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Posted: November 23, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Just who’s in charge?

It never fails that whenever I sit down to compose this weekly column - or almost anytime I find myself at the computer - our little gray girl cat comes around mewling plaintively. In the wink of an eye, she's on the desktop, prowling back and forth across the keyboard, putting herself between the computer screen and me.

Sometimes, her prancing back and forth will obliterate whatever is on the screen, and I'm back to square one; other times, she'll inadvertently add line after line of unneeded punctuation.

"These aren't my thoughts," says someone named Anonymous. "They're my cat walking on my keyboard." And from someone else similarly named: "Cats are dangerous companions for writers because cat-watching is a near perfect method of writing avoidance."

If it's morning, she's trying to get me to pay attention to her and offer up a cushiony lap where she can settle for a post-breakfast nap. And I comply. At the moment, I'm working late at night to meet an early column deadline, and she's crouched next to the computer screen, quiet for now, her eyes shut while she snags a little sleep. Her warm little presence is welcome, and I hope she'll stay here - just like she is - until I'm done. Oops. Wrong. She is awake now and demanding my attention and lap. So who's in charge here? Obviously, she is.

So it is whenever you open the door and let your pets become indoor family members. They will rule the roost. Cats, in fact, are now ruling more roosts in America than dogs: 73 million cats vs. 68 million dogs. I couldn't find a reason for that development in any research, but a 10-year study by the University of Minnesota Stroke Center found that cat owners are 40 percent less likely to have heart attacks than non-cat owners. The Mother Nature Network says cats also are known to be better than other pets at relieving stress and lowering blood pressure in their owners. (Dogs have owners, it is said, but cats have staff.)

The little gray girl cat is purring contentedly in my lap while I'm working over her. ("Where is one place your cat can sit, but you can't? Your lap," says a wise man.) She's got purring in common with animals like hyenas, raccoons, guinea pigs and mongooses, but you won't catch me with one of those on my lap! Purring has been studied extensively, and there are many different thoughts about what's behind it. Most of us think purring implies contentment, and that's usually the case, but a cat will also purr when under stress at the vet's office. They also pant when in distress. (Some research says purring is a way cats promote internal healing and bone health without the need for a great deal of exertion, such as is required for human beings to strengthen their bones.) A little guy named Smokey got into the record books with a purr registering 92.7 decibels - on the order of a hair dryer or lawnmower.

Researchers have also studied a cat's vocal patterns extensively and found that various calls can indicate contentment, greeting, protest, frustration, happiness and demand for attention. They are like us in that they can experience pleasure, playfulness, depression and anger. And like human beings, they instinctively distrust people and animals perceived as dangerous or untrustworthy. They are smart enough to avoid things and people that threaten, but you can't say human beings are always that smart.

If you're a "cat person" or a keen observer, you've noticed a curious phenomenon. It's called "kneading" or "making biscuits," commonly understood to be a way a cat indicates his or her contentment. It's only done on a soft surface, and it involves a cat making kneading or massaging movements back and forth with his or her two front paws. Speaking biologically, this is something the youngest kittens indulge in to get more milk out of their mothers.

Our girl kitty's brother is a rambler. We've spent nights getting up hourly to see if his wandering ways have brought him home. Cats have an extraordinary "GPS," but one night he didn't come home until dawn and offered no explanation to his bleary-eyed "staff." The girl cat's big adventure was to sneak into the pullout pantry and spend one unhappy night not long ago. She seemed none the worse for the experience but for much vocal complaining. The box of oatmeal, however, had seen its last day.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

 

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