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Bruce the cat kicking back (left) and waiting for his seven-year-old guardian (right) (Photos: Supplied, design by Tina Tiller)
Bruce the cat kicking back (left) and waiting for his seven-year-old guardian (right) (Photos: Supplied, design by Tina Tiller)

SocietyNovember 27, 2022

Does my cat really love me?

Bruce the cat kicking back (left) and waiting for his seven-year-old guardian (right) (Photos: Supplied, design by Tina Tiller)
Bruce the cat kicking back (left) and waiting for his seven-year-old guardian (right) (Photos: Supplied, design by Tina Tiller)

Emily Writes’ cat is loved by the whole household. That’s normal. What’s harder to understand is that he really seems to love them back.

This story was first published on the author’s newsletter, Emily Writes Weekly.

I’ve had cats my entire life. In my childhood there was Monty who ran away and who I kept calling for every night for months despite the fact that my dad knew he’d been run over but he just didn’t want to tell me. There was Milo who was run over in our driveway just two weeks after I got him. There was Rosie and Daisy who both lived quite long lives but were very boring. There was Marmite who was adored but was rehomed when we moved.

As an adult I’ve had a much better run with cats. There have been just three. Susie Q was found by the river in a bag. Having grown up on James Herriot books I thought love was all I needed to turn a feral cat into a loved family member. How wrong I was. She hissed and scratched me and never came inside. We tried to catch her at least a dozen times to desex her but each time she left my husband and me bleeding and nursing our wounds. She eventually disappeared but not before leaving us with six kittens.

They were all tabby except one. The little ginger was the runt of the litter and was quickly adopted by our aging fox terrier Otis. He dragged it into his bed by the fire and would not part with it – so the other five went to the SPCA and the ginger was named Borro.

Borro RIP (Photo: Supplied)

We loved Borro and we had him for 16 years. He was adored. But we knew fairly well that he would sacrifice us for a bowl of Whiskers surf and turf biscuits. It’s hard to admit, but I know it’s true.

In his final years he showed a lot of love for Eddie, our eldest. And in his final goodbye, I really felt like he was saying to us he loved us, and he was ready to go.

He had not particularly liked our kids. He had certainly not even tolerated our youngest, who equally kept his distance.

When we decided to get another cat, it was really to help Eddie with his grief over Borro’s death. And I’ve always had cats. It was just a given that I’d have another cat.

And so we got Bruce, who has proven to be the strangest cat I’ve ever known. My youngest is obsessed with him. He loves him more than anything in the world and strangely… Bruce seems to love Ham back.

Ham and Bruce take a nap (Photo: Supplied)

My dear friend Dr Helen Beattie is the director of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa, a veterinarian, an animal welfare expert, and formerly Aoteroa’s first chief veterinary officer. Hanging out at my house, planning advocacy work, I decided to ask her a question that’s been on my mind since we brought Bruce home.

“What do you think is Bruce’s deal?” I asked her.

She laughed. “I have wondered. I think he’s kind of a cat-dog right? A cat that acts like a dog…We tend to think animals are all the same, but they really have a spectrum of behaviours. He could just be just a super laid back dude who is very tolerant. We have humans like that, yet we tend to think animals don’t have as many different personalities and behaviours as humans.”

I asked her how cats show their love. “Staying? Not leaving?” she laughed. “Cats are tricky. They’re such a different kettle of fish to other companion animals. Mostly they’re not like dogs, who slobber, and lick, and wag and show us they’re pretty chuffed we’re home or we’re in their lives. With cats, there’s certainly breed differences with behaviours from Ragdolls and Bengals, and then there’s your partly tamed stray. We expect different behaviours from all of them. Like humans, animals express love or affection – if we view it that way, as love and affection – in a lot of different ways. There are touchy-feely humans and animals, and the aloof variety too. The spectrum of behaviours is enormous.”

There are potentially three reasons for Bruce’s weird behaviour of exceedingly rare tolerance for his seven-year-old guardian:

  1. He’s just laid back and doesn’t mind being wrenched from his sleep constantly to be dragged from room to room by a child carrying an iPad with the Titanic soundtrack blaring at deafening volumes.
  2. He’s had damage to his brain as a kitten.
  3. He actually loves my child and recognises that he is neurodivergent and needs a companion.

In terms of my first theory, Dr Beattie is on board. I explain how Bruce sits in the same place every day, waiting for Ham to get home from school. I don’t understand why he doesn’t make himself scarce instead, given he’ll be swooped up and dragged around for the rest of the day.

“Some animals do seem to have an uncanny ability, a sense of time. But they cannot tell the time. They’ll wait at the door, yes. The question is ‘why do they do that?’ and also ‘how do they do that?’ The why is probably simply because some animals like their space and some like to be right in the middle of it – just like humans. Bruce is probably on the edges of the spectrum of behaviours of a cat because most cats aren’t tolerant. I mean, we don’t actually know if he derives pleasure from it or if he’s just tolerant. Certainly, he doesn’t leave, nor avoid [Ham].”

The second theory is a possible one too. Dr Beattie says something I’ve wondered too, but never said out loud in case I hurt Bruce’s feelings.

“Maybe he’s just dim. Sometimes dim cats make the best pets. On the assumption that animals are like humans, their intellect will vary – Bruce is somewhere on the IQ or possibly EQ spectrum.”

Real love (Photo: Supplied)

The third theory is the hardest to make sense of. We all want our pets to love us. And indeed some studies have shown dogs can catch our yawns, experience an increase in cortisol [stress] levels when they hear a baby crying – just as humans do – and respond to the emotional tone of our voices. And looking into a dog’s eyes releases oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone”.

There are many times I think Bruce must know that Ham is different. I certainly have always ascribed meaning to most things in my life.

Dr Beattie doesn’t know. “I don’t think science has all the answers – and sometimes as a scientist I think, well, the world works in mysterious ways, and it’d be arrogant to assume science always knew best. So who knows? What we do know is that Bruceiful and Ham have a special thing. Embrace that, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Our deep love for the animals we share our lives with is at the root of our quest to understand what they’re thinking and our desire to make them happy.

This is the part that’s important, Dr Beattie says.

“I loved my cat Mangu. I still love her and she died a year ago. The warm, furry, slightly bony body brought with her enormous love – for me, and especially my daughter. I think I’m a pretty pragmatic person but I still get sad thinking about my cat. The human-animal bond is really special, even when it’s not a Ham-Bruceiful-bond! Humans’ and animals’ nature, and how we feel about the world, and engage with each other, is very complex.

“I think sometimes we don’t think animals, particularly companion animals, have that complexity. But they do. They have deep inner lives. They have personalities and experiences that exist beyond their relationship to us as their guardians. They have their own needs and wants, and quirky personalities. I think we spend too much time having them fit in with our lives and society, rather than asking what they really want. How could we make them really satisfied?”

Maybe the question we should be asking is more about how we can make sure our pets know we love them, rather than worrying about whether they love us back.

This story was first published on the author’s newsletter, Emily Writes Weekly.

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