Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s something to learn from cats. Photo from PxHere

Gerry Turcotte: Scratching the surface of cat psychology

By 
  • June 13, 2020

I have been plagued by cats almost my entire adult life. (OK, maybe I like them just a little.) Dogs, I feel I understand. They’re reasonably straightforward. You know when they’re happy, when they’re guilty of chewing your favourite shoe and when they’re sulking.

Cats, on the other hand, were invented by Freud.

They mess with your mind. They “say” one thing when they mean another. They toy with you the way they toy with a defenceless mouse. And now that we are trapped in our homes together during this pandemic, it’s a wonder we — or they — haven’t rubbed the other species out!

Among my pet peeves (see what I did there?) is their ability to be completely invisible and then magically appear beneath your feet as you’re negotiating the stairs in the dark. Or if you go into a room and shut the door they are suddenly there scratching to be let in, even though they were nowhere to be seen a moment before. Alternatively, if you let them into the room, they are immediately scratching and meowing to be let out, especially if you’ve just stepped into the shower.

As I tried to handwrite this column on the kitchen counter I found I had more fluff in my face than at a political rally. And when I moved to the computer I was amazed that my cat knew immediately how not only to leap onto the keyboard but also to have her butt hit the delete key all in the same movement.

I have always considered myself to be remarkably intuitive so I instinctively knew that I was probably not the only person in the world with these concerns. So I went to the Internet. There I found a flood of stories about weird cat behaviour, so many in fact that it proved that there was nothing odd about this: it’s normal catness!

Among my favourite posts, though at times somewhat creepy, were about cats who lick their masters’ armpits while they sleep, who have learned to turn on the gas stove (confirming my belief that cats are murderous) and a whole bunch of comments about cats either loving or hating particular songs and the creative ways they have of expressing this.

One of the strangest was the writer who said their cat hated the French national anthem and would attack anyone who sang it in the home. (I am trying to figure out what household has occasion repeatedly and randomly to sing La Marseillaise, but that’s just me.)

Cat haters love to point out that there are no references to them in the Bible, while some point desperately to Baruch (6:21) to show that there is at least one. Others, more determined, argue that the hundreds of references to lions and leopards invoke felines in another form.

My favourite is a piece of humourous writing that purports to be a missing section of Genesis wherein the Lord gives Adam a dog to teach him loyalty, but is eventually forced to give him a cat to teach him humility. “When Adam looked into the cat’s eyes he was reminded of his own powerlessness. The cat couldn’t care less.”

I know this will seem like an extraordinary leap, but one day when I was trying to understand my cat’s behaviour, I had a small epiphany, prompted in part by this harmless joke. I wondered, suddenly, if we’re not the same with God.

When things are good at home and the food bowl is full, our cat is content to ignore us, taking all of this plenty for granted, as though I had no role at all in her quality of life. When things are good, I might as well not exist.

When things go wrong, however, my cat is in my face, angrily telling me that I’ve neglected her or that I should be doing more, and making clear that I am entirely to blame for her misfortune.

If something frightens her, she burrows under my arm for comfort, taking my strength and role for granted. She can love with an intensity that can seem supernatural and then just as quickly vanish, seemingly forgetting that I was ever there or might need her in return.

Isn’t this exactly what we often do with God? Take for granted, blame or accept His grace as a right that is owed to us? Or, alternatively, we desperately reach out to Him as though He is a lifeboat who is only to be called on when the storms are bad. No interest, though, when it’s all smooth sailing.

So perhaps, in the end, there’s no sense in pussyfooting around this. I may just have to accept that, like Adam, I have something to learn from my infuriating furry friend. There, the cat’s out of the bag.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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