Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Playing with the cat: a new game

I was never a cat person - I even have a mild cat allergy - but one of the things that Erika did during one of our breakups, when we were struggling with the long distance thing - before she crossed the pond to live here for work - was, she bought a cat. He came named Tybalt, and he has proven to be an interesting experience, an odd bundle of quirks that I've enjoyed getting to know and like hanging out with a lot. He's a rather polite cat (not like the rude bossy cats that DEMAND to be petted all the time or make a lot of noise. I mean, sure, he'll come right up to you and rub up against you and make the odd meow - he can be chatty at times, especially if he's hungry - but he's pretty respectful, sometimes positively humble, as when he comes up to you at the breakfast table and seems to "bow down" his head against the table, to receive pats). His way of letting you know he wants things often involves sitting and staring at you. Erika can engage him in conversation - she'll ask him what he wants and he'll meow, with a fairly complex and expressive range of (of course incomprehensible) inflection, though it really does seem like he's saying "yeah!" sometimes - but he's no kitty bully like those big orange tabby cats you sometimes see, and he's pretty cool to just do stuff on his own much of the day. 

Some of his quirks are normal cat stuff - random sprints around the apartment, unpredictable turns from "enjoying being petted" to "biting the shit out of you," squeaky, wheezy hairball barf-moments, and a profound terror of vacuums (and bags - if you approach him with any sort of bag, if it crinkles at all or if he thinks he might get PUT in it, he will sprint out of the room). But other traits of his come as weird surprises. He's a very fussy eater, for one: presented with things cats usually would go crazy for - ham, turkey, tuna, bacon - he will only occasionally sniff them with curiosity and eat them; half the time he ignores them utterly. Mostly he likes his (Iams Mature Cat) kibble, his Temptations treats, and my bamboo plant (bamboo is non-toxic to cats, don't worry; I guess he gets his roughage out of it - he's eaten most of the leaves on the bottom foot or so of it).  

He seems to like to "guard" the bathroom door when Erika is in it, too. He'll sit outside it, looking outwards, for quite some time. And he definitely enjoys looking at birds and squirrels on Youtube, and will occasionally paw at the screen to see if he can catch one; since we started showing him videos for cats, he has seemed to take more of an interest in the movies WE watch, too, and will often face the screen and watch TV with us. He has an excellent sense of timing when it comes to things he cares about: he might not get the message if I'm trying to sit on my spot on the couch beside Erika, and he's lying in it - he will generally require gentle dislodging - but he sure knows when and where to sit for his treats, which we give him in the morning and evening, as we leave the house for work or as we're getting ready to bed down. He will often be "in his spot" for receiving them, waiting, staring at you as you go about getting ready (for work or bed, respectively). He may not be the brightest cat at times, but when there's treats involved, he's quite alert. 

That's where I decided to play a little game to test his intelligence, to give us an expanded way of interacting. I have no idea if he actually enjoys it - I do! - but it's been nice to see that he's learned how to play it, and kind of revealing of the nature of his smarts - what he's good at, what he's not so good at, and how he goes about reasoning.

It's pretty simple. Let the cat see and sniff one or two Temptations (or whatever your chosen cat treat is), then let him see and sniff them as you put them in one hand to the other. You gotta do this slowly and decisively, so that the cat can follow that the treat is going back and forth; Tybalt, at least, gets lost easily during this stage. Then after switching back and forth a few times - you see where this is going - close your hands and do the "which hand is it in" thing. 

I don't know about other cats, but Tybalt is lousy at getting it right the first time, and will usually pick whatever hand he was last looking at, walking up to it and bumping his head into it. (It took a few tries for him to settle on this as a behaviour to indicate his choice but he's got it down now). I then open my hand and show him, "nope, no treats in here" (unless he's chanced into the correct hand, or I've decided to make it really easy on him and put them in the hand I think he's most likely to go to, which I do sometimes, because I am not doing this to be mean). He has an interesting level of mistrust for the evidence of his own eyes, because even if he sees there are no cookies in the first hand, he will investigate and make sure: he will sniff the hand, pat it with his paw, try to look on the floor around it, obviously seeming to think that that's where the treat should be, and being very careful that he hasn't missed something. "Where are they? That's where they SHOULD have been. Did I miss something? I could have SWORN they were in that hand!" Only then, after a minute or so, when he is POSITIVE there are no treats in the first hand, he will go over to the OTHER hand, still closed, and bump his head into THAT! So he's a) remembering that the treats are in one hand or the other; b) paying attention to carefully investigate the mysterious absence of the treats from the hand he thought they were in; c) then, having determined he was wrong, admitting it and trying again! (Of course, like I say, I sometimes let him be right the first time, too). 

It's not a big deal but it is an interesting way of giving the cat a treat! 

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