Heroic cats

Just in case you have not seen this viral YouTube video of the family cat saving a boy from a vicious dog attack, I have embedded it below. I think this kitty deserves a nice fresh fish for dinner…every day.

An article was posted today in NBCNews featuring the heroics of other house cats.

Here is one of my favorites:

Image of a clawless house cat named Jack that chased a bear up a tree. Image from NBC News: http://www.today.com/pets/good-kitty-these-6-hero-cats-saved-humans-they-loved-2D79677090

These brave felines must really believe they have 9 lives!!

You can check out the rest of these heroic kitties here.


  1. #1 G
    May 17, 2014

    I haven’t seen that video until tonight. Most interesting, a cat engaging in tribal protective behavior with a human. Some of the other stories on the linked site are similar in that way.

    The consensus explanation for tribal protective behavior by dogs is that dogs are pack animals to begin with, and they see their humans as members of their packs. But I’ve not heard anything to the effect that cats display pack behavior, and the general impression one gets is that they view us as commensals or something along those lines (mutually independent animals sharing living space). But here we have a few cases where they are displaying self-risking altruistic behavior that’s more characteristic of tribalism.

    Have any scientists in relevant fields weighed in on this yet?

    Also, any explanation of why the neighbor’s dog would have behaved as it did, seeking out and attacking the kid in an apparently deliberate manner?

    Here in the city we have a phrase for vicious dogs: “weaponized pooches.”

  2. #2 Obstreperous Applesauce
    May 17, 2014

    Saw a program on PBS a number of years ago about domestic cats. Apparently they will form prides, like lions, even when feral, and mothers are notoriously protective of their young. They can bond well with people, though the social signals are subtle enough that humans miss them. Recently it’s been speculated, humorously perhaps, that cats just see humans as big clumsy cats.

    Don’t know about the dog, but as a breed chows can be very nasty.

  3. #3 oldebabe
    May 17, 2014

    Don’t know, but that clip is worth seeing. It’s wonderful to see the cat – some do become territorial, apparently The dog must be a feral animal, and have a brain problem, i.e. rabid?

  4. #4 G
    May 17, 2014

    Re. Oldbabe @ 2:

    Territoriality: interesting explanation for the cats’ behavior. Now to find a way to turn these explanations into testable hypotheses. I’m inclined to think that dogs & cats are smart enough to know the difference between a controlled test situation (which they would likely interpret as “playing a game”) and a real emergency.

    In another article on the linked site, a cat woke up its sleeping human when there was a gas leak in the house that could have caused a fatal explosion: somehow the cat associated the smell of the gas with danger. That strikes me as a different mechanism than territoriality. The photo of the cat that chased a bear up a tree clearly implies territoriality: the bear was not an immediate threat to the cat’s humans, but it was certainly a trespasser.

    The dog who attacked the kid isn’t feral, it lives next door, and the surroundings visible in the video suggest an affluent suburb. Presumably the kid’s doctors made sure that appropriate tests were done and precautions taken against rabies. One thing’s for sure, that dog’s humans are going to get sued until they squeak.

  5. #5 jane
    May 18, 2014

    G – Cats aren’t pack animals, but they are social animals who care for and will often fight for those they love. Something or someone threatening a loved one on the cat’s own territory is particularly outrageous to the cat and most likely to be attacked. The only difference not being a pack animal makes is that a cat is not slavish enough to risk her life for an indifferent owner; you have to give love to get it.

    As for the cats who warn of gas leaks and such – they may be simply trying to warn loved ones of danger, or they may have the idea that a human they trust can do something to fix a perceived problem. Our cat (a serious daddy’s girl) once woke my husband up in the middle of the night and led him into the kitchen to point out, by staring at it, a large wood roach that was up on the wall out of her reach. Clearly, she had the on-the-spot insight that he could do something about the offending roach if he was made aware of it. After that I told her if the house was ever on fire, she’d darn well better wake us up.

  6. #6 G
    May 18, 2014

    Jane- I’m skeptical of the use of “slavish” as a descriptor for dog behavior, but your item about “threat to loved one on the cat’s own territory” is an interesting hypothesis, all the more so because it involves two factors. Thus we should expect to see an increased level of cat response behavior when both factors are involved.

    Though, I’m at a loss as to how to operationalize that for testing (which is surprising, as I’m usually pretty good at operationalizing variables for research on humans). Naturalistic observations, “in the wild”, are at risk of false negatives: how many threats or trouble-conditions do cats (and dogs) routinely _not_ bring to the attention of their humans, and how would we know?

    I’m inclined to think that cats & dogs have very sophisticated ways of understanding the social dynamics in their households, and I would hypothesize that this has largely to do with emotional communication. A cat or dog whose humans are “vigilant” is more likely to be “vigilant,” and one whose humans are “nonchalant” is more likely to be “nonchalant,” all of this via the cats & dogs modeling or socially assimilating via observation, the emotional states & responses of their humans.

    In the bigger picture, this gets at questions of nonhuman intelligence and interspecies communication, both of which are relevant to our attempts to detect and potentially communicate with intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe. Approaches to understanding cats, dogs, and other species with which we routinely interact, will be relevant to the day when our space telescopes pick up a signal.

  7. #7 jane
    May 19, 2014

    Okay, “slavish” reflects my own preference for cattitude over the behavior of dogs, who are so inherently inclined to fawn over their alphas that even if you are sure they deeply love you, you’re not sure they had much choice in the matter. Most dogs will jump through flaming hoops to try to please an indifferent master; treat a cat like furniture and she’ll return the favor. Thus I know that my cat’s constant solicitations to play chase or to cuddle reflect her voluntary affection for me as an individual. (Also, she doesn’t bark at passing strangers or poop on the neighbors’ lawns – just sayin’.)

    I would be inclined to hypothesize, on the other hand, that dogs are more likely than cats to go to their owners when they perceive a problem because they are so inclined to look to pack leaders for help and decision-making. Cats, even living in colonies, normally hunt as individuals, so their default assumption is likely to be that if they run into a problem, they’re on their own. The idea that “someone else could solve this for me” is, I suspect, one that requires much more insight for them.

    However, I’m not sure there’s a point in formal scientific testing of this kind of thing. We know enormously more about human behavior, and certainly about questions like “what does friendship mean and what kind of behaviors result from it?”, from spending our lives observing and interacting with humans than we do from reading scientific publications about white middle-class Anglophone college students tested in totally artificial and therefore “replicable” circumstances. I think the same is true for understanding the behavior of other species. So much more is known now about the capacities of the other great apes because people started observing what they actually do while living free in the wild rather than what they do when they’re raised in cages.

  8. #8 G
    May 20, 2014

    I have equal liking for both cats & dogs, and a hypothesis about the independent nature of cats. In the Middle Ages there was a pope who decreed that cats were “the Devil’s familiars,” and urged the faithful to go forth and slaughter cats, the more painfully “the better to torment Satan.” Minus cats, thereby plus rats, thereby plus fleas, thus the Plague. And along the way, natural selection by artificial means: the cats who were more dependent were more likely to have been killed off, and those who were more independent would have been more likely to avoid potentially hostile humans. The independence-minded cats lived to reproduce and tell the tale to their grandkitties.

    Yes we should study the behavior of humans and other animals in the naturalistic settings for the respective species. But that by itself isn’t sufficient. We also need hypothesis-testing under controlled conditions, otherwise we might fall prey to various anecdotal fallacies. Alternately we should accept that ghosts exist because many people report the experience of seeing ghosts.

    This isn’t hyperbole. Keyword search author name “Bem” and subject “precognition,” and read up. If the critiques of Bem’s research are applied to the social sciences as a whole, very little of the social sciences remains. On the other hand, if the standards of the social sciences are applied to Bem’s research, it clearly stands. Logical consistency requires applying the same standards to both.

    Where I stand on this is, naturalistic and anecdotal research are interesting and informative, but controlled experiments are what count for working from observation to hypothesis to supported theory. The reason we understand friendship among humans in any scientific sense, is that we have first-hand experience of “being human” from which to draw hypotheses for testing. We don’t have first-hand experience of “being cats and dogs,” so we’re missing a major piece of that puzzle. We observe them from the human side of the relationship with them.

    I’m not familiar with the literature on animal psychology, so I don’t know how good or not-good the methodologies are that are generally used. But it seems like an interesting challenge. And it certainly does have applications, for example in training both dogs and cats (to the extent that cats can be trained;-) to be able to alert their humans to danger, and protect their humans from attackers.

  9. #9 jane
    May 20, 2014

    Both types of learning (observation of voluntary behavior, and experiments involving behavior in artificial settings) are useful, but I wouldn’t describe either as “insufficient” in general; it depends upon what you want to know. We have generated an awful lot of scientific data and hypotheses from studies of isolated, caged animals that are irrelevant or totally false when applied to free-living social animals. If you observe an animal engaging in a particular behavior, you have adequate reason to say that you know the animal is capable of doing such-and-such.

    Indeed, you may not be able to correctly attribute the motivation for that activity. If that’s really an important question, controlled studies may be essential or impossible, depending on the details. I consider it reasonable to apply Ockham’s razor and believe that my cat purrs when petted and meeps when stepped on because she likes being petted and dislikes being stepped on. If testing this “rigorously” while avoiding “fallacies” would require shoving electrodes into her brain, as some are still doing to laboratory cats, I would consider it immoral to ask the question.

    I like your hypothesis about cats’ independence, but then you’d expect cats to be less independent in those non-Western regions where they were neither subjected to such horrific persecution nor made a regular part of the human dinner menu. They seem to me to have a similar degree of independence and dignity wherever I go, pathetic overbred house fauna excluded. Someone once commented that cats seemed to come in two distinct personality types, trusting or timid; the latter, if forced into the role of pet, may bond with one person but hide when others are around. It seems plausible that there are two basic survival strategies for a small cat hanging around near humans to eat their vermin (try to make nice in the hope that they will offer protection and shelter, or try to stay out of their grabbing range so they don’t kill you just for fun) and the two call for different personality types. Possibly you’d expect cats descended from European cats to be more often genetically inclined to skittishness? Lucky for us, there are still plenty of mellow cats like mine, who thinks everyone’s her buddy.

  10. #10 G
    May 21, 2014

    Interesting stuff!

    Agreed, observation of behavior is sufficient to say that a behavior is possible, but then at minimum we’d want to have repeated observations to be sure of what we’re seeing. One observation isn’t enough since mis-interpretation is a known problem in all fields.

    Rigorous testing shouldn’t require electrodes in brains or other potentially painful means of measurement. Broad-spectrum analysis of vocalizations is one possible route: all that takes is a quiet setting and microphones in the room. Another would be to design sensors that can read any degree of brain activity (as well as heart rate, distribution of temperature in the body, etc.) from a distance, in an environment that’s free of electromagnetic noise, and then invite cats & their humans to come in and play.

    Here we’re up against the issue raised by “skeptics,” that human interpretations of other animals’ behaviors are the result of anthropomorphizing. As with psi research, the goal should be to meet reasonable criticism but reject the kind of nitpicking that’s clearly ideologically-motivated. The ideological motivation re. other animal behavior is the idea that animals are pure mechanism without consciousness or subjective qualia of any meaningful kind. This goes all the way back to the Middle Ages if not before, and is an embedded prejudice that remains to this day.

    Excellent point about cat independence & temperament. It would be interesting to compare cat temperament in Europe vs. areas where cats were not subjected to adverse selection pressures from humans. Then comes the question of how much of the cat behavior in each region is a result of genetic selection vs. the cultural variables of humans in these regions.

    Your point about “two temperaments” translates to testable hypotheses, and it should be possible to get at them via survey research with well-designed surveys. “For each of the following behaviors, make a mark each time you observe your cat doing this during the next month.” The behaviors of “hunt vermin” and “hide” would be mixed into the list.

    Anecdotally, two cats who live with a close friend exhibit roughly similar behavior: one of them tends to be social with random humans who drop in, the other tends to hide from random humans until the humans become familiar, and then comes out gradually to interact with them.

    Lastly, here’s an interesting cat behavior for you:

    Years ago a different close friend & his cat (cat A, a black Burmese, which breed is noted for being particularly smart) were living with me. One day Cat A brought home another cat (cat B) who was had an infected cut on one foot and was dirty and likely was abandoned. Cat A made it clear to my friend that Cat B was going to stay. Cat A then proceeded to nurse Cat B back to health and train Cat B in the household norms, and Cat B became a member of the household. My friend was indifferent to Cat B throughout this situation, but Cat A persisted in maintaining his friendship with Cat B. I’ve never heard of cats picking up unknown strays like this before, much less cleaning their injuries and feeding them etc. until they are healed.

  11. #11 jane
    May 23, 2014

    :-) I’ve seen a few similar stories; in one of them the rescued cat was somewhat mentally inferior to the rescuer and it appeared rather like the cat had a pet cat. I’ve also read a book by a guy who was devoted to protection of feral cats and rescue of strays, whose female collie loved to help him rescue needy cats and “spoke cat” well enough that many of them socialized with her as freely if she were a cat.

    You could definitely try to quantify cats’ responses to strange visitors, and see if you got anything like a double-peak graph out of it. Somehow I don’t see anyone putting a lot of money and time into it, though.

    The Western elite idea that animals are mechanisms (shepherds and dogboys have always known better) dates back at least to the Roman era. It’s repeated by a couple of the Roman Stoics, including my usual favorite, Epictetus. (So much for rationality arriving at pure truth.) I speculate that when you live in a society that brutally exploits animals, not just in intensive absentee-owner agriculture and exotic culinary practices but in “circuses” where you are entertained by forcing living creatures to fight to the death, you have a powerful motivation to claim they aren’t capable of feeling the tortures being inflicted on them. This nonsense, like Berkeley, can be adequately refuted by stepping on your cat’s toe.

  12. #12 Deborah
    May 23, 2014

    I had a cat once chase a fox off my property (we lived in the woods) with exactly the same attitude as the cat who saved the boy. So it might be protective . . . or just territorial.