestic cat.

On the flip side, cats have shown an incredible knack for training us. Adult cats never mew to each other when left to their own devices; this is an adaptation developed only for human companions. In fact, over a lifetime, each cat develops a launguage that is unique and specific to their particular human.20150712_184204

It gets better.

Purring doesn’t exist in the wild either. It’s now known to be something cats save only for humans, and was flat-out called manipulative in one Washington Post article:

Purring….seems to be what behavioral ecologists refer to as a manipulative signal, conveying a general request: “Please settle down next to me.”

All this has me feeling proud of the training we have accomplished. By going against advice to feed the cats together and only feeding Trouble far from Lady, we’ve stopped him haunting her doorway and significantly cut down confrontations. For her part, Lady comes in every night for dinner. In fact, we’ve seen her bounding excitedly across several backyards when we call.

It seems as long as we keep the food coming for Trouble and open the door whenever Lady mews, peace reigns over our household.

So slowly, in spite of the science, we’ve–I mean they’ve–been trained fairly well.

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