How Can Cats Talk To Us?

The cat, Armed with all its super senses, does not merely use them to catch its daily meals. They enable it to appreciate a rich and complex life, communicating with other cats and with us using body language, vocalisation and scent.

We can, with a little perception, see a portion of the feline’s non-verbal communication (although the subtleties are probably lost on us) and interpret the intonations of its calls, miaows and purrs.

The third medium, that of scent, is all but lost to us – unless we are ‘lucky enough to get a whiff of good old tomcat spray! But it is the sense of smell that is the most powerful of all the cat’s senses and an integral part of every moment of its life.

How Can Cats Talk To Us ?

SMELL TALK

A blind defenceless new-born kitten uses its well-developed sensesof smell, touch and warmth detection to guide itself to its mother’snipple. Using scent, it comes to know its own specific areola, to which it will attempt to return at each feed. The queen knows her youngby their smell and by her scent on them and the importance of scent as a mode of communication is established.  

 We have alreadyseen how important scent communication is to cats (see chapterthree) – what about other forms of communication?

BODY TALK

Cats are known for their independence and their solitary hunting techniques. Unlike their canine cousins, they do not co-operate to hunt or group together for protection and therefore don’t have thesocial rules of the pack. In any case, they do blend with different felines, notonly for the reasons for mating or raising little cats, however for what wewould call progressively ‘friendly’ association.

They have a complex bodylanguage – scientists have noted twenty-five different visualsignals used in sixteen combinations; no doubt many of the cat’smore subtle nuances pass unnoted. But if we can master therecognition and translation of a cat’s basic expressions, then we arewell on the way to understanding what our cats are feeling andmeaning to ‘say’.

Most encounters between strange cats occur outside, and inhigh-density suburban or urban environments cats will meet manyothers within a small area. The most dramatic body language occursduring encounters between rival males and the most obviousbetween cats during courtship.

Since most pet cats are neutered and we rarely watch them outdoors, most of us have to be content to observe the less extreme interactions between cats, between cats and other animals, and between cats and ourselves. Some of the most appealing aspects of a cat’s behavioral repertoire are displayed during play.

 Kittens, and even adults, will put on for us a playful pantomime, which includes hunting, fightingor courtship – in fact, the whole gamut of behaviour. The play-acting can be likened to tribal dances where wars and courtshipsare re-enacted as a learning, as well as a social, process.

In mostcases, felines that share a home jump on well together and interactionsare neighborly and quiet. Where there is grinding, you have a muchbetter possibility of seeing the feline’s whole collection!

In this Part, body language has at first been separated intohead (eyes, ears, hairs and mouth) and body (tail, position,size and point). As regards positions, however, since someexpressions of fear and anger can be very similar, the signs fromindividual ‘components’ may be conflicting and easily misread. Toget the whole story, the whole body must be taken into account,as the models will appear. Isolating one feature may also bemisleading because signals often change rapidly as the cat’s moodand mind alters.

EYES

Eye contact is one of the most important aspects of humancommunication, and in cats too it plays an important role, however we must understand that, similarly that a tooth-exposing chimpanzeeis not grinning but rather is really appearing, delayed eye contactbetween felines is certifiably not a cordial activity all things considered in people.

Staring iscertainly an assertive behaviour among cats, and rivals will try toout-stare each other to resolve conflicts. When a cat realises it isbeing watched or stared at, often it will stop in mid-groom or wakeand look up. Although it may then continue with what it wasdoing, it does so in what we would call a ‘self-conscious’ manneruntil the observer has looked away also. We too can sometimes getthat unnerving feeling of ‘being watched’, but cats are obviouslyparticularly sensitive to observation.

At the other outrageous, cats are often described as ‘day-dreaming’ At the other extreme, cats are often described as ‘day-dreaming’ or gazing into space because they sit quietly, appearing not to belooking at anything in particular.

 This is on the grounds that felines take in agreat arrangement of data through the edges of their eyes, whereaswe see increasingly through the focal part thus look straight for wardly at things around us. Cats tend to use this peripheral vision unless theyneed to ‘fix’ their eyes on something, such as a moving target.The eyes are good indicators of mood in cats. A narrowing orwidening of the eye can display interest, anger or fear, in the sameway as it does in man.

The extent of the student isn’t just governedby the measure of accessible light, yet by the feline’s feelings. Pupilsmay dilate because of either fear or aggressive excitement and, inless dramatic circumstances, when the cat sees its dinner bowlbeing filled, or becomes excited or aroused by the sight of afriendly cat. When a cat is happy and relaxed, the pupils will be as dilated orconstricted as the available light demands – the less light there is, the wider the pupil and the blacker the eye seems.

EARS

The ears are one of the cat’s most important instruments of communication. Between twenty and thirty muscles control theirmovement and they can swivel through 180 degrees and moveindependently of each other, around, up and down.

In some of the larger members of the cat family, pale markings on the back of otherwise dark ears accentuate their position during offensive or defensive encounters, making their owner’s message not only easier to see but also leaving little margin for error in translating its message.

Some wildcats, such as the bobcat, have much shorter-than-average tail and so are deprived of one of their methods of communication. To compensate for their lack of tail, they have developed tufts on their ears which accentuate their position and give them more opportunity for communication.                                                                                                    

As anxiety increases, the cat moves its ears slightly back and down into a more flattened position. My two young cats exhibited this ear-dipping beautifully when a new bumptious puppy approached their basket where they luxuriated by the wood burner.

MOUTH

The cat does not use its mouth in aggressive confrontation as the dog does – a cat’s open-mouthed hiss and snarl is brought on by a feeling of threat. Licking of the lips may be a sign of anxiety,although sitting with the tongue hanging or sticking out seems tobe a sign of relaxation or contentment, often giving the cat thatamusing ‘simple’ look. When humans yawn for reasons of tiredness or boredom, theycan start off a chain reaction of yawning that is almost impossibleto stifle in whoever sees them. Yawning is not contagious in cats,nor is it a sign of boredom; it is more a signal of reassurance andcontentment and often accompanies a languid stretch after theyhave awoken from sleep.

TAIL

The tail is used for communication as well as balance. Whenhunting, the cat holds its tail in a streamlined manner behinduntil it is required as balance for the final rush.

 It may also announce the cat’s interest and concentration with a twitchingmovement as it corners its prey. However, the tail comes to the fore as a tool of communication when the cat interacts with other cats or with people. It has a whole range of movements, from side to side, and up and down, in speeds ranging from a graceful slowsweep to a thrashing whip. The tail can change from a sleek coilfolded around the cat when it is asleep to an erect bristling brushwhen the cat is frightened.

A relaxed, confident and alert cat walking through its territorywill merely let its tail follow behind until it meets another cat orfinds a point of interest such as a spraying or scratching post. If itdecides to spray, then the typical tail-up posture and foot-treadingmotion quickly follow as the post is anointed with urine.

When itsees a known friendly cat or its owner, the cat will often quickly  flick its tail into a vertical position, pulled slightly forward over itsback and kinked down a little at the tip. This position allows afriend – cat, or person (if they so wish!) – to investigate theexposed region under the tail where a recognisable scent willconfirm that the cat is a part of the group.

The greeting is oftenaccompanied by a murmur or chirrup. Kittens greeting their motherwill run up with their tails in the air and proceed to let them dropover their mother’s rump and rub over the top of her tail in an attempt to solicit some of the food she has brought to the den.Adult cats will do the same with their human owner, rubbing andwiping their tails around legs, hands or even plates in the hope of being fed or fussed over.

When kittens or cats play chase or when theyhave that explosion of energy during a ‘mad half-hour’ when theyrush around the house bounding over anything in their paths, be itpeople, dogs or chairs; they often hold their tails in this upside-down horseshoe shape which, when all the hair is erected, makesthe madcaps look as if they have ‘the wind under their tail’.

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