Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense
April 20, 2014, 10:03 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , ,

catsenseJohn Bradshaw’s Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, attempts in under 300 pages to share how cats evolved and became domesticated, whether their current living situations are suitable (often indoors, in apartments), and how they will continue to evolve in the future.

As a new cat owner, I was obviously inspired to read the book by its subtitle: yes, I wanted to learn how to be a better friend to one Calvin Rhudy. My eagerness to learn how my cat was not like a dog, and how I could keep him happy in my tiny apartment, drove me through any niggling doubts that came up during the book’s early chapters, when Bradshaw revealed his habit of making broad statements with no apparent evidence to back them up. When he wonders why certain coat colors didn’t show up in Egypt, despite 2000 years of domestication, he writes: “Perhaps the Egyptians actively discouraged these ‘unnatural’ cats on the rare occasions when the mutations occurred, possibly for reasons connected with religion” (40). Without any information on how he arrived at this (rather tentative) conclusion, that sounds like a guess supported by another guess. Later, stepping into Europe, he writes that cats “must also have helped to slow the spread of the rat-borne bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the sixth century” (53), which seems like a reasonable conclusion but, again, lacks any information on how he arrived.

The segment of the book I was most interested in, that on today’s domesticated cats, was unfortunately no better, as it relied in large part upon small studies performed by the author himself. This may be in part an indicator of a problem Bradshaw mentions early in the book, that of the limited number of studies on feline behavior, but it nevertheless is difficult to continue reading and trusting in an author when so many of his assertions begin, “As my own research has shown…”, and when you subsequently learned that that research involved somewhere under 50 cats. He also here begins to make some overreaches; in the book’s preface he writes that “cats now probably face more hostility than at any time in the past two centuries” (xv), returning to that idea in his chapter on cats and wildlife, and the “anti-cat sentiments” (241) that can creep into that discussion. The question of how much of an impact domesticated cats have on wildlife is an interesting one, but isn’t well-served by Bradshaw’s tendency to consult mostly himself. The same is true when he imagines what cats may look like in the future, writing with apparent concern that, “We seem to share an unvoiced assumption that because cats have always been around they always will be” (258). Bradshaw’s concerns, which center mainly on the question of whether by preventing our housecats from breeding we’re limiting the friendly genes in cats of the future (this is only slightly less scientific than his language here), are again not backed up by any significant outside research, and so are difficult to take seriously.

calvin.computerThis is a prime example, I think, of how a misleading title can totally screw with your thoughts on a book. Had this been titled “Cat Sense: One Man’s Thoughts and Experiments on Why Cats Act so Weird”, I would have been well-prepared for this reading. Instead, I anticipated 300 pages of useful information on how I could make Calvin (currently sitting next to me on the sofa, napping) the happiest cat in Philadelphia, and was entirely disappointed. Many of the questions Bradshaw poses in this book are intriguing, but at end the lack of significant support from outside experiments, or clear information on how he arrived at a conclusion, make it difficult to place too much weight in the contents of Cat Sense.

And yes, friends, this marks my first review since last August; I’m easing my way back into writing about fiction.

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