As a cat owner, being surprised by cat intelligence delights me. They’re not exactly smart like a human, but they are smart in cattish ways. The more I watch them and try to sort out what they’re thinking, the more it pleases me to discover they can solve problems and adapt in recognizably intelligent ways, sometimes unique to each individual cat. Each time that happens, it evokes in me affectionate wonder.
Today, I had one of those joyful moments.
First, you need to understand that some months ago, I thought I had my male cat all figured out with respect to mealtimes. I had been cleaning up after my oafish boy who made a watery mess on the floor from his mother’s bowl each morning. I was slightly annoyed, but was mostly curious, and had a hunch. A quick search of the web confirmed it: my cat was left-handed. Not only that, but I learned this is typical for males, whereas females tend to be right-handed. Right away, I knew what I had to do: I adjusted the position of their water bowls relative to their food, swapping them from right to left; the messy morning feedings ceased. I congratulated myself for my cleverness.
You see, after the swap, as he hooked the kibbles with his left paw out of the right-hand bowl, they would land immediately on the floor where he could give them chase. The swap caused the messes to cease because before, his left-handed scoops would land the kibbles in the water to the right; he would then have to scoop the kibble out onto the floor, sprinkling water everywhere! Furthermore, the sodden kibble tended to not skitter so much, decreasing his fun. Or so I thought. Clearly, I reasoned, having sated himself on the entire contents of his own bowl, he turned to pilfering his mother’s leftovers for some exciting kittenish play. I had evidence to back it up, too: he and his mother both seem to enjoy this game, a regular fixture of their mealtime routines. She, too, is adept at hooking out the kibbles, though mysteriously, without making a mess in her water, whichever way the bowls are oriented. I chalked this up to his general clumsiness of movement vs. her daintiness and precision, something I had observed many times before.
Come to think of it, lately, I’ve been seeing more mess around his mother’s bowl again. Hmm. I don’t know why I didn’t stop to consider why …
And then my cat surprised me again.
This morning, with Shadow behind my back as I sat at my computer, finishing up his morning meal at his mother’s bowl, I thought I heard something odd. Or rather, I didn’t hear something. The familiar skitter-skitter sound of kibbles evading capture was missing. So I turned and looked. My dear, devious boy had squished his overgrown body behind his mother’s bowls, nudging them ever so slightly askew to fit the small space. Now the bowl orientation was swapped back again. Stunned, I watched him carefully flip out a kibble with his left paw. Plop! Into the water on the right. Concentrating, he fished for it. A miss! He casually licked the water from his paw. Another try. Swoop! Plop, onto the floor. No chase now, just satisfied munching of his somewhat mushy kibble. And then it dawned on me that I had got it somewhat wrong. Yes, he enjoyed Chase the Kibble, like his mom, but I never recognized he had been indulging in a favourite pastime, peculiarly his own …
I had judged his mealtime messes as accidents, a very human way of thinking about my problem. Little did I know, it was deliberate! His private game was Bobbing for Kibbles. I don’t know if it’s the altered texture, or dabbling in the bowl, but whatever the reason, due to my meddling, he had been deprived of this pleasure. No worries, a thwarted cat will find a way. And that is the joy of cat intelligence.