Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


An Aristocrat

The Cat

Teacher's Story

dropcap image F all people, the writer should regard the cat sympathetically, for when she was a baby of five months she was adopted by a cat. My self-elected foster-mother was Jenny, a handsome black and white cat, which at that time lost her first litter of kittens, through the attack of a savage cat from the woods. She was as Rachel crying for her children, when she seemed suddenly to comprehend that I, although larger than she, was an infant. She haunted my cradle, trying to give me milk from her own breasts; and later she brought half-killed mice and placed them enticingly in my cradle, coaxing me to play with them, a performance which pleased me much more than it did my real mother. Jenny always came to comfort me when I cried, rubbing against me, purring loudly, and licking me with her tongue in a way to drive mad the modern mother, wise as to the sources of children's internal parasites. This maternal attitude toward me lasted as long as Jenny lived, which was until I was nine years old. Never during those years did I lift my voice in wailing, that she did not come to comfort me; and even to-day I can remember how great that comfort was, especially when my naughtiness was the cause of my weeping, and when, therefore, I felt that the whole world, except Jenny, was against me.

Jenny was a cat of remarkable intelligence and was very obedient and useful. Coming down the kitchen stairs one day, she played with the latch and someone hearing her, opened the door. She did this several times, when one day she chanced to push down the latch, and thus opened the door herself. After that, she always opened it herself. A little later, she tried the trick on other doors, and soon succeeded in opening all the latched doors in the house, by thrusting one front leg through the handle, and thus supporting her weight, and pressing down with the foot of the other on the thumb-piece of the latch. I remember, guests were greatly astonished to see her coming thus swinging into the sitting-room. Later she tried the latches from the other side, jumping up and trying to lift the hook; but now, her weight was thrown against the wrong side of the door for opening, and she soon ceased this futile waste of energy; but for several years, she let herself into all the rooms in this clever manner, and taught a few of her bright kittens to do the same.

A pet cat enjoys long conversations with favored members of the household. She will sit in front of her mistress and mew, with every appearance of answering the questions addressed her; and since the cat and the mistress each knows her own part of the conversation, it is perhaps more typical of society chatter than we might like to confess. Of our language, the cat learns to understand the call to food, its own name, "scat," and "No, No," probably inferring the meaning of the latter from the tone of voice. On the other hand, we understand when it asks to go out, and its polite recognition to the one who opens the door. I knew one cat which invariably thanked us when we let him in as well as out. When the cat is hungry, it mews pleadingly; when happy in front of the fire, it looks at us sleepily out of half-closed eyes and gives a short mew expressive of affection and content; or it purrs, a noise which we do not know how to imitate and which expresses perfectly the happiness of intimate companionship. When frightened the cat yowls, and when hurt squalls shrilly; when fighting, it is like a savage warrior in that it howls a war-song in blood-curdling strains, punctuated with a spitting expressive of fear and contempt; and unfortunately, its love song is scarcely less agonizing to the listener. The cat's whole body enters into the expression of its emotions. When feeling affectionate toward its mistress, it rubs against her gown, with tail erect, and vibrating with a purr which seems fundamental. When angry, it lays its ears back and lashes its tail back and forth, the latter being a sign of excitement; when frightened, its hair stands on end, especially the hair of the tail, making that expressive appendage twice its natural size; when caught in disobedience, the cat lets its tail droop, and when running lifts it in a curve.


Bones and Ligaments of Cat's Claw.

A. Claw up.     B. Claw thrust out.

While we feed cats milk and scraps from our own table, they have never become entirely civilized in their tastes. They always catch mice and other small animals and prove pestiferous in destroying birds. Jenny was wont to bring her quarry, as an offering, to the front steps of our home every night; one morning we found seven mice, a cotton-tail rabbit and two snakes, which represented her night's catch. The cat never chases its prey like the dog. It discovers the haunts of its victims, and then lies in ambush, flattened out as still as a statue and all its feet beneath it, ready to make the spring. The weight of the body is a factor which enters in the blow with which the cat strikes down its victim, and thus stuns and which it later kills by gripping the throat with the strong tushes. She carries her victims as she does her kittens, by the back.

The cat's legs are not long compared with the body, and it runs with a leaping gallop; the upper legs are armed with powerful muscles. It walks on the padded toes, five on the front feet and four on the hind feet. The cat needs its claws to be sharp and hooked, in order to seize and hold its prey, so they are kept safely sheathed when not thus used. If the claws struck the earth during walking, as do the dog's, they would soon become dulled. When sharpening its claws it reaches high up against a tree or post, and strikes them into the wood with a downward scratch; this act is probably more for exercising the muscles which control the claws than for sharpening them.

The cat's track is in a single line as if it had only two feet, one set directly ahead of the other. It accomplishes this by setting its hind feet exactly in the tracks made by the front feet. The cat can easily leap upward, landing on a window-sill five feet from the ground. The jump is made with the hind legs and the alighting is done silently on the front feet.

Cats' eyes are fitted for seeing in the dark; in the daytime the pupil is simply a narrow, up and down slit; under excitement, and at night, the pupil covers almost the entire eye. At the back of the eye is a reflecting surface, which catches such dim light as there is, and by reflecting it enables the cat to use it twice. It is this reflected light, which gives the peculiar green glare to the eyes of all the cats when seen in the dark. Some night-flying moths have a like arrangement for utilizing the light, and their eyes glow like living coals. Of course, since the cat is a night hunter, this power of multiplying the rays of light is of great use. The iris of the eye is usually yellow, but in kittens it may be blue or green.

The cat's teeth are peculiarly fitted for its needs. The six doll-like incisors of the upper and lower jaw are merely for scraping meat from bones. The two great tushes, or canines, on each jaw, with a bare place behind so that they pass each other freely, are sharp and hooked, and are for seizing and carrying prey. The cat is able to open its mouth as wide as a right angle, in order to better hold and carry prey. The back teeth, or molars, are four on each side in the upper jaw and three, below. They are sharp-edged wedges made for cutting meat fine enough, so that it may be swallowed.


"Folks are so tiresome."

The tongue is covered with sharp papillæ directed backwards, also used for rasping juices from meat. The cat's nose is moist, and her sense of smell very keen, as is also her sense of hearing. The ears rise like two hollow half-cones on either side of the head and are filled with sensitive hairs; they ordinarily open forward, but are capable of movement. The cat's whiskers consist of from twenty-five to thirty long hairs set in four lines, above and at the sides of the mouth; they are connected with sensitive nerves and are therefore true feelers. The cat's fur is very fine and thick, and is also sensitive; as can readily be proved, by trying to stroke it the wrong way. While the wild cats have gray or tawny fur, variously mottled or shaded, the more striking colors we see in the domestic cats are the result of man's breeding.

Cats are very cleanly in their habits. Puss always washes her face directly after eating, using one paw for a wash-cloth and licking it clean after she rubs her face. She cleans her fur with her rough tongue and also by biting; and she promptly buries objectionable matter. The mother cat is very attentive to the cleanliness of her kittens, licking them clean from nose tip to tail tip. The ways of the mother cat with her kittens do much to sustain the assertions of Mr. Seton and Mr. Long that young animals are trained and educated by their parents. The cat brings half-dazed mice to her kittens, that they may learn to follow and catch them with their own little claws. When she punishes them, she cuffs the ears by holding one side of the kitten's head firm with the claws of one foot, while she lays on the blows with the other. She carries her kittens by the nape of the neck, never hurting them. She takes them into the field when they are old enough, and shows them the haunts of mice, and does many things for their education and welfare. The kittens meantime train themselves to agility and dexterity, by playing rough and tumble with each other, and by chasing every small moving object, even to their own tails.



The cat loves warmth and finds her place beneath the stove or at the hearthside. She likes some people, and dislikes others, for no reason we can detect. She can be educated to be friendly with dogs and with birds. In feeding her, we should give her plenty of sweet milk, some cooked meat and fish of which she is very fond; and we should keep a bundle of catnip to make her happy, for even the larger cats of the wilderness seem to have a passionate liking for this herb. The cat laps milk with her rough tongue, and when eating meat, she turns the head this way and that, to cut the tough muscle with her back teeth.

Cats Should Be Trained To Leave Birds Alone

Every owner of a cat owes it to the world to train puss to leave birds alone. If this training is begun during kittenhood, by switching the culprit every time it even looks at a bird, it will soon learn to leave them severely alone. I have tried this many times, and I know it is efficacious, if the cat is intelligent. We have never had a cat whose early training we controlled, that could ever be induced to even watch birds. If a cat is not thus trained as a kitten, it is likely to be always treacherous in this respect. But in case any one has a valuable cat which is given to catching birds, I strongly advise the following treatment which has been proved practicable by a friend of mine. When a cat has made the catch, take the bird away and sprinkle it with red pepper, and then give it back. One such treatment as this resulted in making one cat, which was an inveterate bird hunter, run and hide every time he saw a bird thereafter. Any persons taking cats with them to their summer homes, and abandoning them there to prey upon the birds of the vicinity, and to become poor, half-starved, wild creatures, ought to be arrested and fined. It is not only cruelty to the cats, but it is positive injury and damage to the community, because of the slaughter of beneficial birds which it entails.


This cat has been trained to be friendly with birds.

Lesson LXIV

The Cat

Leading thought—The cat was made a domestic animal before man wrote histories. It gets prey by springing from ambush and is fitted by form of body and teeth to do this. It naturally hunts at night and has eyes fitted to see in the dark.

Method—This lesson may be used in primary grades by asking a few questions at a time and allowing the children to make their observations on their own kittens at home, or a kitten may be brought to school for this purpose. The upper grade work consists of reading and retelling or writing exciting stories of the great, wild, savage cats, like the tiger, lion, leopard, lynx and panther.


1. How much of Pussy's language do you understand? What does she say when she wishes you to open the door for her? How does she ask for something to eat? What does she say when she feels like conversing with you? How does she cry when hurt? When frightened? What noise does she make when fighting? When calling other cats? What are her feelings when she purrs? When she spits? How many things which you say does she understand?

2. How else than by voice does she express affection, pleasure and anger? When she carries her tail straight up in the air is she in a pleasant mood? When her tail "bristles up" how does she feel? What is it a sign of, when she lashes her tail back and forth?

3. What do you feed to cats? What do they catch for themselves? What do the cats that are wild live upon? How does the cat help us? How does she injure us?

4. How does a cat catch her prey? Does she track mice by the scent? Does she catch them by running after them as a dog does? Describe how she lies in ambush. How does she hold the mouse as she pounces upon it? How does she carry it home to her kittens?

5. Study the cat's paws to see how she holds her prey. Where are the sharp claws? Are they always in sight like a dog's? Does she touch them to the ground when she walks? Which walks the more silently, a dog or a cat? Why? Describe the cat's foot, including the toe-pads. Are there as many toes on the hind feet as on the front feet? What kind of a track does the cat make in the snow? How does she set her feet to make such a track? How does she sharpen her claws? How does she use her claws for climbing? How far have you ever seen a cat jump? Does she use her front or her hind feet in making the jump? On which feet does she alight? Does she make much noise when she alights?


Amicable Advances

6. What is there peculiar about a cat's eyes? What is their color? What is the color of kittens' eyes? What is the shape of the pupil in daylight? In the dark? Describe the inner lid which comes from the corner of the eye.

7. How many teeth has Puss? What is the use of the long tushes? Why is there a bare space behind these? What does she use her little front teeth for? Does she use her back teeth for chewing or for cutting meat?

8. How many whiskers has she? How long are they? What is their use? Do you think that puss has a keen sense of smell? Why do you think so? Do you think she has a keen sense of hearing? How do the shape and position of the ears help in listening? In what position are the ears when puss is angry?

9. How many colors do you find in our domestic cats. What is the color of wild cats? Why would it not be beneficial to the wild-cat to have as striking colors as our tame cats? Compare the fur of the cat with the hair of the dog. How do they differ? If a cat chased her prey like the dog do you think her fur would be a too warm covering?

10. Describe how the cat washes her face. How does she clean her fur? How does her rough tongue help in this? How does the mother cat wash her kittens?

11. How does a little kitten look when a day or two old? How long before its eyes open? How does the cat carry her kittens? How does a kitten act when it is being carried? How does the mother cat punish her kittens? How does she teach them to catch mice? How do kittens play? How does the exercise they get in playing fit them to become hunters?

12. How should cats be trained not to touch birds? When must this training begin? Why should a person be punished for injury to the public who takes cats to summer cottages and leaves them there to run wild?

13. Where in the room does puss best like to lie? How does she sun herself? What herb does she like best? Does she like some people and not others? What strange companions have you known a cat to have? What is the cat's chief enemy? How should we care for and make the cat comfortable?

14. Write or tell stories on the following subjects: (1) The things which my pet cat does; (2) The Wild Cat; (3) The Lion; (4) The Tiger; (5) The Leopard; (6) The Panther and the Mountain Lion; (7) The Lynx; (8) The History of Domestic Cats; (9) The Different Races of Cats, describing the Manx, the Persian and the Angora Cats.

Supplementary reading—The Life of Animals, Ingersoll; American Animals, Stone and Cram; Our Domestic Animals, Burkett; The Fireside Sphinx, Repplier; Concerning Cats, Winslow; The following animal stories from St. Nicholas  Magazine: Cat Stories, Lion and Tiger Stories, Panther Stories.


Photo by Verne Morton

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