The Inner Life of Cats

Thomas McNamee / Hachette Books / 288 pages

Thomas McNamee provides a window into what makes cats tick in The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions. Anecdotes centering on his own cats, especially beloved Augusta, are interspersed with cat history, behavioral studies, linguistic analysis of the meow (you read that right), and even discourses on cat-related controversies, such as feral cats and the keeping of wild animals as pets.

But McNamee makes it clear that having a pet cat is getting very close to having a wild animal in your home. He uses science and his own cats’ closely and lovingly observed behaviors to help the reader—and himself—understand what’s going on in the house cat’s mind. It is a mysterious place! The author is under no illusion that the cat mind is entirely knowable, but he does want us to have a greater appreciation of the rich inner life that the animal is experiencing.

While the reader could probably do without the long dive into “A Phonetic Pilot Study of Chirp, Chatter, Tweet and Tweedle in Three Domestic Cats,” it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that we should listen more closely to what our cats are saying. It is revealing to read that cat sounds “are made only for the sake of saying particular things to particular people” and that “cat talk is always interactive, and often aimed at achieving a goal.” It is obvious that cats are not dogs, but it is not necessarily obvious that responding to cat behavior as one would respond to a dog can destroy your relationship with your cat.

The reader will race to find out what happens when Augusta encounters a bear, but it is worthwhile spending time reading about the biology of the purr, the socialization of kittens, and the semaphore of the cat’s mouth, whiskers, eyes, and ears. This will equip cat companions with useful knowledge to guide them in enriching their pets’ environments, whether a ranch in Montana or an apartment in San Francisco. But nothing can fully explain why the food that Mittens ate with gusto yesterday is regarded as poison today. Not all mysteries are meant to be solved.

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