The Cat I.Q. Test: A Book Review

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1997 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

In a book provocatively entitled The Cat I.Q. Test, Melissa Miller, an American-born author residing in London, offers complementary tests for cats and their owners which ostensibly measure "intelligence." Cats can score anywhere from "Blissfully Ignorant" to "Possibly Brighter than You Are," while owners, depending on their own answers, are classified as "Practical," "Flexible," "Congenial," or "Fanatical."

Melissa Miller,
The Cat I.Q. Test.
Penguin Books, 1996
(ISBN 0-14-025735-7)

The emphasis in this book is admittedly on entertainment rather than any kind of scientific measurement. Miller even places a disclaimer at the conclusion of the "Cat I.Q." questions that states, "Results are subject to wide variation and therefore should not be used as a basis for any personal decisions about your cat!" And some of the questions seem to be clearly in the realm of comic relief, such as number 44: "If your cat could read, which of the following newspapers would it probably buy?" (The possible answers are The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Star, with the Journal choice getting maximum points and the Star minimum.) But other questions suggest potential strengths and weaknesses in a cat's visual and audio abilities, social skills, and memory (for example, how does your cat react when his/her carrier is brought out?).

Cali the cat in a favorite pose on "her" dryer

The book is filled out with interesting facts about cats and the regard in which they have been held throughout the ages. These sections are written with lightness of touch and are clearly designed to be anything but ponderous, scientific stuff (hence, no footnotes); thus, they should please cat lovers of all backgrounds. Trivia buffs will enjoy finding out who in history adored cats and who did not. For instance, William Shakespeare, according to Miller, was probably "not a great cat lover," judging from his forty-odd references to cats, "none of which were particularly favorable." (Miller does not quote any of them, but Bertram's petulant exclamation "I could endure anything before but a cat, and now he's a cat to me" [All's Well that Ends Well, IV.i.223] springs instantly to mind!)

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, was "the first U.S. President to keep a cat in the White House," and often played with one of his dogs or cats to take his mind off the troubles of running the country. King Charles I of England kept a black cat which, he thought, brought him good luck; when the cat died, the king is said to have exclaimed, "My luck is gone," and indeed the next day he was arrested and subsequently beheaded as Oliver Cromwell took control of the government as "Lord Protector." Mohammed reportedly cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb his sleeping cat.

Cats can score anywhere from "Blissfully Ignorant" to "Possibly Brighter than You Are," while owners, depending on their own answers, are classified as "Practical," "Flexible," "Congenial," or "Fanatical."

Miller also offers many facts about cats and their habits, such as the ways in which they communicate. One 19th-century writer, she says, claimed to have counted sixty-three different tones in cat meows. The rubbing of a cat's head against an owner's leg can be a way of marking territory, due to small secretions from temporal glands on the cat's forehead. Felines can also hear sounds more than two octaves higher than humans can hear. The Chinese government has even recognized the unusual sensory abilities of cats in predicting earthquakes, evacuating Haicheng in 1975 just before a devastating quake after being warned by the unusual behavior of these animals that one was on the way.

Many cats do not like to wear hats for very long

There are a few criticisms that can be made of this book. For one thing, Miller's narrative of how cats have been treated in history blames "the Christian Church" for some of the worst atrocities that have been committed against these animals, although she does concede that "in its early years the Christian religion was fairly tolerant of cats . . . " (p. 82). Laying the blame for such atrocities at the feet of "the Church" is not only simplistic but smacks of Christian-bashing. For one thing, the fact that some benighted individuals who called themselves Christians, such as Pope Innocent VIII, participated in and encouraged the killing of cats should not be used to stereotype "Christian" attitudes. That would be as misguided as believing that all Muslims share the worldview of Saddam Hussein. There have also been Christians like C.S. Lewis who have sincerely grappled with the question of animal pain.{1}

The Chinese government has even recognized the unusual sensory abilities of cats in predicting earthquakes.

Furthermore, other factors in man's cruelty to animals are clear. One major one is the view of French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), expressed in Part Five of his Discourse on Method, that animals were "destitute of reason" acting "solely from the disposition of their organs"; under this Cartesian view, animals were no more able to feel pain than a clock or any other machine. We have undergone such a revolution in our attitudes to animals that the idea of earlier generations sanguinely watching animals being tortured and killed strikes us as horrific; but the ideas of Descartes demonstrate that to many, the shrieking of tormented animals had little more emotional impact than, say, the sound of a machine breaking down.{2} These ideas and others, such as local fetishes and superstitions, need to be considered as part of the background against which such inhuman behavior occurred in past centuries.

Cats live to lounge!

One other minor criticism might be made regarding the nature of the scoring for some of the questions, but this is less a criticism of Miller than an indicator of the difficulty of measuring feline intelligence. For example, some of the questions in the "Domestic Behavior" section give cats higher marks for responsiveness than for apathy, but it may be hard to know whether a lack of response indicates a lack of intelligence on the part of a given cat or a disdain for verbal commands. Since a cat cannot reveal either his/her ignorance or disdain in words, often the ability to determine which causes the lack of response may lie with the sensitivity of the owner. Because Miller is not writing a scientific treatise, this is not a serious detriment to what she is doing. In fact, it may be part of the reason that the "Cat Owner I.Q." test was added: to turn the mirror back on the human portion of the cat-human relationship, in order to emphasize the fact that this book is primarily "entertainment."

In summary, The Cat I.Q. Test is a book that animal lovers (and cat fans especially) will find hard to put down. Miller even proposes a sequel that will offer results of the test from cats around the world, and asks readers to send in any results or interesting stories of feline intelligence to be considered for it. Judging from the contents of the present volume, this sequel should be worth looking up, too, whenever it comes out.{3}

(October 12, 1997)


{1} Cf. his essay "The Pains of Animals" in Walter Hooper, ed., God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 166ff.. BACK TO TEXT.

{2} A particularly unspeakable action of this kind is recorded in Maynard Mack's Alexander Pope: A Life (NY: Norton, 1985), pp. 7-8, where a 1677 London procession celebrating the anniversary of Elizabeth I's accession is said to have ended with the burning of the Pope in effigy--"his belly," according to a contemporary report, "filled full of live catts who squawled most hideously as soone as they felt the fire." Far from being horrified, the spectators called the animals' shrieking "ye language of ye Pope and ye Divel in a dialogue betwixt them"! Such an attitude sounds completely barbaric to humane people of our own time, and it is; but when people are educated to believe that animals are merely machines with skin, it becomes understandable (if still inexcusable) why otherwise compassionate citizens could think as little of such an event as people today think of a demolition derby. BACK TO TEXT.

{3} It should be mentioned as well that the cover credits Miller with a book called The Dog I.Q. Test, which should be worth investigating by canine fans. BACK TO TEXT.

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