What I've learned from cats
Tony Buffington, a veterinarian and professor, reflects on decades of research and relationships with cats.
I’ve learned a lot from cats, but cat mastery has taken me a long time. I’m honestly not sure I’m there yet, or ever will be. I grew up with cats, and cows, horses and dogs, on an Angus cattle ranch in the central valley of California during the 1950s. At that time, the words “cat” and “veterinarian” were never used in the same sentence.
I went to veterinary and graduate school at the University of California, Davis, working in a laboratory that was defining the nutrient requirements of cats during the 1970s and 80s. My graduate research investigated a cat disease called “Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS),” which was a urinary bladder problem thought to be caused by a bad diet. Despite working with nearly 1,000 cats there for 10 years, I still didn’t “get” them.
It was only after I came to Ohio State as an assistant professor and clinical scientist in 1987 that I started to understand cats. At the time, we saw lots of cats who had FUS but no nutritional problems; there was something else. By chance, in 1992 I found an NIH request for proposals for animal models of a disease of humans called interstitial cystitis. I had never heard of this disease, but it sounded a lot like FUS. We applied, received funding, and I’ve spent the rest of my career learning that most cases of FUS result from an adverse early life experience that sensitizes the central nervous system to threat. We also found that in a safe, stimulating and non-threatening environment, these cats could get better, and even thrive. We are now trying to see how this knowledge might apply to humans with interstitial cystitis and related disorders.
What I learned along the way was how adverse events early in life, compounded by threatening environments, can make animals (and people) sick. I also learned that cats are a little different from other familiar mammals, like dogs and people. Cats are different in at least three ways: First, they have a more independent social structure than most other mammals do; second, they are both a predator and a prey species; and third, they live in three dimensions – they need to climb. Their independence means that they can’t submit to visual, vocal or physical threats like most other social species do; not because they don’t want to, but because their species never developed these communication skills. The other way they are different is that they are both predator (which everyone knows) and prey; their primary predators being larger carnivores (like dogs) and primates (like people) – a fact that hardly anyone knows. So when cats are kept indoors with other cats (competitors), dogs and people (predators), we risk creating a situation where they are “living with the enemy.”
I also learned that we can easily create indoor environments that cats can thrive in – environments that can include dogs and people. And while cats can’t respond to force, they can learn perfectly well when the negative reinforcement comes from the environment and the positive reinforcement comes from us. For example, if we don’t want them to climb on our couch, we make the couch aversive, provide an irresistible climbing structure nearby, and praise them effusively for “choosing” to use it.
So what I’ve really learned from cats is that we don’t need to use force or punishment to create learning; not with cats, not with dogs, not with each other, and not with our children. I think that is a lesson cats can teach us all.