Three years ago a special person came into our lives in the shape of Momo the deaf cat. Her “owners” were threatening to have her killed and it looks like she was confined in their “utility room” for most of the time.
So we took her in. I had no experience of deaf cats and, for some reason that most people seem to think is odd when I tell them, I expected her, being deaf, to be virtually mute - and very quiet. Turns out that I was wrong on both counts.
Now, we all know that a chief characteristic of cats is their ability to move around very quietly. Accounts on the internet* describe cats as “super stealthy,” with a “slow ability” to be light on their feet. Cats, then, are “masters of stealth,” with their ability to move around “almost imperceptibly.”
Cats are digitigrades (humans are plantigrades), meaning that they walk on their toes most of the time. Their pads are designed to act like shock absorbers (and they are super-sensitive to temperature changes and the slightest movement), again reducing the noise they make when they move around. Many accounts will say that cats are simply “hard-wired” to move silently. This is not a learned behaviour but, quite straightforwardly, a matter of instinct. They have an in-built instinct to “creep” it is claimed.
So, cats move around quietly and they do so because they “just do” – it is a hard-wired characteristic.
Not Momo! Because she is deaf, she does not hear the noise she makes, for example, jumping off a windowsill, so she tends to land heavily. Since we agreed to look after Mo, three other cats have come to us, all young, and two in need of bottle feeding.
For the youngsters in particular, then, Momo became their main socialising agent and, guess what, they all stomp around the apartment like big-footed elephants! Even when we are downstairs, and the moggies are upstairs, we have no difficulty knowing where the cats are, and especially when they are on the move. When they are play-fighting, and practice their “hunting skills,” i.e., a time when they are supposed to be the quietest of all, you’d swear that a herd of stampeding wilderbeests were on their way down the stairs.
It seems to me, therefore, in line with the revelations that are coming thick and fast from academic disciplines like cognitive ethology, that this is an example of animal behaviour that is principally learned and is not necessarily hard-wired. It suits a specieist society – and one or two animal advocates, unfortunately, to have a reductionist view of other animals, ascribing what other animals do to the fact that they “just do it” and just do it because they must.
These kittens socialised by a deaf adult cat seem to suggest that moving around silently is something they learn from their parents and/or their main socialising agents.
* I found one interesting internet announcement: cat burglars do not steal cats, the meaning of the phrase is that human cat burglars attempt to move around quietly - like cats do. This seems to beg the question as to who exactly ever thought that the meaning of “cat burglar” was someone who steals cats?