Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Cat

“Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.” – Claude Monet

Monet nailed it. Color, the most powerful design element, impacts every aspect of my design world. Perception of a space’s size, shape and temperature can be altered by it.

11DKEMPTON_Everything I need_PHOTOS_edited-1In my leisure time, though, cats provide those disparate emotions Monet mentioned. Fun and frustrating at once, they change the way you see things and how you feel about them. I’m sure it’s the same for dog owners, although they bask in a world of unconditional love alien to cat people. I was reminded of this when I saw all the wet kisses given to the design community by the puppies of Stealing Hearts Rescue at a recent Designers Circle Happy Hour. The German Shepherd mix puppy was hard to leave behind, even for a cat person like me.

Those of us owned by a cat have to pay close attention to subtle behaviors to get our fix of pet love. Why do cats treat their people differently than dogs? According to Dr. John Bradshaw, anthrozoologist and author of the new book, Cat Sense, cats don’t view humans as another species; instead, they see you as large, useless cats and thus will treat you as such.

They will groom and bathe you because, to them, your cat skills are frightfully inadequate. They want you to smell more like they do, so they mark you with scent glands on their cheeks and paws. Then you shower, undoing all their good work, and they have to start over.

They want to help feed you, too. If you can’t even groom yourself properly, how could you manage to snare prey? They’ll make presents to you of dead birds and mice, laying them gently at your feet and looking up for praise.

My cats greet me at the door each evening, but they wouldn’t think of jumping up excitedly like those oxytocin-producing canines. Cats’ brains release much less of that “love hormone” in your presence than dogs’ brains—but they do produce some.

Where was this field of study when I was in school?

Anthrozoology (also known as human–non-human animal studies, or HAS) is the subset of ethnobiology dealing with interactions between humans and other animals. A major focus of research in this field involves quantifying the positive effects of human-animal relationships on each party. It’s being done by a cross-section of scholars from anthropology, sociology, biology, history and philosophy. Who knew?

Our pets learn quickly and there’s a lot we can learn from them if we’re observant. Here are a few things I’ve learned from cats over the years:

  1. Not everyone sees things the same way:

Cats have “super vision,” able to see much more of the color spectrum than humans, including the UV range. They see psychedelic stripes on plant leaves and intricate colorations on feathers, perhaps explaining why cats fixate for long periods of time on things that seem ordinary. Along with vibrant patterns on animals and plants, they also see vast fields of urine markers left by animals—so maybe it’s fortunate we don’t share this particular ability.

  1. Preying on weakness is not unique to humans and neither is compassion:

Cats sense vulnerabilities in their housemates. Like children and entitled members of political dynasties, they sometimes take advantage of the elderly or weak. To mitigate the problem of elderly cat abuse, we’ve brought a new kitten into the house as a distractor.

Cruiser, the only cat bought from a pet store, was selected to fill this role. Staring down into a pen of calico littermates, one female was bathing the others, scooping away the used shred, and leading play sessions. She stayed alert on guard duty when her siblings collapsed in sleep. The shopkeeper offered, “That one’s the caretaker and social director.” This was her ticket home.

  1. Caregiving is exhausting:

Cruiser taught me I need to nap more and sleep longer. Although true cat OCD manifests itself in excessive licking, tail-chasing, chewing on claws and paws, and other harmful behaviors, I joke that she has OCD simply because she’s a relentless caregiver.

–Upon hearing a meow, she has to track down which cat it is, check it over for damage, and lick it down until it’s calm and refreshed.

–If a housemate gets stuck in the closet, she will nearly claw through the door to free it.

–She has little stuffed toys that are hers exclusively. In the morning, she carries them downstairs in her mouth one at a time, her muffled meow announcing the move of her “kittens.” At bedtime, she takes each toy back upstairs, meowing again.

–Once the other cats are asleep, she zonks out for at least eight hours, exhausted from her duties. Like me, she is not a morning cat.

  1. You can choose your friends, but your pets choose you (remind you of a similar saying about choosing friends vs. family?):

When I was little, an orange tabby rode into town in a boxcar and adopted us. We named him Hobo. He loved sharing my ice cream cones, hated car rides and moving 22DKEMPTON_Everything I need_PHOTOS_edited-1days, and played well with Fluffy, the wonder cat. Two seemed the perfect number of cats.

So a few years ago, when I was up to three cats, I made the mistake of walking past the adoptable kittens at Petco. One was the reincarnation of Fluffy. I tried to keep walking, but he mewed with a determination larger than his size and it sounded like: “Hey! Come back here!” A white paw stretched toward me through the cage bars.

The clerk opened the cage and Mini-Fluffy stood up on two feet, placed his front paws on my collar bones, and stared. He had me at meow.

  1. You can tell a kind and patient man by his attitude toward cats:

33DKEMPTON_Everything I need_PHOTOS_edited-1I called my husband, Reed, from Petco. “Hey, hon, I just need an opinion: how many cats does it take before someone becomes a crazy cat lady?”

The delay in his reply told me he knew there was a kitten somewhere on the other end of the phone. “Four. It takes exactly four.”

“I was afraid of that. He’s orange, with the same white diamond on his face that Fluffy had, plus a little lightning streak on his back and four big, white feet with long hair between the toes. But they say he’ll be a medium-hair.”

“Then he’s a long-hair. Better get a good brush and comb. See you at home…”

  1. Willfulness is easier to accept in a cat than a toddler:

By the time Lightning was six months old, he weighed nine pounds and had established himself as alpha cat. If he got something in his head, he couldn’t be distracted.

By two, he was sixteen pounds with three-inch fur. He loves his groomer and gets excited when we head to his appointment. Back at home, he parades past the others, rubbing against them for approval. Will he let me comb him for more than a minute? No.

  1. I talk too much:

If I take too long telling Reed about my day, Lightning appears beside me and places his paw across my lips to “shush” me. Reed shrugs…then gives him a treat.

  1. Cats and humans are creatures of habit:

I taught Lightning in a single lesson to “High five” me for a kitty treat. He turns in a circle, then stands up and taps my right hand with his left paw, then takes the treat from my left hand. Now he comes into the kitchen after dinner clean-up to meow and turn in circles so I’ll know what he wants. He has me extremely well-trained.

If we’re up past 10:30pm, he stands up beside Reed’s computer chair and taps him on the shoulder. Reed tells him, “Go downstairs and get Diana”…and he does.

At the crack of dawn, he’s up on the bed, brushing my hair off my face with a paw and meowing the equivalent of, “Hey! Burnin’ daylight here!” There is no sleeping in, not even on weekends.

  1. Black and white is not a color scheme—it’s a study in abstraction:

Tuxedo cats are just different somehow. My first one loved Beethoven and recognized his music. Whichever Beethoven sonata I’d play on the piano, he’d jump onto my lap, staying curled up until the double bar of the very last movement.

The second one walked on a leash like a dog and it turned out she was schizophrenic.

The current one, Bianchi, is four years old, but is still a kitten in size and personality. We call her our “special needs cat.” She reminds me of my other favorite quote on color:

 “Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.” – Joel Sternfeld, Fine Art Color Photographer

Strange indeed. Bianchi will always be kitten-like, too timid to interact with Cruiser and Lightning, but the only one able to approach the elderly grumpy cat, Spokes, washing her ears and snuggling up to purr with her.

Bianchi reminds me of something else learned this summer, while getting my dad settled into assisted living; then being there through the hospitalization, hospice care and passing of Reed’s dad a month later; then meeting the people seeking homes for puppies: that caregivers, whether human or animal, seem to be born with the capacity to rescue us.

DianaKemptonheadshotA professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at

1 Comment on this Post

  1. absolutely loved this story, we have two and like your kitties they always stick to their routines and schedules. In some ways I think they’re more loyal than dogs.


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