Cats are psychopaths. So why do so many of us keep them as pets?

“Cats kill mice to send us a grisly message: You next”

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One of my favourite videos on the internet concerns the difference between cats and dogs. One entitled “Dog Teaches Baby”, shows a puppy hesitating at the top of some stairs, whining in frustration, its tail thrashing, while an older dog ahead of it patiently demonstrates how to descend. The puppy needs a lot of convincing, but that’s OK: the older dog is happy to wait. The scene then switches to “Cat Teaches Baby” – and you can imagine the rest, can’t you? Perched on the edge of a hole, a kitten faces a similar quandary while an older cat looks on. “What do I do now?” the innocent kitten appears to ask, at which the cat reaches out a helping paw, and then – with lightning quickness – knocks the kitten into the void, with a hilarious crash.

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Enjoying cat videos online is a global phenomenon. There are over two million cat videos on YouTube, and there are an estimated three cats to every dog on the planet. But I do wonder sometimes whether by laughing and cooing over cats, we are missing something. If you take the known characteristics of cats and think of them in human terms – loner personality; lacking empathy; expressionless; given to sudden outbursts of disproportionate violence – it’s pretty obvious you are describing a psychopath. But for some reason, when it’s cats, we think it’s funny. There’s a Gary Larson cartoon that shows a cat and dog looking out of a window at the scene of their owner having an accident with a ladder and a tree. “Oh no, he’s in trouble!” thinks the dog. “Oh no, I don’t know how to operate the can opener!” thinks the cat.

For 20 years I lived with two cats, Buster and Paddy. And I admit it, I did find humour in their indifference to me, always reserving the right to scratch my face off. I wrote about the heartlessness of those beautiful animals and never held it against them. But my next two cats, Bill and Daisy, were something else. They were black and large-eyed, and completely soundless. Not a purr; not a miaow; nothing. They just sat together at the top of the stairs and stared down at me. It was very unnerving. I kept the sinister Bill and Daisy for two years before deciding (in self-defence) that maybe I was a dog person after all. After writing two novels that feature Evil Talking Cats, I’m now pretty convinced that the way I account for cat behaviours is completely right.

Basically, in olden times, cats were bigger and stronger, and could kill us. Everything about cats makes sense once you have absorbed this simple fact. Now that their powers have been diminished by time and domestication, cats are a) still trying to kill us, and b) seriously annoyed that they can’t. So, for example, why do cats trample in our laps? Because, in the good old days, their favourite means of murdering us was to jump onto us, hypnotise us with their purrs, and then sever the femoral artery at the top of the leg. Once you know this, more benign explanations for this vestigial cat activity seem hopelessly namby-pamby. 

Or take the other great mystery of why cats bring home lifeless, half-eaten prey, and drop it at our feet. Desmond Morris said in his seminal book Catwatching that cats were treating us as kittens when they did this, encouraging us by example to go out likewise and hunt. The brilliant animal behaviour expert John Bradshaw in his more recent book Cat Sense (2013) also defends this gruesome ritual by explaining that until relatively recently, hunting was what humans wanted cats to do so they think they are pleasing us. But I believe they are both wrong. Denied their old ability to kill human beings, cats kill mice and birds simply to keep in practice, and also to send us a grisly, unignorable message: “You next.” Unbelievably, this is a message that we still choose not to understand.

Of course there are many blameless cats around who don’t know this stuff about themselves. They have no idea that, done correctly, purring can incapacitate humans (it can also bring down buildings, but that’s another story). But out there in the wider world, I would suggest that there are Evil Talking Cats who do know. They see us laughing at sites called “Cats Who Look Like Hitler” and it makes them despise our stupidity even more. Will we never take the hint? The evil of cats hides itself in plain sight, day by day: they lash out at us, and we blame ourselves; they trample in our laps and we merely say, “I wonder why Tibbles does this.” They knock kittens into holes and we laugh at it on the internet. They bring us corpses and it still doesn’t register. But one day our eyes will open. “But we knew this all along!” we will marvel. “How could we have been so blind?”

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The Lunar Cats is available from the RT Bookshop for £8.55 (plus £1.50 p&p)