Humans have all these conspiracy theories about cats: That they loathe us, quietly but palpably, because we have subjugated them via our more imposing size and forced petting; that if they happen to find themselves trapped alone with our corpses, they would have zero qualms about eating our faces, lips first; that whatever sweetness they spend on us has been coolly calculated to win food. With the exception of the second item in that list — which, by the way, would also hold true for your dog — our ability to stereotype cats says more about the human capacity for projection than it does about the feline brain. Compelling evidence: I adopted my cat, Porkchop, one year ago, and not at all coincidentally, it has been roughly one year since I’ve been allowed to pee alone in my own home.
Porkchop is a quintessential Leo, in that he demands constant attention and praise, but is also needier than I think he would care to admit. He acts like it’s happenstance, the fact of us being in the same room together 90 percent of the time, but that pretense dissolves when I move for the bathroom door. Watching him wrestle his own feet on the living room floor, I think, “Go now, now is your chance to shake your chaperone, he is absorbed.” But his ungainly clompers never absorb him enough; he invariably catches sight of me just as I go for the doorknob, and through his lofted legs, I see a look of wounded bewilderment cloud his inquisitive face. He chirps an indignant chirp, an involuntary yelp that comes out all high and thin like a sputtered “what gives.” And then here he comes, galloping across the room and hurtling through the cracked door before I can lock him out. He hunkers down on the sink, observing me with unblinking searchlight eyes.
It’s an unsettling level of scrutiny for someone just trying to pee, but cats are creepy little voyeurs, every single one. My question is why: Why does Porkchop insist on following me into the bathroom, why does my mom’s cat (Peter) fling himself chest-first at the shower door for the duration of his human’s stay in the rain box, why do basically all these gremlins understand their unflagging surveillance of intimate moments as acceptable behavior?
“There likely isn’t one straight answer,” Bridget Schoville, senior manager on the ASPCA’s Anti-cruelty Behavior Team, informed me via email. Schoville suggested that the purportedly common practice of keeping one’s bathroom door closed at all times might make the space an appealing “novelty” for pets. But, counterpoint, my bathroom door remains open unless someone’s in there, because how else would you immediately know whether or not it’s occupied? My bathroom also lacks a window, which, according to Schoville, could help explain the attraction. But it does have running water, and apparently, this is a boon.
“Most cats are quite intrigued by water,” says Dr. Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior consultant with Feline Behavior Solutions in Vancouver. And indeed, Porkchop typically torpedoes straight onto the sink so he can watch toothpaste swirl into the abyss. Sometimes, he climbs into the emptying bowl, pawing the sides with a confused expression furrowing his brow, as if expecting the porcelain to crumb up under his mitts like dirt.
The mystery of the drain beguiles cats, Koski says, but the position on the sink’s edge offers another advantage: Porkchop can catloaf between me and the taps, obligating me to lean over him in a full-body cuddle as I wash my face. “You’re right there,” Koski notes, “ready to serve your feline overlord with pets!” And cats want those pets because, according to Koski, they do tend to love their humans. As such, they also love a small, enclosed space saturated with our scents — the towels, the 24 washcloths, the products, all our musk-smelling affects. It conveys comfort, and comfort is king.
Carole Wilbourn, The Cat Therapist, tells me that, if you want to understand cat behavior, you have to understand “what’s coming from underneath.” You have to consider a room’s energy as well as the vibe you bring to it. “If one went to the bathroom to scream and yell and carry on, to dance loudly, I’m sure most cats would not take the opportunity to join,” Wilbourn explained. Ensconced in a privacy cabinet that mostly demands we be left alone, however, we offer our cats a quiet captive audience. “It’s matinee time,” Wilbourn remarked.
That may explain Porkchop’s penchant for launching surprise attacks from behind the nonexistent cover of the translucent shower curtain — he just wants to entertain — but I can pull threads from his rich tapestry of bathroom behaviors and weave them into many of these plausible expert theories, just as I can pull the resonant bits from a deliberately broad horoscope and apply them to my specific circumstances. Why lean on malleable generalizations when I can just ask Porkchop?
Animal communicator Penelope Smith assured me that she could tune into Porkchop’s wavelength over the phone, all the way from her home in Arizona. If I could just describe him (long; tabby; large ears; 1.5 years old; willful; thumbs) then she could climb inside his head, translating the thoughts and images she finds there.
“He shows me a picture of you kind of looking this way, looking that way,” Smith explained. “He shows me sparks.” Porkchop, it seems, picks up on my frenetic brain pace, the high distractibility pulling me in a hundred directions at once.
“It’s hard for him, a lot of times, to get through that exterior static and get your attention,” Smith said. But in the bathroom, Porkchop allegedly explained, “all that kind of calms down and you’re focused and you’re relaxed. He shows me you kind of doing your business” — rude — “and I can feel … you being more grounded. Then you pay attention to him, because there’s only one thing to pay attention to when you go to the toilet. It’s kind of a strong meditative attention, because he has you.”
Which I guess means my cat insists on watching me pee because he understands himself as a constant companion, from whom I can have no secrets. I definitely don’t feel weird about that in the slightest.