Columnist Gene Lyons

Feline friends? Cats love us on their terms

By Gene Lyons


Posted 4/3/24

Editor’s note: For the time being, as Gene Lyons recovers from illness, his weekly columns will be “classics” from his archive. This column originally ran on March 13, 2019.

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Columnist Gene Lyons

Feline friends? Cats love us on their terms


Editor’s note: For the time being, as Gene Lyons recovers from illness, his weekly columns will be “classics” from his archive. This column originally ran on March 13, 2019.

Given the time and money people lavish on their pets, it’s remarkable how little we appear to understand them. Recently at the dog park, for example, I watched a woman with an enormous Great Dane puppy doing everything in her power to turn him into a fear-biter.

Fortunately, she appeared to be failing. The problem was her total inability to speak “dog.” Another large young fellow — a collie/Great Pyrenees mix fond of playing chase — kept inviting her dog to join the game, and she kept misinterpreting his playful feints as threats.

So she’d pull her dog close and call out for help, confusing the Great Dane, who was a bit shy to begin with. Evidently, it was his first visit to the dog park. Hers, too. Fortunately a good Samaritan persuaded her to turn him loose. The dogs quickly sorted things out, and a good time was had by all.

No harm, no foul.

In my experience, however, cats are more commonly misunderstood. Many people find them aloof and mysterious, so much so that a small academic/journalistic industry has sprung up to explain the animals to their owners.

“Why We Think Cats Are Psychopaths” is the title of a recent effort in The Atlantic. We do? As one with some experience with psychopaths of the human variety — I wrote a book entitled “Widow’s Web” that featured a couple, plus a bunch of columns about Donald Trump — I certainly never have. Author Sarah Zhang assures us, however, that “anyone who has looked into the curiously blank face of a catloaf knows exactly what that means.”

I had to look it up: a “catloaf,” so called, is a housecat sitting with all four feet tucked underneath, hence resembling a loaf of bread. A cat expressing, in other words, comfort, contentment and trust. An uneasy cat would never adopt so defenseless a position — unsuitable for fight or flight.

However, anybody expecting even the most affectionate kitty to gaze longingly into their eyes like a cocker spaniel should probably stick to geraniums.

The problem, of course, isn’t cats, but people. As Zhang points out to the imaginatively impaired: “So when we look at a cat staring at us impassively, it looks like a psychopath who cannot feel or show emotion. But that’s just its face.”

Cats’ faces, she points out, lack the muscle structure to change expressions like a human or a dog. That’s not how the animals communicate. Rather, they speak through body language and vocalization — mainly posture. A cat that approaches you with its tail hoisted straight in the air, for example, is saying as clearly as it knows how: “Hello friend, it’s good to see you.”

Dogs that live with cats understand perfectly; humans not so much.

Yes, cats are stealthy predators. That’s how they came to live among us. With the invention of agriculture came grain-stealing, disease-carrying rodents. Just behind them came cats, independent rodent control contractors spread around the world from their Middle Eastern origins by sailing ships.

People inclined to see cats as pitiless and cruel, I’d suggest, have watched too many cartoons with singing mice.

Take my orange tabby tomcat Albert. Descended from a distinguished line of Arkansas barn cats, Albert exterminated mice from our place and then began commuting a half-mile daily to the neighbor’s hay barn. Yet after I fell off a horse and broke several ribs, he changed his life. From being a 90 percent outdoor cat, Albert became an indoorsman. He’d spend hours perched on the arm of my chair in the catloaf position, watching Red Sox games and purring.

After I healed, Albert returned to rodent patrol. He switched jobs because he could tell I was hurting and wanted to comfort me. There’s no other explanation. His younger friend Martin, another orange tabby the dogs and I found in the woods where somebody had dumped him, had no need to alter his routine. Snuggling and purring have always been his main priorities. Possibly he’s a killer too, but you couldn’t prove it by me.

In my experience, cats rescued from what must have been a terrifying situation — Martin was roughly 12 weeks old, a tiny kitten abandoned a half-mile from the nearest house — never, ever forget. He and his littermate Gigi, who lives on a friend’s cattle farm, remain almost absurdly affectionate. If Gigi can’t find a human to pet her, she will rub-a-dub and sniff noses with her cow friends.

You see, they’re all individuals, cats. Their personalities differ from one another quite as much as dogs, human beings, and every other species of mammal I know anything about.

So never mind the Sphinx-like expression. Or the lack of obedience. You don’t train cats; cats train you. Albert gives me orders all day. Fortunately, his needs are simple: in, out, feed me, pet me.

For the love he gives back, it’s not much to ask.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at