Cat Sense

How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet


By John Bradshaw

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Based on cutting edge science, this bestselling book on the inner lives of cats is “for any who may wonder what their feline companions are really thinking” (The New York Times).

In Cat Sense, renowned anthrozoologist John Bradshaw takes us further into the mind of the domestic cat than ever before, using cutting-edge scientific research to dispel lingering myths and explain the true nature of our feline friends.

Tracing the cat’s evolution from lone predator to domesticated companion, Bradshaw shows that although cats and humans have lived together for eight thousand years, cats remain independent, predatory, and wary of contact with their own kind, qualities that often clash with our modern lifestyles. To live in harmony with our cats, Bradshaw explains, we first need to understand their inherited quirks including understanding their body language, and managing both their natural hunting instincts and their relationships with other cats.

A must-read for any cat lover, Cat Sense offers humane, penetrating insights about the domestic cat that challenge our most basic assumptions and promise to dramatically improve our pets’ lives — and ours.



The Cat at the Threshold

Pet cats are now a global phenomenon, but how they transformed themselves from wild to domestic is still a mystery. Most of the animals around us were domesticated for prosaic, practical reasons. Cows, sheep, and goats provide meat, milk, and hides. Pigs provide meat; chickens, meat and eggs. Dogs, our second favorite pet, continue to provide humans with many benefits beside companionship: help with hunting, herding, guarding, tracking, and trailing, to name but a few. Cats are not nearly as useful as any of these; even their traditional reputation as rodent controllers may be somewhat exaggerated, even though, historically, this was their obvious function as far as humankind was concerned. Therefore, in contrast to the dog, we have no easy answers as to how the cat has insinuated itself so effectively into human culture. Our search for explanations starts some ten millennia ago, when cats probably first arrived at our doorsteps.

Conventional accounts of the domestication of the cat, based on archaeological and historical records, propose that they first lived in human homes in Egypt about 3,500 years ago. This theory, however, has recently been challenged by new evidence coming from the field of molecular biology. Examination of differences between the DNA of today’s domestic and wild cats has dated their origins much earlier, anywhere between ten thousand and fifteen thousand years ago (8,000 and 13,000 years BCE). We can safely discount the earliest date in this range—anything earlier than about 15,000 years ago makes little sense in terms of the evolution of our own species, since it is unlikely that stone-age hunter-gatherers would have had the need or resources to keep cats. The minimum estimate, 10,000 years, presumes that domestic cats are derived from several wild ancestors that came from several different locations in the Middle East. In other words, the domestication of the cat happened in several widely separated places, either roughly contemporaneously or over a longer period of time. Even if we assume that cats started to become domesticated around 8,000 years BCE, this leaves us with a 6,500-year interval before the first historical records of domestic cats appear in Egypt. So far, few scientists of any kind have studied this first—and longest—phase in the partnership between human and cat.

The archaeological record for this period, such as it is, is not very illuminating. Cats’ teeth and fragments of bones dating between 7,000 and 6,000 BCE have been excavated around the Palestinian city of Jericho and elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, the “cradle of civilization” that extends from Iraq through Jordan and Syria to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and Egypt. However, these fragments are uncommon; moreover, they could well have come from wild cats, perhaps killed for their pelts. Rock paintings and statuettes of catlike animals from the following millennia, discovered in what is now Israel and Jordan, could conceivably depict domesticated cats; however, these cats are not depicted in domestic settings, so they may well be representations of wild cats, possibly even big cats. Yet even if we assume that these pieces of evidence all refer to early forms of the domestic cat, their very rarity still must be explained. By 8,000 BCE, humankind’s relationship with the domestic dog had already progressed to the extent that dogs were routinely buried alongside their masters in several parts of Asia, Europe, and North America, whereas burials of cats first became common in Egypt around 1,000 BCE.1 If cats were indeed domesticated pets during this time, we should have far more tangible evidence of that relationship than has been uncovered.

Our best clues on how the partnership between man and cat began come not from the Fertile Crescent, but instead from Cyprus. Cyprus is one of the few Mediterranean islands that have never been joined to the mainland, even when that sea was at its lowest level. Consequently, its animal population has had to migrate there by flying or swimming—that is, until humans started to travel there in primitive boats some 12,000 years ago. At that point, the Eastern Mediterranean had no domesticated animals, with the likely exception of some early dogs, so the animals that made the crossing with those first human settlers must have been either individually tamed wild animals or inadvertent hitchhikers. Therefore, while we cannot possibly tell whether ancient remains of cats on the mainland are from wild, tame, or domesticated animals, cats could clearly have reached Cyprus only by being deliberately transported there by humans—assuming, as we safely may, that cats of that era were as averse to swimming in the ocean as today’s cats are. Any remains of cats found there must be those of semidomesticated or at least captive animals, or their descendants.

On Cyprus, the earliest remains of cats coincide with and are found within the first permanent human settlements, some 7,500 years BCE, making it highly likely that they were deliberately transported there. Cats are too large and conspicuous to have been accidentally transported across the Mediterranean in the small boats of the time: we know very little about seagoing boats from that period, but they were likely too small to conceal a stowaway cat. Moreover, we have no evidence for cats living away from human habitations on Cyprus for another 3,000 years. The most likely scenario, then, is that the earliest settlers of Cyprus brought with them wildcats that they had captured and tamed on the mainland. It is implausible that they were the only people to have thought of taming wildcats, so capturing cats and taming them were likely already an established practice in the Eastern Mediterranean. Confirming this, we also have evidence for prehistoric importations of tamed cats to other large Mediterranean islands, such as Crete, Sardinia, and Majorca.

The most likely reason for taming wildcats is also evident from the first settlements on Cyprus. Right from the outset, these habitations, like their counterparts of the time on the mainland, became infested by house mice. Presumably these unwanted mice were stowaways, accidentally transported across the Mediterranean in sacks of food or seed corn. The most likely scenario, therefore, is that as soon as mice became established on Cyprus, the colonizers imported tame or semidomesticated cats to keep them under control. This might have been ten years or a hundred years after the first settlements were established—the archaeological record cannot reveal such small differences. If this is correct, it suggests that the practice of taming cats to control mice was already entrenched on the mainland as long as 10,000 years ago. No firm evidence for this is ever likely to be found, because the ubiquitous presence of wildcats there makes it impossible to tell whether the remains of a cat, even if found within a settlement, are those of a truly wild cat that had died or been killed when hunting there, or of a cat that had lived there for most or all of its life.

Whatever its exact origins, the tradition of taming wildcats to control vermin continued into modern times in parts of Africa where domestic cats are scarce and wildcats easy to obtain. While traveling the White Nile in 1869, the German botanist-explorer Georg Schweinfurth found that his boxes of botanical specimens were being invaded by rodents during the night. He recalled:

One of the commonest animals hereabouts was the wild cat of the steppes. Although the natives do not breed them as domestic animals, yet they catch them separately when they are quite young and find no difficulty in reconciling them to a life about their huts and enclosures, where they grow up and wage their natural warfare against the rats. I procured several of these cats, which, after they had been kept tied up for several days, seemed to lose a considerable measure of their ferocity and to adapt themselves to an indoor existence so as to approach in many ways to the habits of the common cat. By night I attached them to my parcels, which were otherwise in jeopardy, and by this means I could go to bed without further fear of any depredations from the rats.2

Like Schweinfurth, those much earlier explorers who first brought wildcats to Cyprus would almost certainly have found that they had to keep the cats tethered. If allowed to run free, the cats would have quickly escaped and wreaked havoc on the native fauna, which up to that point would have had no experience with a predator as formidable as a cat. We know that this is what eventually happened. Several centuries after human settlement, cats indistinguishable from wildcats spread throughout Cyprus and remained there for several thousand years.3 Most likely, only the cats that were confined to the grain stores would have stayed there to help the early settlers to rid those stores of pests: The others would have left to exploit the local wildlife. The descendants of these escapees may have been captured and even eaten from time to time, since broken cat bones have been found at several other Neolithic sites on Cyprus, as well as those of other predators such as foxes and even domestic dogs.

The practice of taming wildcats to control vermin was probably prompted by the emergence of a new pest in the early granaries, the house mouse (Mus musculus); indeed, the histories of these two animals are inextricably interwoven. The house mouse is one of more than thirty species of mouse found worldwide, but the only one that has adapted to living alongside humans and exploiting our food.

House mice have their origins in a wild species from somewhere in northern India that was in existence possibly as long as a million years ago, certainly well before the evolution of humankind. From there they spread both east and west, feeding on wild grains, until some reached the Fertile Crescent, where they eventually encountered the earliest stores of harvested grain: mouse teeth have been found among stored grain dating back 11,000 years in Israel, and a 9,500-year-old stone pendant carved in the shape of a mouse’s head was found in Syria. Thus began an association with humankind that continues to the present day. Humans not only provided an abundance of food that mice could exploit, but our buildings also provided both warm, dry places to build nests and protection from predators such as wildcats. Mice that could adapt to these living conditions thrived, while those that could not died out: today’s house mice rarely breed successfully away from human habitation, especially where there are wild competitors, such as wood mice.

Humans also provided house mice with a way to colonize new areas. Mice from the southeastern part of the Fertile Crescent, what is now Syria and northern Iraq, were accidentally transported, presumably in grain being traded between communities, throughout the Near East, up to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and then to nearby islands such as Cyprus.

The first culture to be bedeviled by house mice was that of the Natufians, who by extension are the people most likely to have initiated the cat’s long journey into our homes. The Natufians inhabited the area that now comprises Israel-Palestine, Jordan, southwestern Syria, and southern Lebanon from about 11,000 to 8,000 BCE. Widely regarded as the inventors of agriculture, they were initially hunter-gatherers like other inhabitants of the region; soon, however, they began to specialize in harvesting the wild cereals that grew abundantly all around them, in a region that was significantly more productive then than it is today. To do this, the Natufians invented the sickle. Sickle blades found at Natufian settlements still show the glossy surfaces that could have been produced only from scything through the abrasive stems of wild grains—wheat, barley, and rye.

The early Natufians lived in small villages; their houses were partly belowground, partly above, with walls and floors of stone and brushwood roofs. Until about 10,800 BCE, they rarely planted cereals deliberately, but over the next 1,300 years a rapid change in climate, known as the Younger Dryas, brought about a significant intensification in field-clearing, planting, and cultivation. As the amounts of harvested grain increased, so did the need for storage. The Natufians and their successors probably used storage pits built out of mudbrick and constructed like miniature versions of their houses. It was probably this invention that triggered the self-domestication of the house mouse, which, moving into this rich and novel environment, thereby became humankind’s first mammalian pest species.

As the numbers of mice grew, they must have attracted the attentions of their natural predators, including foxes, jackals, birds of prey, the Natufians’ domestic dogs, and, of course, wildcats. Wildcats had two advantages that set them apart from other predators of mice: they were both agile and nocturnal, well adapted to hunting in the near-darkness when the mice became active. However, if these wildcats had been as frightened of man as their modern counterparts are, it is difficult to imagine how they would have exploited this new rich source of food. Almost certainly, therefore, the wildcats in the region inhabited by the Natufians were less wary than those of today.

We have no evidence that the Natufians deliberately domesticated the cat. Like the mouse before it, the cat simply arrived to exploit a new resource that had been created by the beginnings of agriculture. As Natufian agriculture became more complex, involving both an increasing array of crops and the domestication of animals such as sheep and goats, and as agriculture extended to other regions and cultures, so the opportunities available for cats multiplied. These were not pet cats as we know them today; rather, the cats that exploited these concentrations of mice would have been more like today’s urban foxes—capable of adapting to a human environment, but still retaining their essential wildness. Domestication was to come much later.

We know surprisingly little about the wildcats of the Fertile Crescent and surrounding areas (see box on page 8, “The Evolution of the Cats”). The archaeological record indicates that 10,000 years ago several species lived in the region, all of which would have been attracted by concentrations of mice. We know that later on, the ancient Egyptians kept tame jungle cats, Felis chaus, in considerable numbers; jungle cats, though, are substantially heavier than wildcats, weighing between ten and twenty pounds, and large enough to kill young gazelle and chital. Although their normal diet includes rodents, they may have been too obtrusive to get regular access to granaries. Alternatively, they may simply have been temperamentally unsuited to living alongside man. We do have evidence that the Egyptians tried to tame and even train them as rodent controllers, but apparently without any lasting success.

The Evolution of the Cats

Every member of the cat family, from the noble lion to the tiny black-footed cat, can trace its ancestry back to a medium-sized catlike animal, Pseudaelurus, that roamed the steppes of central Asia some 11 million years ago. Pseudaelurus eventually went extinct, but not before unusually low sea levels had allowed it to migrate across what is now the Red Sea into Africa, where it evolved into several medium-sized cats, including those we know today as the caracal and the serval. Other Pseudaelurus traveled east across the Bering land bridge into North America, where they eventually evolved into the bobcat, lynx, and puma. Some 2 to 3 million years ago, following the formation of the Panama isthmus, the first cats crossed into South America; here they evolved in isolation, forming several species not found anywhere else, including the ocelot and Geoffroy’s cat. The big cats—lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards—evolved in Asia and then spread into both Europe and North America, their present-day distributions but a tiny relict of where they used to roam a few million years ago. Remarkably, the distant ancestors of today’s domestic cats seem to have evolved in North America about 8 million years ago, and then migrated back into Asia some 2 million years later. About 3 million years ago, these began to evolve into the species we know today, including the wildcat, the sand cat, and the jungle cat; a separate Asian lineage, including Pallas’s cat and the fishing cat, also began to diverge at about this time.4

Jungle cat

Coeval with them were sand cats, Felis margarita, large-eared nocturnal animals that hunt by night, using their acute hearing. They are, moreover, comparatively unafraid of humans, and hence might be thought good candidates for taming and domestication. However, they are made for life in deserts—the pads on their feet are covered in thick fur to protect them from the hot sand—so few would have found themselves near the first stores of grains: the Natufians generally built their villages in wooded areas.

Sand cat

As civilization spread eastward through Asia, so it would have come into contact with other cat species. At Chanhudaro, a town built by the Harappan civilization close to the Indus River in what is now Pakistan, archaeologists found a 5,000-year-old mudbrick imprinted with a cat’s foot, overlapped by that of a dog. As the newly made brick was drying in the sun, the cat appears to have run across it, closely followed by a dog, possibly in hot pursuit. The footprint is larger than that of a domestic cat, and its webbed feet and extended claws identify it as a fishing cat, Felis viverrina, found today from the Indus basin eastward and south to Sumatra in Indonesia (though not in the Fertile Crescent). As its name implies, the fishing cat is a strong swimmer and specializes in catching fish and aquatic birds. Although it will also take small rodents, it is difficult to see how it would switch to a diet consisting predominantly of mice, so it too is an unlikely candidate for domestication.


Farther afield, we know of at least two other species of cat that came in out of the wild to prey on the vermin that plagued humankind’s food stores. In Central Asia and ancient China, the local wildcat, the manul (or Pallas’s cat, named after the German naturalist who first categorized it) was occasionally even tamed and deliberately kept as a rodent controller. The manul has the shaggiest coat of any member of the cat family, so long that its hair almost completely obscures its ears. In pre-Columbian Central America, meanwhile, an otter-like cat, the jaguarundi, was probably also kept as a semi-tame pest controller. None of these species have ever become fully domesticated, neither are any of them included in the direct ancestry of today’s house cats.


Out of all these various wild cats, only one was successfully domesticated. This honor goes to the Arabian wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, as confirmed by their DNA.5 In the past, both scientists and cat-fanciers have suggested that certain breeds within the domestic cat family are hybrids with other species—for example, the Persian’s fluffy feet are superficially similar to the sand cat’s, and its fine coat is somewhat like that of a manul. However, the DNA of all domestic cats—random-bred, Siamese, or Persian—shows no trace of these other species, or indeed any other admixture. Somehow, the Arabian wildcat alone was able to inveigle itself into human society, outcompeting all its rivals, and eventually spreading throughout the world. Although the qualities that gave it this edge are not easy to pin down, they probably occurred in combination only in the wildcats of the Middle East.

The wildcat Felis silvestris is currently found throughout Europe, Africa, and central Asia, as well as western Asia, the area where it probably first evolved. Like many predators, such as the wolf, it is now found only in isolated and generally remote areas where it can avoid persecution from man. This has not always been the case. Five thousand years ago, wildcats were evidently regarded as delicacies in some areas; the rubbish pits left by the “lake dwellers” of Germany and Switzerland contain many wildcat bones.6 The cats must have been abundant at the time; otherwise, they could hardly have been trapped in such large numbers. Over the centuries they became less common, displaced by the felling of their forest habitat for agriculture, and forced farther into the woods by development and loss of habitat. The invention of firearms led to wildcats being hunted to extinction in many areas. During the nineteenth century, various European countries, including the UK, Germany, and Switzerland, classified them as vermin, due to the harm they supposedly caused both wildlife and livestock.7 Only recently, due to the establishment of wildlife reserves and a more informed attitude to the important role that predators play in stabilizing ecosystems, are wildcats returning to areas such as Bavaria, where they have not been seen for hundreds of years.

The wildcat is now divided into four subspecies or races. These are the European forest cat Felis silvestris silvestris, the Arabian wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, the Southern African wildcat Felis silvestris cafra, and the Indian desert cat Felis silvestris ornata.8 All these cats are rather similar in appearance, and all are capable of interbreeding where their ranges overlap. A possible fifth subspecies is the very rare Chinese desert cat Felis bieti, which according to its DNA split off from the main wildcat lineage about a quarter of a million years ago. It’s possible that these cats actually form a separate species, as no hybrids are known to exist, but they live in such a small and inaccessible region—part of the Chinese province of Sichuan—that this may be due to lack of opportunity rather than physical impossibility.

Wildcats from different parts of the world differ markedly in how easily they can be tamed. Domestication, moreover, can start only with animals that are already tame enough to raise their young in the proximity of people. Those offspring that are best suited to the company of humans and human environments are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to stay and breed there than those that are not; the latter will most likely revert to the wild. Over several generations, this repeated “natural” selection will, even on its own, gradually change the genetic makeup of these animals so that they become better adapted to life alongside people. It is also likely that, at the same time, humans will intensify that selection, by feeding the more docile animals and driving away those prone to bite and scratch. This process cannot start without some genetic basis for tameness existing beforehand, and in the case of wildcats, this is far from evenly distributed. Today, some parts of the world have little raw material for domestication, while others seem more promising.

The distribution of the subspecies of wildcat

We know, for example, that the four subspecies of wildcat differ in how easy they are to tame. The European forest cat is larger and thicker-set than a typical domestic cat, and has a characteristic short tail with a blunt, black tip. This aside, it looks from a distance much like a domestic striped tabby—a distant glimpse is all that most people are likely ever to get, however, for it is among the wildest of animals. This is largely due to its genetics, and not the way it is raised: those few people who have tried to produce tame forest cats have met with precious little but rejection. In 1936, natural and wildlife photographer Frances Pitt wrote:

It has long been stated that the European wildcat is untameable. There was a time when I did not believe this. . . . My optimism was daunted when I made acquaintance with Beelzebina, Princess of Devils. She came from the Highlands of Scotland, a half-grown kitten that spat and scratched in fiercest resentment. Her pale green eyes glared savage hatred at human-beings, and all attempts to establish friendly relations with her failed. She grew less afraid, but as her timidity departed, her savagery increased.9

Pitt then went on to obtain an even younger male kitten, in the hope that Beelzebina had been too old to be socialized when first found. That she named this new kitten Satan perhaps suggests how difficult he was to handle from the outset. As he grew stronger and more confident, he became impossible to touch; he would take food from the hand, but would spit and growl while doing so, and then quickly back away. However, he was not pathologically aggressive—he just hated people. While he was still young, Pitt introduced him to a female domestic kitten, Beauty, toward whom he was “all gentleness and devotion.” When she was let out of the cage in which he had to be kept, “this distressed him sorely. He rent the air with harsh cries, for his voice, though loud, was not lovely.” Beauty and Satan produced several litters of kittens, all of which had the characteristic appearance of forest cats. Some, despite being handled from an early age, grew to be as savage as their father; others were more sociable toward Pitt and her parents, though all remained very wary of unfamiliar people. Pitt’s experiences with Scottish wildcats seem to be typical: Mike Tomkies, the “Wilderness Man,” was also unable to socialize his two hand-raised wildcat sisters, Cleo and Patra, which he kept at his remote cottage on the shores of a Scottish loch.10

We know little about the Indian desert cat, but it is reputedly difficult to tame. This subspecies is found to the south and east of the Caspian Sea, southward through Pakistan and into the northwestern Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and the Punjab, and eastward through Kazakhstan into Mongolia. Its coat is usually paler than that of the other wildcats, and is blotchy rather than tabby in pattern. Like other wildcats, it will occasionally base itself near farms, attracted by the concentration of rodents, but it has never taken the next step to domestication—acceptance of humans. We have records from Harappa of tamed caracals, a medium-sized, long-limbed cat with characteristic tufted ears, and jungle cats, to add to the fishing cat that left its footprint there; but we find no indications of any Indian desert cats. For a long time biologists and cat fanciers alike thought that Siamese cats could be a mixture of domestic and Indian desert cat, the progeny of interbreeding between early domestic cats and local wildcats somewhere around the Indus valley. However, scientists have not found the characteristic DNA signature of the Indian desert cat in any examples of the Siamese and related breeds, which instead are ultimately derived from the wildcats of the Middle East or Egypt—there are no silvestris wildcats in Southeast Asia, so the original Siamese cats must have arrived from the west as fully domesticated animals.


  • "For any who may wonder what their feline companions are really thinking, Cat Sense, by John Bradshaw, provides the best answers that science can give."—New York Times
  • "A definitively guide to the origins, evolution and modern-day needs of our furry friends."—Cat Fancy
  • "An indispensable addition to the cat-lore canon."—NPR, Book of the Year
  • "[Bradshaw] cracks an enigma: the feline mind. A must for owners wondering how Fluffy really feels about them."—People
  • "Insightful.... Using cutting-edge research, Bradshaw takes us into the mysterious mind of the domestic cat, explaining the cat's nature and needs, and, in doing, so deepens our understanding of our wild housemates and improves our relationships with them."—Modern Cat
  • "In his wide-ranging new book, Cat Sense, English anthrozoologist John Bradshaw calls on all his scientific resources to interpret our enigmatic felines for the 21st century ---a restrictive era far removed from the predatory instincts of these not-quite-domesticated animals."—Globe and Mail
  • "[A] thoughtful, useful and utterly absorbing book."—Guardian
  • "[Bradshaw] deftly sums up the latest science that attempts to discover what's going on inside the kitty brain.... A careful read can help a cat owner understand why cats don't get along, guide efforts in training and even reveal what's behind kitty's favorite toy."—Science News
  • "[Bradshaw] offers plenty of insights into what makes your tabby purr and how those insights can make a difference in your domestic life.... The understanding you gain should make for a happier cat-human household."—Natural History
  • "This fascinating book will be a bible for cat owners."—Booklist, starred review
  • "You could buy a dozen books by the many cat whisperers, cat gurus and cat therapists that exist in our feline-obsessed modern world, but their accumulated wisdom would probably not help you understand your cats--where they've come from, what they want from you, and where they might be going, if we're not careful--as well as Cat Sense."—Observer
  • "[A] go-to cat guide in one easy read.... For cat lovers, this book gives a vital look into the perspective of the cat.... The insight this book provides will not only help cat companions better understand their pet, it will allow them to create an ideal living situation for their cat. Keeping your cat happy and stress-free will ensure a comfortable home for everyone."—Global Animal
  • "[Bradshaw] engagingly synthesizes recent academic research about cats.... Readable, practical, and original, this is likely to become the go-to book for understanding cat behavior."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Cat Sense, a well-researched reference book (chock-full of lovely illustrations) delves into fascinating insights into the feline mind and their physical evolution to the present day."—Cat Wisdom 101
  • "This fascinating book is one of the finest ever written about cats. There was hardly a page where I did not learn something new, and John Bradshaw's many practical suggestions are truly excellent. Any cat lover is bound to discover in it much that is useful, interesting, and entertaining."—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats

On Sale
Sep 10, 2013
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

John Bradshaw

About the Author

John Bradshaw is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, and author of the New York Times bestsellers Cat Sense and Dog Sense and coauthor of The Trainable Cat. He lives in Southampton, England.

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