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7 July 2021

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. 

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My Cat, the Judge 
BBC Radio 4

[see also: Why the right loves ancient Rome]

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