The eldest of our two cats, Cheyne, is coming up to nearly 8 years old. She’s my first real pet other than a goldfish I had when I was 10, and is a beautiful blonde brown tortoiseshell. Around my wife and me she is loving, calm, playful and affectionate – with a little torti sassiness thrown in for good measure. But, outside of the house, it would seem that Cheyne leads a slightly different life.
Over the course of the last 8 years we’ve had 3 different neighbours complain about Cheyne. Nothing serious of course, just reports that Cheyne had apparently been bullying their own cats. We thought there must have been a mistake; our cat’s not like that! But how can anyone honestly know? After all, when your cat ventures outside, you’re trusting that A) it’s got half a bag of common sense enough to avoid get injured and B) that they’ll play nicely with the other cats. But of course you have zero control of this.
But is this really any surprise to us or our neighbours?
One neighbour of ours in particular got very funny with us when Cheyne started using his freshly tilled earth in his front garden as her personal toilet. “Your cat keeps defecating on my petunias” he said like I had some sort of control over her.
Surely this is a ridiculous statement to make? A cat by its very nature is a free spirit and ,whilst categorized as a domesticated animal, cats retain a lot of the qualities of their ancestors: untamed, primal and instinctual.
So bearing this in mind – does this mean that our cat has a split personality? It’s a debate I’ve seen cropping up online time after time – after all, it kind of makes sense given that the traits being described to us don’t seem to marry up with how we view her.
I’m not so sure though – I suspect what’s happening is that our cats have learned how best to act around us in order to get stroked and be fed. Over the years we have most likely affirmed this behaviour unknowingly through tone of voice and reaction.
The fact that we’re not present to see how the cat acts elsewhere doesn’t mean that it leads 2 lives.
So, as much as my wife and I wouldn’t want to admit it, maybe what’s actually happening is the cat’s survival instincts are kicking in, even inside our home. There is no question that cats are extremely intelligent and resourceful creatures and it is likely that the way they act at home is just another technique they employ to get what they want. But this line of thought makes me feel so used.
I think there is a bigger realisation that we need to make as cat owners – and one that not only answers the split personality debate, but will ultimately give us a better understanding of our beloved companions. We need to accept that our relationship with our cats is mutually beneficial. We get to enjoy their company, and we get to stroke them. In return we give them food and shelter. At its core this is what the cat understands and it’s an arrangement that they are happy to honour. As far as what happens outside of the home – well, just like us – it’s their business – and they won’t be told otherwise.
To close, I think that the one thing the split personality debate overlooks and where the argument becomes too clinical – is the recognition of the personal relationship we have with our cats. The mutually beneficial relationship exists – but just as with human friends or people we share space with, over time we become used to one another, and in some cases develop strong feelings of attachment with certain individuals.
I can vouch for the attachment aspect. I love our cats, actual full on love. They’re a part of our family.
And I’m pretty sure the cats feel the same way. The beneficial arrangement may be at the core of our relationship, but the cats definitely exhibit signs of happiness and contentment – whether it’s being greeted with loud meows when we pick them up from the cattery after a holiday (or a simple greeting by jumping on the car when we get home) our cats know who we are, feel comfortable & safe around us – and therefore share more of themselves with us than with strangers or neighbours.
Split personalities in cats? I can see why some people might have that view. But when you look closer – they’re really not that different from us. We all act differently in different social and professional situations – we adapt our mannerisms, our voice and dress accordingly – yet this is considered normal. Are cats really doing anything different?