So, how smart are cats, really?
I probably talk too much about how smart cats are, but on the other hand, I found my black cat Billy’s peculiar habit baffling, in a sadly stupid way. It was a little depressing. Then, quirkily assisted by my wife, we learned something that reversed that bad impression.
About Our Black Cat Billy
Billy’s a sweet black cat, very emotional. He’s the only cat I’ve known who has no guile at all, no flattering habits, no emotional trickery.
“Billy’s exactly as he appears to be,” I’ve always told people, no pretenses.
It’s almost as if he never learned the standard cat manipulations, even living with George, a master of them.
No figure eights around your ankles at meal time or flirting for tummy rubs. Billy doesn’t do any of that. He never did. Instead, he looks you straight in the eye, and if you don’t get his message through a feline mind meld, he yells at you.
Frustrated with my dimwitted, slow responses, I believe he curses a lot in cat lingo. Of course, I can’t prove it. He has a huge vocabulary, some of it obviously not nice.
In a cobbled together cat rescue display outside a Wegmans Supermarket in Webster, New York, more than fifteen years ago, we found Billy up for adoption.
Waiting in a small cage with his sister, Buffy, his needy look was complimented by his tail floating in a water dish.
We picked Buffy because she more closely resembled our resident cat, but when they told me she was taken and asked, “Could you love Billy?” I said, “Sure,” instantly.
Who could say no to that little black ball of fur — with his long tail soaking in the water dish?
Fifteen short years after I brought him home, still tiny enough to hold in the palm of my hand, I learned how smart he is and, also, why he seems to believe my wife and I might be a little dense — you know, nice and helpful but not very bright.
Billy’s Longterm “Bad Habit”
Rescued from under a porch when he should still have been romping, competing with tiny brothers and sisters for Mom’s milk, he never got enough time with her and his litter mates to learn some important skills.
When he arrived, he didn’t know how to groom himself and smelled like it, but after obsessively watching our senior cat, George, he got the hang of it. He isn’t graceful ,but he’s thorough and clean-smelling in the gentle way cats have.
A second problem took longer to resolve. He seemed to know nothing about that wonderful cat appliance — the litter box.
The first time we placed little Billy in a litter box, he curled up for a nap, loving that soft, grainy surface.
Soon enough, though, he began staring at George when he used the box and figured out what else it was good for.
But something was still missing.
Billy used his litter box faithfully, but the problem was, he didn’t see the point in covering up after himself. This allowed odors to waft through our apartment as all hours of the day and — unforgivingly — at night.
What made even stranger was that, when he was finished, he scraped away like crazy — on the plastic sides of the box, not in the litter where it would be immensely useful.
A Human Solution for a Cat Issue
Most of the time, George or Sam, who joined us later, would got straight to the litter box after Billy and finish the job for him. George glared disapprovingly at him, but that didn’t change his practices.
Then, on a day that lives in infamy in our house, my wife decided to give Billy a tutorial on litter box behavior.
Standing by while he did what he had to do, she passed him as he exited and flipped litter properly over the you know what.
Billy’s look of horror at seeing her cover his fresh poop was classic. He thought she was completely nuts and was even, if she got the look on his face right, a little offended.
It seemed possible that he might ask to be returned to Wegmans.
It seemed that our smart cat wasn’t so smart. Not only did he not cover up after himself in the litter box, to the consternation of every other creature in our home, including the other cats, he frantically tried to scrape plastic like a maniac, never displacing the very litter he was standing on.
Lesson Learned: Billy’s the Smart One
Never one to give up on a challenge, my wife scoured the internet to look for others who experienced the same problem, hoping to learn from them. What she found, fifteen years down the road, was that Billy was not the problem.
What we failed to do was to think of it from a cat’s point of view — a smart cat’s point of view. All these years, while we, George and Sam were enduring the results of what we believed was Billy’s obtuseness, he saw consistent evidence of our insanity.
What my intrepid wife found was that, unless a cat is shown otherwise in training by its mother, covering up after themselves is exactly the wrong thing to do.
In the wild, evolution trained cats to mark territory with their strong, individual scents. Their instinct is to leave that marker right where they put it.
Billy, taken away from his mother too soon, was expertly performing the tasks nature prepared him to do, marking of his territory the natural way.
But what about all that scraping on the plastic?
Once you understand part one of our dilemma, part two is easy.
Smart cat that he is, Billy scrapes as he leaves the box to remove litter caught between his claws. And that comes with a bonus. He doesn’t track grains of litter around the place as much as his buddies do.
That learned and understanding how really smart my sweet little black ball of fur is, I’ve stuck with what I learned. That is, I try to understand the cat logic in what he and the other cats do.
I no longer wonder if they have a master plan to drive me over the edge.
Billy, with his enormous vocabulary, for example, employs a variety of cat calls — sometimes cat curses — to get our attention.
A common one is a sturdy “Awk,” after which he nods at his water dish. Time for a change. Safe clean water is critical to cats, and he can’t get his own.
One day, when I picked an inopportune time to meditate, Billy rudely alerted me with several two-syllable complaints.
Finally, my eyes popped open, and there he was, standing, perturbed, outside the community litter box. I didn’t expect him to use it in that condition, did I?
After I completed my assigned task, Billy pranced into the freshly scooped box and did what he intended to do. Fortunately, he’s extremely good-natured and doesn’t carry a grudge over any failure to do my chores promptly.
Understanding, we make adjustments for Billy now, respecting his proper cat conduct. That’s what families do, after all, because none are populated perfect fits.
And we try, with my limited insight, to see things from his unique point of view.
The more I do that, the more I understand what a really smart cat he is.
And how patient and forgiving he is with our human shortcomings.