Chatting with Your Cat

Source: Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

It is easy for us humans to congratulate ourselves for being the world’s best communicators because of our ability to talk. Some people speak several languages.
Others wow us by delivering motivational speeches. But here’s a reality check: our cats “speak” much more clearly than we do.

Cats are straight talkers. They put the c in candor. They never deceive or pretend. If they feel threatened or angered, they hiss. If they are content, they purr.
In cat-to-cat chat, there is rarely a communication miscue. The message is delivered clearly through body postures and a variety of vocalizations.
But between humans and cats, breakdowns in communication occur often.
What we may see as an act of defiance, like using the bathroom rug as a litter box, could be a call for help with a medical problem. We can’t understand why cats flee from our hugs but often seem to seek out visitors with allergies. We don’t always know the difference between “mew” and “meow.” We can communicate better with our cats by learning some feline “language.” Along the way, we may commit a feline faux “paw” or two, but that’s all right.

Talk, Talk, Talk
Q My cat Maddie is extremely talkative. As soon as I get up in the morning, she starts meowing at me. If I “meow” back, she will answer me for as long as I am willing to play this game. My other cat, Whisper, is aptly named; he is very quiet and rarely talks to me. Why are some cats so talkative and others not?

A Quite simply, some cats have more to say than others. Cats are a lot like people.
There are the chatty types and the ones who prefer to listen more than to talk.
You didn’t mention whether Maddie is a purebred or mixed, but some breeds are more prone to talking. Topping that list is the Siamese. Other Oriental breeds are also known to speak out more than quieter breeds such as Persians or Maine Coons. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. I’ve known some Siamese who seem to operate with the mute button on and some pushy Persians who never seem to stop talking until they reach the food bowl or their bed.
Cats are quick studies. They realize we are only human and that we are often oblivious to their obvious body language. They make a range of pure and complex sounds with different meanings, and they often attempt to communicate with us vocally.

It sounds as though you enjoy your chat sessions with Maddie, so I recommend using those times to reinforce your special bond. Even if she doesn’t understand explicitly what you are saying, she will welcome your friendly tones and the one-on-one attention. Behavior research conducted at the University of Bristol in England has shown that people who imitate their cats’ playfulness enjoy better relationships with their cats. In addition, cats who are played with tend to be more outgoing, easy natured, and better socialized.

At the end of each day, it’s not the words you speak that matter so much as it is your tone of voice and your willingness to spend quality time with Maddie. But don’t ignore Whisper — just because he doesn’t speak up doesn’t mean he won’t appreciate your attention and affection!

Can’t Stay Away
Q My two cats often avoid visitors who want to pet them but will always march right over to my friend who has terrible allergies! Why do cats seem to make a beeline for the one person who wants to stay away from them?

A While some people — and dogs — enjoy being rushed by admirers, cats exhibit their own brand of class. Anything that moves quickly toward them is likely to be regarded as a threat. So even if your Aunt Lilly simply adores your Persian and wants to smother her in lipstick-coated kisses, your kitty wants no part of such overwhelming attention and flees the scene.

Cats like to call the shots and control introductions. It is safer that way, not to mention more dignified. Your friend with the allergies is doing his best to avoid making eye contact with or physically touching your cats. In cat communication, he is showing good feline manners. Your friend mistakenly thinks ignoring your cats will make them not interested, but it has the opposite effect. They regard him as non-threatening and friendly.

Silly as it sounds, ask your friend with the allergies to clap his hands and wave his arms when your cats approach him. You don’t want to terrify your cats, but these gestures may be just unwelcoming enough for them to decide to keep their distance.
The easiest solution is probably to put your cats in another room and keep the door closed during your friend’s visit. Make sure that room offers cat amenities like a litter box, water and food bowls, comfy bed, a toy or two, and a great perch to do some “nosy neighbor” watching of outside activities.

With your cat-admiring friends, suggest they enter the room quietly, act like a log, and not budge off the sofa for a few minutes. They should not reach for or make eye contact with your cats. With quieter body language, they may achieve the desired interaction with your two cats.

The Purpose of Purring

Q My cat, Felix, loves to purr and does it quite loudly. All I have to do is pet him and he starts rumbling away. But my sister’s cat, Ginger, hardly ever purrs, even though she seems to be happy and is quite pampered. I’ve heard a lot of different things about why cats purr. What’s the real story?

A The phenomenon of purring has fascinated humans for ages. A lot of research has been conducted to figure out this feline mystique, but no one knows for certain why cats purr, though it is believed to be a voluntary act initiated by the central nervous system. In other words, cats purr on purpose, not just as an instinctive response.

Scientists report that cats produce purring sounds by using the diaphragm to push air back and forth across vibrating nerves in the larynx. Purring occurs in a frequency range between 25 and 150 hertz. At the lower end of the range, that rumbling sound can resemble an idling diesel engine, which has a similar velocity. All domestic cats and most wild felids are born with the ability to purr. Cats, from young kittens to senior citizens, purr when they are happy, such as when they are being petted, anticipating dinner, or snuggling on a warm, cozy bed.
Mother cats purr when nursing their kittens, and kittens purr when nursing.

But many cats also purr when they are afraid or in pain. That helps explain why females may purr during labor and why some cats purr when they are being examined at a veterinary clinic or when they are recovering from an injury. The purring might serve to reassure or comfort the frightened cat, and some studies suggest that the low-level vibrations of purring physically stimulate feline muscles and bones to keep them healthy and actually hasten the healing process. Cats purr right to the end — when my beloved Samantha had to be euthanized due to liver disease several years ago, the sound of her purring comforted both of us as she slipped peacefully away in my arms.

The Healing Power of Purring

Q When Groucho, my big tabby, sits in my lap and starts to purr contently, I feel the stress from my day melt away. I’m sure that stroking his soft fur and listening to his purring is good for my health, but is there any scientific proof of this?

A Never underestimate the power of purring — scientists certainly respect that magical motoring sound. Recent studies have validated that hanging around a contented, purring cat can drop a human’s high blood pressure to within normal range, decrease stress, conquer feelings of loneliness, and even bolster selfconfidence.

About 65 percent of American households have pets, but we are just realizing the power our pets possess in helping us to heal emotionally, physically, and mentally. Scientists are also discovering that cats and other cherished pets possess special healing powers that help people fight disease and cope with chronic conditions.
In his book The Healing Power of Pets, veterinarian Marty Becker describes the biochemical impact pets have on their owners’ body chemistry. He interviewed numerous medical experts who provided the results of many scientific studies that support a biological basis for what we’ve felt intuitively — that people can be healthier by interacting positively and sharing their lives with pets. For example, the mere act of petting your cat can lower your blood pressure.

Dr. Allen Schoen, director of the Veterinary Institute for Therapeutic Alternatives in Sherman, Connecticut, has devoted his career to studying how animals can transform and improve our lives. He explains that a cat’s purr stimulates our auditory nerves and provides us with a peaceful respite from the mechanical noises that are constantly bombarding our senses.

Some medical doctors even recommend “pet prescriptions” to their patients who live alone and need companionship. That’s because physicians have discovered that a family pet can actually motivate some patients to give their best effort when dealing with serious illnesses such as cancer. Having a pet to care for and feed can stimulate ailing individuals to take better care of themselves.
Here are three easy and healthy ways to tap into the healing power of your feline companion:
Spend some time each day just looking at, listening to, and talking with your cat. This helps release those “feel-good” biochemicals that help you relax.
Rub your cat the right way. Learn to give your pet a therapeutic massage, for some one-on-one time that will soothe both of you.
Engage in purposeful play with your cat and you might discover that you can let go of daily stress more easily, breathe more deeply, and laugh more freely.

Tail as a Mood Barometer

Q My cat, Mimi, often holds her tail straight up in the air when she walks around our house. If she’s out in the yard and she sees me come outside, her tail pops up like that, too. With dogs, I know that a relaxed, wagging tail usually means they are happy and excited. But when it comes to cats, I’m not sure how to interpret their tail signals. Do cats use their tails in the way dogs do to communicate?

A The versatile feline tail definitely does more than act as a rudder and provide balance. Like dogs, cats use their tails to signal their moods, sort of like those mood rings in the 1970s. Remember those? They would supposedly change colors when you were happy or angry. The key difference here is that a cat’s tail position is far more reliable than those mood rings were. Recognizing the messages delivered in tail talk can help you better communicate with your cat. Here are some key tail positions and what they mean.

HOISTED HIGH. A confident, contented cat will hold her tail high in the air as she moves about her territory. A tail that is erect like a flagpole signals a happy mood or a friendly greeting. Cats often send this message as they approach a welcoming person. If the top third of the tail twitches as the cat nears you, this means that he totally adores you.
QUESTION MARK. A tail looking bent in a question mark often conveys a playful mood. This would be a good time to engage in a five- or ten-minute play session.
FLYING LOW. A tail positioned straight down, parallel to the legs, may represent an aggressive mood. Be wary. That said, there are exceptions to this rule. Some breeds, such as Persians, Exotics, and Scottish Folds, normally tend to carry their tails lower than their backs.
TUCKED AWAY. A tail curved beneath the body signals fear or submission.
Something is making that cat nervous.
PUFFED UP. A pipe cleaner of a tail reflects a severely agitated and frightened cat who is trying to look bigger to ward off danger.
WHIPPING. A tail that whips rapidly back and forth indicates both fear and aggression. It is a warning that says “stay away.”
SWISHING. A tail that swishes slowly from side to side usually means the cat is focused on an object. Cats often swish their tails right before they pounce on a toy mouse. It is part of their predatory positioning.
TWITCHING. A tail that twitches just at the tip is a sign of curiosity and excitement.
CAT-TO-CAT. A tail wrapped around another cat is equivalent to a person casually putting her arm around a favorite pal. It conveys feline friendship. My cats Callie and Little Guy often stroll down my hallway with their tails touching.
The Halloween Pose
Q Occasionally, my young cat will arch his back, puff out his hair, and bounce around the room on stiff legs. He looks ridiculous. I have to laugh when he strikes that classic Halloween cat spooky pose. Why does he do that?
A Faced with a fight-or-flight predicament, a cat needs to deal with what he perceives to be a fearful situation. Inside your frightened cat, biochemicals are at work. Adrenaline starts coursing through his body, causing his hair to bristle, his back to arch, and his tail to puff out. The result? He looks like a poster child for Halloween symbols.
Cats strike this pose to look physically bigger and more menacing to approaching threats. Notice that your cat also turns his body sideways toward the attacker to further magnify his appearance. Outwardly, the cat looks mean and ready to rumble, but inside, he is hoping that the attacker (be it a strange dog, an unfamiliar house guest, or a startling sound on the television) will just go away and leave him alone.
This is a classic feline bluff posture. It may look comical to us, but to our cats, the threat is real and the pose is an instinctive reaction. If this posture doesn’t work, the cat faces two options: flee the scene or prepare to fight.

Seeing Eye to Eye

Q My cat, Daphne, has beautiful, big, round, golden eyes. She is a Bengal who I adopted as a kitten about three years ago. She has developed into a very affectionate cat who likes to play and who follows me from room to room. Sometimes I try to engage in staring contests with her for fun. I thought that cats could outstare us, but she always seems to break her stare and starts blinking at me. What is she trying to tell me?

A Ah, you are the proud recipient of the feline eye-wink. Cats who gently flutter their eyes at selected people are conveying not only affection but also trust.
Daphne is telling you in candid cat language that she adores you. Make Daphne’s day by responding with soft winks back to her. She may be wowed by your cat savvy and display other forms of friendship toward you.
As for staring contests, cats save that intense look for when they are on alert or are feeling animosity toward someone or some situation, so it’s best to avoid looking your cat directly in the eyes if you want to keep those happy feelings.

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