Tim Dowling: don’t be fooled, cats are actually pretty stupid | Life and style


It’s easy to think of cats as being more intelligent than dogs, because whenever people come round, cats go upstairs and sleep until the guests have gone away, instead of hanging around in a doomed bid to ingratiate themselves. As a general social philosophy, that makes a lot of sense to me.

But cats are actually pretty stupid – their approach to problem-solving is only notable for bottomless persistence. As I sit at the kitchen table in the morning pretending to answer emails, I can hear the cat behind me, methodically clawing at the door of the cupboard where the cat food is kept.

I say: “Don’t be insane – I fed you half an hour ago.” But I think: I really don’t want to repaint that cupboard door. After about 10 minutes, I give in.

On Sunday night my wife and I are watching TV when the dog and the cat roll past the screen, end over end. When the cat first arrived as a kitten in October, the dog was deeply wary, but now that they’re about the same size, they play together like a dog and a dog, or a cat and a cat. Whatever it is, it’s not natural.

The cat leaps onto the dog’s back. The dog spins round a few times, until the cat lets go and slides across the floor and under the coffee table. The dog sits and looks up at my wife.

“You don’t know where you’re going tomorrow,” my wife says to the dog. “But you’re not going to like it.”

“Where is it?” I say.

“The dog groomer,” she says. I look down at the dog, which at this point resembles a puff of dirty smoke from an unswept chimney. You sort of have to guess where its eyes are.

“Long overdue,” I say.

I’ve never been to the dog grooming parlor, so I don’t know what the dog hates about it. I only know that if I try to walk the dog past its doors, the dog will insist on crossing the street. But I’ve also clipped the dog myself a few times, so I know it’s a job worth paying someone else to do.

The next day while the dog is at its appointment, I sit with my laptop in the kitchen, waiting for the driving rain to stop before I cross the garden to my office shed. Behind me the cat is sitting on its hind legs, working on the cupboard door with both paws, like a boxer hitting a speed bag.

“I can’t feed you three times in the same morning,” I say. “Imagine how weak that would make me look.” Ten minutes later, I give in.

The rain slows enough for me to return to my office without getting soaked. Eventually the sun comes out, and I open the shed door. When I hear a commotion coming from the kitchen, I get up and walk over.

The dog is standing in the middle of the kitchen, freshly shorn, having regained its former outlines. The cat is by the garden door, back archived. The middle one is laughing.

“What’s going on?” I say.

“He’s scared,” says the middle one. “He thinks it’s a different dog.”

The dog takes a step toward the cat, and the cat runs out the door through my legs, across the garden and up the back wall, disappearing into the overhanging foliage.

“That really is stupid,” I say. The middle one goes into the garden. The dog, traumatized and now spurned, looks up at me.

“I’m sorry your friend hates you,” I say. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”

The dog stands, then sits, then stands, then whines.

“I mean, I think you look nice,” I say. A minute later the middle one comes back in with the cat in his arms, but as soon as the cat sees the dog, it wriggles free and runs off again. Even when the rain returns in the late afternoon, the cat does not.

Eventually the cat comes back to be fed for a fourth time, while the dog stands by watching, but as soon as its is empty the cat walks bowlly around the perimeter of the room, maximizing the distance between it and the dog, until it finally reaches the cat flap and disappears.

“How long is this gonna take?” I say.

“Dunno,” the middle one says.

This is where we’re at: the dog had a haircut, and now the cat lives in a tree. I know comparing the cognitive abilities of one species to another is probably a mistake, but I’m fairly certain that if I put glasses on the cat, the dog would still recognise it.

However, that thing about going upstairs to sleep when guests come round – I still think that’s immensely wise, and worth imitating. At least one of us has learned something.

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