The Courteous Cat

photo (30)Cats value courtesy. This statement will come as no surprise to those who love cats.  They are inherently courteous creatures.  Of course, cats have their own ideas about courtesy and occasionally those ideas are quite different from ours. But the differences are mostly surface, in the way that one culture’s ideas of courtesy can differ from another’s. The underlying value of consideration and respect demonstrated through good manners is the same.

What is a cat’s idea of courtesy?

Some of their notions do seem strange to us. My cat, Luna, was lucky enough to stay with her mama as a kitten for a full three months. I’m convinced that she was thoroughly drilled in good manners during that time. By feline standards she is exquisitely polite.

When she jumps on my lap and turns rearward, waving her tail in my face, I know that she is offering me her most enthusiastically courteous greeting. If I were gifted with a proper feline sense of smell, this would be my opportunity to monitor her physical and emotional well-being, the state of her grooming, and learn all the other volumes of information that another cat could glean about her from a quick sniff. While many humans find this behavior humorous or even offensive, I am always careful to acknowledge and thank her for her politeness before signaling with a gentle nudge that I would like her to move into another position. Her courtesy is in no way diminished by the fact that my human sense of smell is inadequate to the honor being shown me.

In any discussion of feline manners, a cat’s pride is a most important consideration, and much feline etiquette revolves around avoiding embarrassment and saving face — for self or others. (Think Japanese?)

One of the most brilliant observations of feline manners was articulated by Paul Gallico in his wonderful children’s book “The Abandoned.” It is the statement, “When in doubt, wash.”  Watch your cat sit down to groom in any moment of uncertainty, confusion or potential embarrassment and you will see this in action. Grooming, even a quick lick or two, offers both a distraction and a time out, a chance to regain one’s poise, redirect attention and reset the moment.  This naturally leads to another important, related, rule of cat etiquette: “don’t interrupt a cat’s grooming, especially the face-saving kind.”  Nothing could be more rude!

In our house, face saving etiquette often consists of giving everyone their space. My two cats are a year apart in age and have never been snuggle buddies. They played together in the early days when Luna was still smaller than Rune, but when she grew too large to believably play “prey” anymore, they opted for a carefully crafted illusion of distance. This doesn’t  necessarily involve physical distance.  It’s a polite fiction. They have courteously adopted the rule “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” to cover a multitude of situations, like sharing a small corner of the bed or even my lap. The trick is for each of them to face in a different direction. Even if their rear ends are touching, they don’t see it —  it’s not happening. If you’ve ever noticed your cat studiously ignoring you when you’ve just done something awkward or embarrassing (in the cat’s opinion) you can be assured that your cat is treating you most graciously.

Just as humans fail to appreciate the niceties of feline manners, many of the finer points of human etiquette are obviously lost on cats. Yet a cat will genuinely appreciate your efforts to show them respect and consideration.  The words “please” and “thank you” may not have much meaning to your cat but the fact that you are “asking nicely” and expressing appreciation will be understood and received far better than a rude command. I actually do use those magic words when I make requests of Rune or Luna because I explained to them long ago that they are are good manners to humans and I know they appreciate my attempts at politeness.

Other demonstrations of courtesy that cats will appreciate are:

  • proper greetings and leavetaking — do say hello to them when you come in, and let them know when you’re leaving;
  • acknowledge and pay attention to them when they try to engage you — even if it is only to say you are busy now, and will play later. Ignoring someone is never polite;
  • showing your gratitude and appreciation of and for them. No one wants to be taken for granted.

Most importantly, respect their pride and don’t mock or laugh at them even when they are unintentionally “funny.”  (Okay, sometimes you can’t help the laugh, but let them know that your laughter is an expression of your joy in them and not unkind derision.) In short, offer them much the same consideration you would show to the human members of your household.  They will reciprocate in their own ways and your relationship is sure to benefit. Courtesy is rarely wasted on a cat.

It’s also important to remember that cats are individuals as we are, and manners and standards of politeness vary greatly from one to another. One cat’s good manners may be rude by another’s standards, and there are cats — just like there are humans — who choose deliberate rudeness as a way of making a statement. You will know your own cat best, and careful observation will grant you insight into its intents and values.  Again, the basis of courtesy is consideration and respect. As you keep this in mind, and offer these to your cat, you will notice the ways in which your cat responds in kind as a naturally courteous cat.

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