Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
7 July 2021updated 13 Oct 2021 2:44pm

How do cats think?

“I have no idea how my cat’s mind works!” Suzi Ruffell exclaims in BBC Radio 4’s My Cat, the Judge. Can science help?   

By Rachel Cunliffe

Is my cat judging me? It’s something I’ve often wondered when working from home accompanied by my perennially indignant cat Clio, and it’s also the question the comedian Suzi Ruffell sets out to answer in My Cat, the Judge (6 July, 11am), under the direction of her kitty companion Velma. Ruffell and Velma have been spending a lot of time together in lockdown, and their relationship has changed. “I have no idea how my cat’s mind works!” Ruffell exclaims. Can science help?

Billed as a serious investigation into feline psychology, this is really just a chance to chat about cats: why we love them, and how they feel about us. Yes, there are smatterings of the scientific: from an expert in animal behaviour who explains how cat features (wide eyes, flat faces) resemble those of human babies and tap into our innate desire to provide care, to a professor of animal health who painstakingly reassures Ruffell that her cat isn’t necessarily stupid just because she failed a feline intelligence test. (I sympathise: my cat is so stupid she occasionally gets confused by her own paws.) But ultimately, this is a comedy podcast – complete with tangents about a cat who plays the piano on TikTok and the Texas lawyer who appeared before a judge on Zoom with his face displaying as a kitten. Evolutionary biology about how humans and cats came to live together is interspersed with owners raving about their troublesome pets.

[see also: What the cat knows]

The only real conclusion the show comes to is that a cat’s needs and desires are different from a human’s, and behaviour we might mistake for feline spite is actually a fair response to our very irritating human actions. (How would you react if somebody picked you up while you were sleeping?) The amount of affection we expect from our pets may also overwhelm their comfort level – as the editor of the book Decoding Your Cat tells Ruffell, too much stroking is “not socially acceptable for a well-educated cat”.

So while it’s unlikely our cats are judging our pandemic lifestyles, it could well be true that we’re putting too much emotional pressure on them to fill the void of social contact left by lockdown. And if they rule our lives with a “tiny iron paw”? That’s why we love them. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

My Cat, the Judge 
BBC Radio 4

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

[see also: Why the right loves ancient Rome]

Topics in this article:

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust