Stories of empathic cats
February 9, 2015 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Here and elsewhere, I keep running into the sentiment that cats are adorable, fuzzy little psychopaths. They understand us but they don't care. They are self-absorbed. They only need us for food. They will gnaw on our corpses. That line of philosophy runs completely counter to my own experience with cats, three of whom were absolutely in love with me. I would like to read some positive articles, stories, etc about cats who defy the "fuzzy psychopath" stereotype.

Looking for any kind of links - articles, videos, etc. - to positive empathetic cat stories.
posted by quiet earth to Pets & Animals (41 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Babies "social reference" by checking out their parents' facial expressions and voice tones when they encounter a new or strange object or event in their environment — then base their own reactions on mom's or dad's. They look to their parents as they wonder: Is it OK to stay calm, or is it time to worry?

Animal behavior research shows that dogs do this, too. It's not surprising, given how closely dogs are attuned to us — as they have been for many millennia. New research posted this month on the website of the journal Animal Cognition shows that cats may participate in social referencing also.
posted by jaguar at 1:51 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

First of all, you forgot to mention that cats are also our evil alien overlords.

There is video of a cat saving a toddler from being mauled by a stray dog - is this what you are asking for?
posted by jbenben at 2:02 PM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Cat saves family from house fire.

"Seeing-eye cat" helps blind dog.

Is that the sort of thing you're looking for?
posted by mogget at 2:09 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Absolutely, great stuff. Keep it coming. I'm also interested in any articles that demonstrate empathy in cats, even in normal, less heroic cats. Science is welcome, of course, if it runs contrary to the "selfish cat" narrative.
posted by quiet earth at 2:29 PM on February 9, 2015

[If you contact me with an email address you will be able to buy a book about Cat behavior with the amazon token you won but didn't contact me about; - see your memail, its the little envelope next to your username at the top right of the screen.]
posted by adamvasco at 2:38 PM on February 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is just an anecdote, so I'm not sure if it's what you're looking for: My cousin had a gorgeous but somewhat highly strung cat (one time when I was visiting he bailed me up in the laundry, hissing and trying to scratch me!) Then, she had a daughter. When daughter was about 14 months old she discovered cats make a lovely vibration (purring), and that the best way to feel the full extent of this is to rest your ear on said cat. However, being a toddler she was not very good at waiting for such moments to arise, so she took to chasing the cat, crash-tackling him, and pinning him to the ground with her head. Not surprisingly, the cat was not best pleased by this, and took the first opportunity to escape, but to my knowledge he never retaliated against daughter. I was struck by this - it was so unlike his prior behaviour - and I can only conclude that there is some kind of social understanding in cats that imbues them with tolerance for small children.
posted by Cheese Monster at 2:45 PM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

We joke that my monster is an astral warrior because she has the magic power of waking you up from nightmares and staring you out of a anxiety attack.
posted by spunweb at 3:02 PM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Try this

Dr. Steve, earned his nickname by staying with me in my bed and sharing his healing purr with me the whole time I was laid up with my knee replacement. Has never slept with me again, and is actually been kind of a wild child since then.

You do realize that we do kid because we love the furry beasties and in our secret hearts we believe they love us, too, right?
posted by BlueHorse at 3:02 PM on February 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

When my sister's new male kitten mewed for attention and she didn't quickly respond to him, her older, female cat would gently bite her on the big toe until she took care of the kitten.

When my sister had a baby a few years later, the older female cat did the same thing to her when she didn't respond immediately to her human baby crying.
posted by homodachi at 3:18 PM on February 9, 2015 [15 favorites]

It's not exactly about empathic cats, but I thought this article in the NYT got to the core of how people who love cats interact with and understand them.

Whenever I felt embarrassed about factoring a house pet’s desires into major life decisions, some grown-up-sounding part of me told myself, it’s just a cat. It’s generally believed that animals lack what we call consciousness, although we can’t quite agree on what exactly this is, and how we can pretend to any certainty about what goes on in an animal’s head has never been made clear to me. To anyone who has spent time with an animal, the notion that they have no interior lives seems so counterintuitive, such an obdurate denial of the empathetically self-evident, as to be almost psychotic. I suspect that some of those same psychological mechanisms must have allowed people to rationalize owning other people.

Another part of me, perhaps more sentimental but also more truthful, had to acknowledge that the cat was undeniably another being in the world, experiencing her one chance at being alive, as I was. It always amused me to hit or elongate the word “you” in speaking to the cat, as in, “Yooouu would probably like that!” because it was funny — and funny often means disquieting and true — to remind myself that there really was another ego in the room with me, with her own likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies and exasperatingly wrongheaded notions about whose water is better. It did not seem to me like an insoluble epistemological mystery to divine what the cat would like when I woke up and saw her face two inches from mine and the Tentative Paw slowly withdrawing from my lip.
We don’t know what goes on inside an animal’s head; we may doubt whether they have anything we’d call consciousness, and we can’t know how much they understand or what their emotions feel like. I will never know what, if anything, the cat thought of me. But I can tell you this: A man who is in a room with a cat — whatever else we might say about that man — is not alone.

posted by you're a kitty! at 3:19 PM on February 9, 2015 [25 favorites]

Also, I had a cat that took in a too-young abandoned puppy and taught him to hunt (cat-style, he would pounce, he was awful at it) and brought him mice and would sleep curled up against him even when he grew to twice her size.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:20 PM on February 9, 2015 [11 favorites]

This may be slightly off track, but I think most of the idea that "cats are heartless, antisocial beasts who'd just as soon eat your cheeks as they would curl up on your lap" comes from misunderstanding cats. They're not primates. They're not dogs. They behave and react very, very differently from primates and dogs, and if we try to interpret their behavior through those lenses, we'll be confused and unhappy (and so will they).

The more I learn about cats and the better I understand why they do what they do, the better I'm able to appreciate them for who they are, and the better we seem to get along. I found the book Outwitting Cats very interesting; also the BBC programme Cat Watch 2014 (previously; sadly, the video links appear to be dead).
posted by Lexica at 3:40 PM on February 9, 2015 [12 favorites]

I took a national exam in a big city, planning to stay at a friends house (on the floor). After the big exam and celebrating, I got a migraine headache. I woke up in the night in terrible pain. And there was Rosie, one of my friends' 3 cats. Staring at me, by my face, blinking. She followed me as I made my way to the bathroom, where I sat on the floor when I wasn't throwing up. She followed me to the living room, where I laid on the floor trying to sleep. I eventually dozed. When I woke up, I was still in pain. Rosie was right there, sniffing my face. I remember asking "Rosie, are you God?" She nuzzled me. I went back to sleep until morning. My friends got up; Rosie was gone.

I told my friends about my night spent with the cat and they said "Rosie? Are your sure it was Rosie? The little cat? She hides from company."
posted by vitabellosi at 4:25 PM on February 9, 2015 [16 favorites]

A college friend died from a congenital heart defect. People gathered at his family home for a memorial. We were sitting in a circle in a garden, talking in turn. One woman, an old family friend, started sharing her memories of the boy who had just died, which shifted to stories about her own dead child. She was in great pain but couldn't stop talking. Nobody knew what to do.

Then the large white cat of the dead boy walked into the center of the circle, jumped up and knocked her ass over teakettle. Everyone laughed hysterically, including the suffering mother.

Good kitty.
posted by Scram at 4:51 PM on February 9, 2015 [8 favorites]

My kitty has definite "peacemaker" tendencies. Although he is not normally cuddly, if I am upset and raising my voice to my daughter or husband, he will come over to me and meow loudly and rub his head against me (which he never does to anyone else, or at any other time). I always think it is his way of saying "aww, c'mon mom, don't fight! Everyone should be happy and get along!"
posted by msbubbaclees at 5:36 PM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Do anecdotes count? My late beloved Stinky was a little diva who was known to charge hissing at people visiting. During my divorce, my ex kept the cats for a while and I was visiting overnight, sleeping on the couch. Of course, I felt awful all the time because it was a divorce; I woke up to find Stinky staring right at my face. She came up close and licked me once right on my cheek, then hopped away for mischeif elsewhere.

And on the horrible day I had to put her to sleep, I came home to Harry, who had never sat on a lap a day in his life. He came over, sat right in my lap and has been my cuddle buddy ever since . . . At least until I got the dog.
posted by mibo at 6:23 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

A cat calming a fussy baby with her paw.

A nursing home cat who can sense when patients are dying and curls up next to them until they pass.

Our cats are all extremely sociable. They want to be where we are--on our laps, behind us on a chair, on a nearby sofa. None of my cats could ever be described as "indifferent." Especially the furry little vibrating tumor currently flattened on my lap with her claws dug into my pantleg.

Honestly, I tend to mistrust people who express a dislike of cats. My theory is that the reason they don't like cats is that cats don't like them, and the cats are excellent judges of character. So far, I have yet to find evidence to the contrary.
posted by tully_monster at 7:11 PM on February 9, 2015 [10 favorites]

Cat adopts ducklings!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:43 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

(Also: Duck adopts kittens!)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:44 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

People always try to prove that cats are inherently sinister with the whole 'the cats will eat your body after you die but a dog will sit next to your corpse and starve to death' thing, but I think that just proves that cats are more perceptive than dogs. Perhaps the cat knows that their person is gone and the vessel on the floor is now simply meat. I'd rather my cat eat my corpse than starve to death because no one is around to feed him.

And he just jumped up on my lap as I typed that... sometimes he's TOO perceptive.

(Also he always comes to sit next to me when I'm upset and will either pat my face with his paw or lick the back of my hand. And he's generally not a super demonstrative cat... but he IS my best friend.)
posted by elsietheeel at 7:56 PM on February 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

We had a cat who was a cop and would break it up when our other two cats fought. (Although he had no such compunction about starting a fight.)

Regarding cats expressing affection, many cats happily yawn in greeting. Other cats will stop, drop and roll when you come home. Especially, for some reason, if they are outside. It's like they are used to seeing you in the house, so when they see you outside it's such a happy surprise that they just gotta roll.
posted by serena15221 at 7:58 PM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

When I had severe depression and anxiety a few years ago, I used to sit in the bathroom on the floor because there was less stimulation in there, books, papers, windows etc. My brown tabby would sit there with me for hours. He didn't sleep, meow (and he is a BIG meower), purr, ask for pets, he just sat there. It was a particularly cattish peacefulness. He was the only living creature in my life who wasn't trying to fix me, or convince me of the bright side of things, or constantly angry with me like everyone else in my life. He just sat there next to me for hours. I'll never forget that, although he has of course forgotten it. Luckily, he's also forgotten the illness he had a few years ago when we almost lost him, which nearly tore me apart.

I would have posted this earlier, but I had to stop him digging through the trash, dropping knives on the floor, and eating my spinach.

Such is cats.
posted by zutalors! at 8:00 PM on February 9, 2015 [22 favorites]

Just one story, of many I could tell. When I was 19 my cat and best friend since I was about 8 was getting very sick with old age and a tumor in his throat. He was dying and we knew we were going to have to put him to sleep in a matter of weeks or days. In the week before he died he took to sleeping in the corner of the bathroom next to my bedroom. I'm sure because he knew he was dying. I would sometimes go get him and put him on my bed because I missed him so much but he'd immediately go back. He never slept in my arms for more than a short period even before he was sick. But the night before he was scheduled to go to the vet, my last night with him, he stayed in bed with me, in my arms, for the whole night. It was our goodbye together. I think he knew.
posted by Blitz at 10:06 PM on February 9, 2015 [11 favorites]

This story about the lioness and the baby baboon shows how terrible and beautiful nature can be, all at once. She had just killed the poor little guy's mother, but then she saw him and something kicked in that made her want to take care of him. (SPOILER: He survived, rescued by a heroic baboon daddy.)

Somebody compared cats to autistic people, and (not to slight autistic people at all) I think there may be something to that. Cats clearly feel strong emotions. But they are easily over-stimulated and their preferred way of showing love is often to sit right beside you for hours, not making eye contact. No wonder cats and dogs have so much conflict. Their signal systems are so very different. To a cat, jumping around with your tail whipping wildly back and forth is basically saying, "I will kill you now!"

Some animal behaviorists would say that cats "gift" us with dead prey because they are trying to teach us to hunt. They see how we never catch any mice or birds, and feel sorry for us or something. But I've always doubted that one. If anything, I think cats are kind of awed by our magic food-providing powers and annoyed we don't share them more.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:34 PM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a story similar to Blitz. My cat was always more attached to my younger brother (although it was me who picked her when I was a kid), but a couple of weeks before she died, she suddenly started coming to my room at night and if I wouldn't let her in because she'd peed on me once (yeah...), she just slept in front of the door. Then, a couple of weeks later, she suddenly stopped eating and got generally worse until we had to put her down. The last night we had together, when she was really extremely weak already, I woke up to find her next to my bed instead of on the pillow where I had put her, and I carefully lifted her up so she could sleep next to me. She ended up crawling ever so slowly until she could lie on my feet, where she stayed all night. I miss my cat. :( Although she usually preferred to hang around my brother, she was always there when I was sad.

Her mother (we got her from a guy in the neighbourhood) must have sensed her own death as well, because shortly before she died, when my cat was still pretty young, she came over to our house, looked at us, looked at our kitty, and my mother swears that she was trying to say, "take care of my baby."
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:20 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

When my father passed away, the Tortie that I had curled up on my head. She knew. When my mom passed a few years later, my other cat did the same thing. With that being said, I make sure never to run out of cat food.
posted by SillyShepherd at 2:54 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Out of the two cats I sit, about two years ago the one developed a behavior, where, when the other cat (who is clingy and easily annoyed at once) would scratch or bite any human or even yell too angrily at us, she would come over and belt her one. She did that so reliably that the other cat in fact stopped being so much of a pain.

It was different from the cats beating each other up for fun. I don't know, she just takes the view that humans are meant to be spared. If she's fighting with her favorite toys you can stick your hand into the battle and reasonably expect to get away without a scratch.
posted by Ashenmote at 4:20 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

My daughter is seven and our cat Sophie still comes to her side when she cries, a thing that has been going on, pretty reliably, since her infancy.

When my daughter was old enough to comment on this, she said "It's like she's my little fur-mummy!"
posted by kmennie at 8:12 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know, she just takes the view that humans are meant to be spared. If she's fighting with her favorite toys you can stick your hand into the battle and reasonably expect to get away without a scratch.

My cats do that. They get into howling screeching swatting matches, fur flying everywhere, and I usually just reach into the fur blur and pick up the bigger one (tabby). He's never scratched at me even in confusion. No fighty play with the human, we LOVE the human. Fighting is for fur brothers 5% of the time, 95% of the time is cuddles.
posted by zutalors! at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

One more anecdote which I will try to explain without emotion: we once had two cats and I had to put one to sleep. The day of the event, I made sure the surviving cat remained indoors the entire time I went to the vet, came home, dug the grave in our back yard, and buried the deceased cat. I know the surviving was in the house the entire time because our nanny was watching him (along with our son, of course).

I let the surviving cat out about an hour later. He went and sat perfectly still by the grave the rest of the day, and went back to it repeatedly during the day for the next three weeks.

Also, after that very sad story, have some Breaking Cat News.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:20 AM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

My highly sociable female cat has decided to keep me company during my morning shaving and bath ritual. She's had this habit for over two years. My husband and I wake up at about 5:00 am, the cats have their meal right away, and we have coffee and internet in bed until about 7:00 am.

Usually, within a few minutes on either side of 7:00 am, the cat hops off her cushion on the living room sofa and walks down the hall to the bedroom door. When I see her in the doorway, I know it really is time to get up. Other days, I'll come across her on her pillow when I'm getting another cup of coffee and invite her to join me for "shower time," which she does.

The cat follows me around the bedroom while I select my clothes, always peering into the open closet door and sometimes jumping into drawers to knead on the clothing, then follows me into the bath. There she sits on the bathmat a few feet away from me while I shave, sometimes facing me, sometimes facing the door. Occasionally she'll look up at me and make one of those short cat chuffs.

As soon as I step into the shower and slide the door shut, she rotates to face the shower and sits there abstractedly about a foot away with her tail across her paws. I'd guess she always sits within a few inches of the same spot. Is she watching the water? Well, her head and eyes aren't following the stream. Is she soothed by the sound? You'd need to ask her. Grooving on the ozone? Maybe.

Anyone who knows cats knows they love routines. Having her as a shower buddy is a routine I enjoy and I assume the cat enjoys as well. She's not after water - there's plenty in her bowl and she doesn't lap from the tub - and the next meal is hours away. There's nothing in this for her that I can see beyond companionship unless it's cross-species mothering.
posted by ADave at 8:23 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

My old girl cat was such a bossy fusspot when one of us got sick that we referred to her as Nurse Nightingale. For example, if the gent was playing video games instead of having a sensible lie-down she would scold him good and proper and try to herd him in for a nap. She didn't knead biscuits on people very often, but always found the exact sore spot when you had a stomachache. Stomp stomp purr purr ow ow ow. She was like one of those brisk British hospital matrons who terrorized all the patients.

She was also extra cuddly and headbutty when one of us was sad. There are more examples, but it's getting dusty in here.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 12:37 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Our younger black cat likes to "help" with household projects. He'll sit next to the open dishwasher while I load it or sit on a chair supervising while I polish the dining room table, but his favorite pastime is following Dr. TM around the house while he fixes things. Most cats would startle and run away at the sound of a noisy power tool, but he'll just come as close as possible (safely) to investigate it and, when it's unplugged, play with it and rub up against it. The rest of the time he's just gazing up at my husband with adoration.

Our older black cat KNOWS when the Catbus (our car) is approaching. My husband was on the road for three weeks, and the day he was due back I was tracking him with Google Maps on my phone. Around the time he was inside the city limits, I was sitting in the library with the older one on my lap, and suddenly, he leapt off my lap and sat by the garage door listening, even though, according to Latitude, my husband was still half a mile away. Sure enough, three minutes later, the Catbus turned into the driveway. It was really, really weird.
posted by tully_monster at 12:57 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Echoing tully_monster, our cats recognize our footsteps. We live in a condo at the end of a long hallway which gets a lot of through traffic (you can enter at either end). When my partner or I are away for a few days, we notice that the cats start paying more attention to activity in the hall. But they don't get up, they just listen.

Until they bolt to the door and sit expectantly. Then I hear the key in the lock, and he's home! Yay! Cue meows and rolling around. They never do this if it's anyone else walking by or even arriving.

One of our cats will follow me around the house and the other comes if you snap your fingers. One will headbutt me and chirp in affection, the other always has to be sitting on or leaning on someone. They both close their eyes at me if I do it to them, as this is cat speak for love and trust and calm.

And then there's the other side of empathy. One is a complete terrorist when he wants to be fed. You like this paper? Bites off a corner of it. Looks at you like "yeah? What'cha gonna do?" Knocks one thing off the dresser. Eye contact. Another thing off the dresser. Waits. Here goes another one. Until you're sufficiently angry to just give in. Sometimes I wish he knew me less well!
posted by heatherann at 5:58 PM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

My boyfriend and I were looking to adopt a new cat a few months after our previous cat passed away. We had narrowed our choice down to two cats at a local shelter. When we went to meet them, we liked both of them but didn't feel any particular pull toward one or the other. While we were sitting on the couch in the cat room trying to decide, Chaplin plopped himself down in my boyfriend's lap and started nuzzling and licking us. He made it quite clear that he wasn't moving until we decided to adopt him. : ) (He hadn't even been on our radar - we had been looking at cats 5 years old and older and he was 2 and a half years old at the time.) He's extremely affectionate and friendly and has become very tightly bonded with Linus, our dog.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:31 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Our beloved white cat's favorite place was Dr. TM's lap. (And that was where he went to sleep forever, in the vet's office.) A few months later, we had an experience like SisterHaven's--went to visit a woman who fosters cats, she took us into a room in her basement with a rocking chair, Dr. TM sat down, and in strode big, black, beautiful Marlowe (before he was Marlowe, of course), leapt onto Dr. TM's lap, and that was that. As if he knew. "You need a lap cat? I'm your guy!" Now, all Dr. TM has to do after breakfast or supper is move his chair a little away from the table, make a lap, and in thirty seconds it's occupied. Just the way it was with his predecessor.
posted by tully_monster at 10:19 AM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Awwww. *loves on your kittehs* This thread is my new talisman against cat haters. What great examples of feline bonding. Thank you to everyone who contributed links or personal stories!
posted by quiet earth at 5:50 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

thank you for asking this question! cats need a WAY better rep.
posted by zutalors! at 9:22 PM on February 12, 2015

We have three cats (all from a shelter). One of them came from a hoarding situation with 65 cats, and was not socialised at all; he was taken to the shelter when he was about a half year old, and then lived there for a year and a half because he was too scared of people to present himself to potential adopters. So, all in all, this cat was pretty traumatised and when we brought him home, he spent three weeks cooped up in a closet before he dared to come out when we were around.

He's been with us for over a year. He is now learning that people can sometimes be trusted, that laps can be sat on, and cuddles feel good. He loves cuddles so much that he will sometimes nibble on your fingers when you are stroking him. He's usually very gentle, but every now and then he gets carried away and his love bites start to hurt.

As soon as I make a soft 'Owowow' sound... he'll look at me and just stop. He will then usually lick my fingers, as if to say 'Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you'.

So even this traumatised, socialised-way-too-late, probably inbred cat has learned to understand a signal that indicates that a human is feeling pain, and he cares enough to respond to it right away. This is him, by the way.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:44 AM on February 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

A friends cat generously brought the gift of a dead mouse to the crib of their newborn, and then despite best efforts, continued to try and 'feed' their baby. That or teach the baby to hunt.

Warning cute/gruesome:
Incredibly, the cat must have succeeded, because while the car was at the vet, the mother found the nearly 1 year old baby gnawing away at an apparently freshly caught mouse.
Moral of the story for cats - See? You can teach the humans if you start early, and stay persistent!

My mother on the other hand, has had a series of cat like dogs (don't like to get wet or muddy, do like lazing on cushions in the sunshine), and dog like cats - she adopted an older cat that would go for walks with her, and follow when she was doing the rounds on the farm, feeding horses etc, just to keep her company.
Despite adopting older cats, the few she had (in succession) all bonded with her well enough that she could take them with her traveling or on road trips, because home was clearly wherever my mother was.
posted by Elysum at 3:15 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

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