Caturday felid: an experiment with my late cat

February 16, 2013 • 6:12 am

This is Teddy, my last cat: a beloved white tom who arrived unceremoniously at my old digs by walking through the catflap about 15 years ago. He was of indeterminate age when he arrived, and had clearly lived through several Chicago winters outdoors—a remarkable achievement. It is cold here!

Teddy was snow white, but was in fact yellow and black when he arrived, having obviously spent a lot of time lurking under cars. It took several baths and nearly a year to get the oil out of his fur and discern his true color.  After shots and neutering, and a short period of acclimation, he became a very sweet pet.  And he never went outdoors again, obviously completely traumatized by his years in the Chicago streets.

Teddy  copy

Teddy was so sweet and docile that I could carry him to the vet (a 20-minute walk) in my arms. Actually, the walk often took longer, as many people would stop me on the street to admire and pet him. At the vet’s, he’d sit patiently in my lap while waiting to be called. He would never flinch or show the least distress, even when the needle went in: he was the most sanguine of cats and I loved him dearly.

Sadly, Teddy was FIV-positive and I had to watch him carefully, taking special care of his teeth and gums, which could become infected. I had him about five years, and the FIV eventually did him in: he died about nine years ago of lymphoma.

He preferred to drink water from a cup, and not just any cup, but a ceramic mug I kept by the bed:


But on to the experiment I did with Teddy, an observational study whose results I’ll reveal tomorrow.

It all stemmed from an observation I made every night when I came home from work. I live on the eleventh floor of a high-rise building, and take the elevator up to my crib. Teddy would always be waiting inside my door when I arrived, and when he heard the elevator stop on the floor, he would meow plaintively from behind the door. I would open the door and Teddy would rush into the hall, rubbing against my legs and demanding fusses. He would then precede me into my place.

I noticed that when Teddy was out in the hall, his tail was lowered to the horizontal position, but when he was inside his tail would be proudly elevated.  And I had heard—I’m not sure if this is true, but I think it is—that cats who are wary or distressed lower their tails, but raise them when happy or content.

Obviously, sometime during the transition from the hallway into the secure confines of my apartment, Teddy’s tail would go vertical.  And that raised a question: at what point during the transit from hallway to apartment would he raise his tail?

I had two hypotheses.

a. He raised his tail when his head first came through the doorway, indicating that his brain perceived that he was safe, and therefore he felt more secure.

b. He raised his tail only when his entire body was inside the doorway, indicating that he had a sense of when his whole body was safe.

The results of this experiment, involving only observation (though many repeated observations), proved unequivocal. I will leave it to readers to guess what they were, and will reveal them tomorrow.

67 thoughts on “Caturday felid: an experiment with my late cat

    1. I’d incline (see what I did there?) to this position too. Cats generally have very good sense of body position compared to most humans ; Homo sapiens troglodytensis being a possible counterexample. (Us cavers don’t just think that we’re different!)
      I’m moderately surprised at a cat making his way to the 11th floor of a high-rise building. That suggests that … well, I’m not sure what it suggests. Another feeder in the building? A non-trivial history of searching high-rises? Or perhaps he’d got in by accident, got shut in, and then found himself trapped and in a feline 2sticky situation.
      Ah. Cat flap on the door. Previous occupants, by implication. So, high-rise cats are neither uncommon nor banned.

      1. Careful, brother!

        Jerry wrote: “…who arrived unceremoniously at my old digs by walking through the catflap about 15 years ago.”

        Thus the question now becomes: was Jerry’s old crib in a high-rise building?

        (BTW I enjoy your anecdote-laden posts immensely, Inspector Gravel!)

        1. The answer. When Teddy arrived, I lived in another building, which was three stories tall, had six apts. (of which I owed two–the second and third floor, connected by an interior spiral staircase), and the cat door was on the third floor on the balcony, which cats could reach by climbing up two flights of wooden stairs at the rear of the building.

          Several cats got adopted by entering that catflap, and it was also breached by a family of raccoons–mother and babies–whom I found in my bedroom one night! So cute.

          1. OMG! Raccooonz!
            How did you get rid of them?!

            There’s a giant one that’s squatting in the feral cat shelter I erected. It leaves the biggest turds on my neighbour’s rooftops! So I can expect baby raccoons, maybe.

            I used to have whole families come to visit in one backyard, years ago. In the gloaming, I’d get this strange feeling that I was being watched, and sure enough when I looked up, there would be a whole family traipsing in single file, across my backyard!

          2. Ah, an entirely different mental image now.
            Yeah, we have a lot of those buildings with access stairs out the back. Typically built onto the hillside, so that the frontage is 3/4/5 stories tall, but the rear is effectively one story shorter, with a trench cut to keep the (wet) ground away from the rear wall.

  1. I’m going to guess “whole body,” as I’ve always thought of whole body awareness as one of a cat’s most distinctive qualities. Unlike people, whose heads often seem to forget that their feet exist, to tragicomic effect.

          1. Cavers, however, seem to share another quality with kittehs, a fondness for crawing into confined places. You don’t happen to sleep in a large, brown paper bag, do you gravelinspector?

            1. You don’t happen to sleep in a large, brown paper bag, do you gravelinspector?

              Not any more, but for many years in various shared apartments I’d routinely doss down in one of my several mountaineering sleeping bags. The longest-lived one (which the wife only forced me to throw out a couple of years ago after nearly 30 years) would routinely be pilfered by my niece as a child, who called it “the big green worm”.
              And it’s perfectly appropriate behaviour for when one wakes up with ice on the inside of the windows. I’m still getting used to this concept of “central heating”, having had access to it for less than half of my life.

  2. This is why we need the scientific method. It’s reasonable to guess either way. Teddy must have perceptual errors and quite possibly could misjudge front-end safety from back-end safety. However, a feline that gives away their position early doesn’t get to eat, or is vulnerable to a predator. So it must be answer B.

  3. Teddyyyy… What a lovely story. My eyes teared up, Dr.C.

    I too was inclined to guess the ‘wholistic’ approach. But I think it’s ‘A’, based on a possible instinctual response to territorial scent markings from his front paws or cheeks (or urine!), left at the threshold.

  4. At the time of this reply I will be the first person to suggest the tail comes up the moment his head crosses threshhold.
    Possible (entirely speculative) reasons:

    -signal to others (offspring) that safety has been achieved…so follow me (as Jerry dutifully does in the unnaural setting).
    -signal to predators that safety has been achieved…give up the chase.
    -sudden movement of tail confuses/distracts pursuers at last moment
    -erection of tail inhibits predator from grabbing the trailing appendage at the last moment.
    -upright tail impacts and rattles the underbrush at entrance to escape hatch further discombobulating a pursuing predator.

  5. Lovely kitteh and a heartwarming story.

    By the way, I don’t think that Jerry needs to reveal the result of his experiment. By tomorrow we will have enough replies to the post that the readers can arrive at the truth by themselves through the scientific method of communal discernment.

    1. I have no idea what the true answer is, but I’m betting on the “tail” option based on the notion that cats are aware of their entire body and not subject to the ostrich-head-in-sand form of self deception. Amirite?

  6. I believe the cat flap was at Jerry’s old digs, fifteen year ago, while the experiment took place at the current digs, the flap-free 11th floor apartment. I am a bit saddened that his “last” cat was Teddy, nine years gone. Sounds like another unceremonious arrival is in order, by a cat who can push elevator buttons.

  7. I have a data point for Texas armadillos: when I saw my first one after moving to Austin, I tried to catch it to take a closer look. It ran fast, heading for its hole. But when its head got into the hole, it stopped!!!!!!! So I grabbed its tail. But it had the last laugh, because its feet were so strong it pulled itself into the hole anyway as I lost my grip.

    Probably cats are much smarter than armadillos, so I vote for “whole body”.

  8. Astute observers of cats, such as the artist Charles R. Knight, have noted long ago that they put their tails straight up when approaching their food, in anticipation of being fed.
    Were you in the habit of putting out food for your cat soon after you arrived at your apartment?
    Apparently, this behavior of “tail up” when they’re about to eat holds not only for housecoats, but for tigers, leopards, and other big cats as well.

  9. I’ll leave the tail question to others. I am more intrigued by Teddy’s docility and whether it could be associated with his being FIV-positive. Has this ever been noted?

    1. Normsky, the stray who adopted us 3 years ago, is FIV positive. Whilst not as docile as Jerry’s cat – he is far too twitchy – he is far more malleable than any of the four cats my parents had.

      It is also possible to play fight with him without needing to take a trip to A&E afterwards, something I have never encountered before with a full grown cat.

  10. Okay, I’ll go out on a limb here and guess choice A.

    In my experience, tail-raising has a variety of meanings and purposes, most of which makes me believe that Teddy would raise his tail as soon as he saw the open door and started through it .

    –As already mentioned by someone above, cats who feel they are in the lead automatically raise their tails. Back when I had three cats, every day after work we’d have a kitty parade to the mailbox where I’d pick up my mail. The lead cat would always have his/her tail raised for the rest of us to follow, even if he/she wasn’t feeling completely relaxed. In Teddy’s case, I’d imagine he was always first through the door and would raise his tail for Jerry to follow as soon as he started through the door.

    –Cats raise their tails as a friendly social signal when greeting a human or cat friend, often well in advance of actually reaching the friend. I’m going to speculate that just seeing the friendly interior of his and Jerry’s shared home territory would prompt the same response in Teddy.

    –Cats also raise their tails in anticipation of getting something good. If it is REALLY good, you can get tail quivering going on. The something good could be a nice petting session, their favorite food, or catnip. But in any case, they raise it in anticipation of the good thing happening. (See and hear the catnip container being shaken–tail goes up. Receive the catnip–tail goes down as serious scarfing commences.) So again, I’d vote A.

  11. You know, this has the potential to be an interesting variation on the mirror test. Though, as others have pointed out, there could be something other than Teddy’s proximity to the threshold that he was cueing off of.

    Assuming it was the threshold, I’ll go with the whole-body option. Not only do cats demonstrate superb body awareness, Baihu actually passed the mirror test….



  12. I don’t know the answer, but I do have a question…

    You are outside your apartment in the corridor

    You open the door inwards

    Teddy pops out into the corridor to greet you, mark your legs & get his ears scratched

    You don’t say what his tail position is as he exits, but I assume he lowers it AFTER he rubs against your legs & while you fuss him?
    Is that correct?

    If that is correct then I’m guessing he raises his flag after the scratching finishes & the behaviour MIGHT be his way of inviting a scratch rather than defensive

  13. What a great story. Look forward to reading about the results. Love that he only drank out of a ceramic mug. Handsome fella too.

  14. Beautiful cat, Jerry. Sorry he was with you for only a few years.
    You say – “—– when he heard the elevator stop on the floor, he would mew plaintively from behind the door.”
    With 11+ floors I am sure he would not have been mewing every time the elevator stopped at floor 11. Could you hear him whilst you were still inside the elevator after it had stopped but before the door opened? Once the door opened he would probably smell you; otherwise there’s something here to ponder. Since you are employed as a professor at a university I would not expect you to keep 9.00 – 5.00 hours so time of arrival is not likely to be of relevance.
    Any thoughts?

    1. There are only two apartments per floor, and I do keep fairly regular hours, working(usually) between 6 am and 5 pm. So I’d usually arrive home at 5:15 or so, giving him a time cue.

      I have no idea whether he meowed when my across-the-hall neighbors came up in the elevator.

      1. Yes, I guess it’s the time cue. It often is or footfall or even engine noise from quite a distance. There are undoubtedly some unexplained mysteries in connection with cat / dog cognition but I doubt if yours had been one of these.

        1. Baihu’s ability to discern between delivery vans stopping here to make a delivery as opposed to those stopping next door or across the street to make a delivery as opposed to the school bus dropping off kids across the street as opposed to cars making a U-turn in front of my house as opposed to cars actually stopping here especially as opposed to cars that have stopped here before…

          …is truly amazing. His reaction is perfectly tailored to each, and generally happens well before I’m aware of what’s going on.

          I suppose, in theory, there may be more intelligent cats out there. But I doubt it.



  15. A tail-raising tale, indeed!

    Assuming cats have no sixth sense (which they may well have), whatever information Teddy processed to trigger his tail-raise had to come from his senses. I’m guessing it was a combination of eyes, ears, and nose, and only when Teddy had ventured far enough into Jerry’s crib to satisfy the “safety” threshold for all these senses did the tail go up.

    Classic WAG (Wild Ass Guess), mind you.

  16. Aww. What a beautiful story. Teddy was a handsome cat and I’m sure he was forever grateful for a loving person and an indoor life after being on the streets of Chicago. He knew where to go for a safe haven.

    When my kitties are outdoors, their tails are horizontal until they spot me and I speak to them. Up pops the tail! The sense of safety may also have something to do with the presence of their person.

  17. Aw. Aw. Aw. Aw. Wait. One more. Aw.

    I love the pics of Teddy, what a good kitteh! I can’t believe you haven’t had a cat in that many years. Just have your WEIT commenters cat-sit when you’re out of town, problem solved!

  18. I have often noticed that, when a cat is outside and walking down the path at the side of the house, leading to an open space (e.g. the back yard), s/he will never walk past the end of the path without stopping to put its head round the corner and check out the open space before advancing into it. Now, while this is by no means the same situation that Jerry describes, it does encourage me to plump for the minority option, A.

  19. I’m going to go with choice A, on the hypothesis that the “safety” cue is primarily auditory rather than visual. So as soon as Teddy’s head was within the apartment’s acoustic space, the tail went up.

    There could also be olfactory cues at the threshold, as someone else suggested.

    My own cat, as a kitten, would often “hide” by sticking her head and forequarters under a blanket, with (apparently) no awareness that her back half hanging out gave her away.

    1. My own cat, as a kitten, would often “hide” by sticking her head and forequarters under a blanket, with (apparently) no awareness that her back half hanging out gave her away.

      I think kittens of most species lack the same situational awareness of adults. If I had to bet, today she hides her hindquarters as well as she hides her forequarters. Perhaps even better — she can defend her forequarters much better, and it’s her forequarters where all her senses are.


    2. I’m going to hedge a bit and point out that even if the timing turns out to be consistent with B, that still doesn’t establish that “he had a sense of when his whole body was safe.” There could be some auditory or olfactory queue that ramps up to prominence roughly one cat-length inside the door. So the head could still be the trigger, but the inside/outside boundary Teddy perceives may not be congruent with the one you perceive.

  20. Lovely, lovely Teddy. I remember you said my Darwin reminded you of Teddy when I entered him in the Kitteh contest. Our first cat was Wootton. He preceded our kids and was the on-the-spot observer through the early years of our marriage. When we lost him, it was a full 10 years before we got ourselves another cat. Hence Darwin, with the all white livery and outsize proportions. Apropos, last night Darwin voluntarily climbed up to lie down on my lap. First time ever! He likes me, see.

    A number of correspondents wrote of a cat’s whole body awareness – and I concur. Case in point, watching Darwin walking outside after recent snowfall. He strides away from me leaving footprints in the snow, but heres the thing, his back feet step *precisely* into the prints left by his front feet. I didn’t know cats did that until I watched him do it.

    I think Teddy raised his tail when his whole body was in the apartment.

  21. What a lovely story, I read it surrounded by my (all rescued) cats.
    I’m guessing A, Teddy raised his tail when his head went through the door.

  22. Well it depends if it’s about security or being in front on the way through the door. But I’m going with option A, I think the cat wanted Jerry to follow him through the door and put his tail up to indicate this.

    Looks like he was a lovely kitteh, I had a cat die of lymphoma, it was very sad.

  23. Perhaps Teddy was running his own experiment, to see how closely you paid attention to his movements. I suspect he was pleased.

  24. We lost a cat to FIV a number of years ago too. I’m not sure what the first sign was but at some point something seemed off and we took him to the vet but there was nothing that could be done. It couldn’t have been long after that that we found him collapsed in the rain. We brought him inside and dried him off but I don’t think he lasted more than a day after that. His sisters lasted about another 10 years or so and his mother is still alive (and around 18 years old!).

  25. Your comment about having to keep an eye on Teddy’s teeth and gums is, in fact, a universal precaution for cat owners to take. Bad teeth are a major cause of ill health in old cats, traceable to build up of tartar, particularly on the outside of the upper molars.

    I’ve always made a point of checking my cats’ teeth from time to time, and if there is significant tartar built up, popping it off with my fingernail. Cats I raised from kittenhood didn’t like this, but tolerated it. OTOH, those I’ve taken in as adults put up a fight, so in their cAse it’s always been a matter of a little this week, a little more next week, until the job is finally done. The trick is to release the cat as soon as you pop off a chunk of tartar and leave the rest for another day.

    When my present two came to me 3½ years ago, I was warned that they needed to have their teeth cleaned. And, indeed, when I checked their teeth after arrival (they hated having me do nothing more pull the lip back to take a look), they had quite heavy tartar deposits. But after three months those were gone. I was spared the expense of teeth cleaning and they were spared the trauma of a vet visit, total anesthesia (even if short acting), and the risks that entails.

    1. There are cat treats designed to double as teeth cleaners. Max likes the Greenies salmon flavored ones and demands his treats as soon as I get up early in the morning. No more than a few daily are supposed to work. I suppose I’ll have to let my vet judge their effectiveness. The price for a cat teeth cleaning job is $500, while my dentist bills my insurance company less than $100 to clean my own teeth.

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