Are you talking to me?
Imagine a world where you can have an entire conversation with someone without uttering a word; where communication
depends upon your ability to read body language and determine someone’s mood by looking at them. Well, welcome to the exclusive culture of cats!
Kittens are born blind and deaf, so their mothers communicate with them via the physical sensation of purring. Meowing and purring helps them identify their mothers, and it signals the mother cat that her kittens are properly receiving her milk. Big cats, such as lions and tigers, communicate by roaring and, with the exception of a kitten that can purr and meow, cats can either purr or roar, but not both.
House cats develop a wide variety of behaviors to alert others of their emotions, and they communicate differently to humans, other cats and predators. Meowing is rarely used between cats. It is reserved to signal a mother cat or a pet owner. Cats quickly learn which sounds elicit suitable responses from humans and utilize those sounds to achieve their motives.
Cats talk with their eyes, and what they say is determined by the position of their eyelids and the dilation of their eyes. Any strong emotion—fear, anger or pleasure—may cause their pupils to contract into slits. This protects the eyes from a predator’s claws. An unblinking stare can warn other felines that food bowls, litter boxes or other important territories are off limits. The blinking of a cat’s eye in response to his human is the equivalent of a “kitty kiss” and indicates deep affection.
A cat uses his tail to display what he is feeling at any given time. Straight up and curled indicates happiness; half raised, displeasure; and very low, unhappiness or sickness. The tip of a cat’s tail twitches when he is hunting, irritated or playing, and puffiness of a tail suggests a cat is scared or surprised.
Cats express affection and need by “bunting” or rubbing their head against their humans. It is also a cat’s way of marking his territory. Touching noses with another cat is a signal of friendliness, and licking another cat or human is a signal of love. To stimulate the mother’s milk when nursing, a cat will “knead bread,” and this communicates contentment. Cats also express true trust of their humans when they lie on their backs and expose their bellies.
Feral cats rely on their native body language, and if they don’t interact with humans, they need not learn a “second language.”
To discourage engagement of another feline, a cat will fall on its side submissively. And to avoid a fight and scare away an opponent, cats arch their backs upwards to appear as large as possible.
Biting never demonstrates playfulness and should never be encouraged by humans. Male cats bite the scruff of a female’s neck to assume dominance when mating.
Cats are very independent, self-willed creatures, and we should feel honored they have chosen to communicate with us. But to fully understand them, we must stop, look and listen to their body language. So, the next time your cat crawls in your lap, tilts his head back and stares up at you so you can scratch that sweet spot under his chin, communicate in his language. Blink your eyes to show your love, and it is very likely he will do so in return.
Contributed by Linda Slavin, Co-Founder, Cat Depot