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The great 'cat on the stairs' debate

Is the cat going up the stairs, or down? We employ building codes, feline behaviourism and philosophy to determine the answer.



Upstairs or down? This debate has gripped the internet in recent weeks, with strong opinions being presented for each point of view, with a third group arguing that it is impossible to tell.

The reason for the latter defeatist attitude is that the picture is actually an optical illusion. It's like the picture where you can see either an old lady or a girl depending how one interprets the lines of a drawing. Here, we are let down by the clues we normally use to understand how an image of two dimensions should work in a three-dimensional world. The patch in the background should tell us immediately whether we are looking at a wall or a floor, but in the photograph all we have in an ambiguous blur.

So, are we at the foot of the stairs looking at a descending cat, or at the top of the stairs, looking down at an ascending cat? Here at KYC Towers, we can finally give an answer to this question. It is reasonably certain that the cat is coming downstairs. How do we know?

Well, the first point is to do with the stairs themselves. More particularly, the strips holding the carpet in place at the edge of the stairs. This is called 'nosing'. It's the part shown by the white arrow below.

In western countries, building codes state that the nosing must be on the vertical part of the step. This is because otherwise there is a danger that someone going down will catch a toe on the raised bit and fall the rest of the way down the stairs. However, this picture is said to have originated in the Middle East, and there is a possibility that whoever carpeted these stairs had a more relaxed attitude to safety precautions. So the nosing is suggestive, but not conclusive.

Next, consider the rectangular blocks in the wall that run alongside the stairs. This is a common design in both South America and in the Middle East.

The convention is to lay these blocks lengthways so that they extend the width of the stair. If the cat is coming downstairs, this would in fact be the case. If the cat is coming upstairs, the blocks are set vertically, so that each block takes up half the width of a stair. This would be odd, and not aesthetically appealing, but again this is not conclusive. The builder might have decided to be original and iconoclastic in his design.

So, as is right and proper for a feline-centric website, we turn to the cat herself. One indicator is the tail. A cat's tail is not only used to tickle your nose while you are trying to sleep, and to conduct an invisible orchestra when the cat is unsure about something it's important for the cat's sense of balance. That's why, just before she jumps, a cat will swish her tail back and forth once or twice to check if her stance is okay. Here in this picture the tail is stretched out and back as we might expect if the cat is descending. If kitty were going up the stairs,we would expect the tail to be down, parallel to the stairs.

Again though, this is not conclusive, because the cat may have seen a human she likes, in which case the tail would be raised in greeting a salutation which in all the animal kingdom is performed only by Felis Catus.

Finally, look at the paws. That delicate white-gloved paw is about to take the next step. This suggests that the cat is taking the stairs as a human would one leg at a time. That is certainly how a cat usually goes downstairs. But, if you can, watch your cat ascending stairs; especially stairs which are about chest-high to a cat on all fours as these stairs appear to be. What you will see is that the cat stretches up two sets of stairs, places both front paws together on the uppermost stair, and then does a sort of bunny hop with the back legs onto the stair behind, then rapidly repeats this performance all the way up.

Again this is not conclusive. Cats, like humans, have their idiosyncrasies, and a particularly fit cat might decide to be different and use the one-leg-at-a-time approach to going upstairs. Also the cat's left paw is suggestive, as this suggests that the cat is either descending pretty rapidly, or is ascending and levering herself up with that left paw. Therefore we are left with Occam's razor.

Yes, it is possible that a lax attitude to safety put the nosing on the wrong side of the stairs. Also the builder might have decided for his own reasons to lay the side bricks in an unconventional manner. For ascending steep stairs the cat might have developed a style different to the usual feline technique, and have chosen to stretch out its tail not for balance, but to say hello.

Therefore if stair-carpet layer, builder and cat all decided to be exceptional, all at once in the one picture, then the cat is ascending. If we have a conventional cat tackling a conventionally-built stairway in usual cat style, the cat is going downstairs. Occam's razor says that the simplest answer is most probably the correct answer - if this picture looks like a cat going downstairs, then that's what it probably is.

Cat erat demonstrandum.

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