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Communicating With Your Cat

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

People often describe cats as independent—aloof, standoffish—but anyone who’s ever had a cat knows how expressive they can be. They communicate with each other through scent, touch, body language and sounds, and they communicate with us the same way. You simply have to learn to understand their lingo.

Body Language

About 70% of human communication is nonverbal. Consciously or uncon-sciously, we get messages from the way other people sit, walk and move. It’s the same with cats. They use their bodies to let other cats, and people, know what they’re thinking.

An observant owner can easily interpret a pet’s body language. When a cat is content, his ears point forward, his eyes are partly or fully closed, and he’ll purr. He may roll over and bare his belly—although this is not necessarily a request for touch, as it is with dogs. While some cats enjoy belly rubs, those that don’t can quickly turn and claw "intrusive" hands.

A cat that’s feeling truly agitated or aggressive has flattened ears, completely dilated pupils and taut facial muscles. He may arch his back, puff up his hair, bare his teeth, hiss or growl, clearly demonstrating that he feels threatened and/or is ready to fight.

You can tell when a cat is on alert because his eyes will open wide, his ears will be up and his whiskers will stand out. If he’s afraid, his ears will be folded flat against his head, his pupils will dilate, his fur will stick out and his tail may be tucked under his body.

Pay attention to that tail. A completely relaxed cat is likely to be sprawled out in a favorite spot, his tail positioned as comfortably as the rest of him. A tail held high as he struts along is a sign of dignity and self-respect. If there’s a curl at the end, you can be pretty sure that cat is happy.

A tail that’s twitching rapidly might indicate that the cat is annoyed, or it could mean that he sees a bird on the tree outside your window.

Fur standing up on any part of the body indicates that the cat is nervous, and you should consider it a warning. He’s telling you to approach with care or just leave him alone.

Yes, there’s ambiguity involved in understanding body language, so you need to be aware of all the signals your cat sends.

Following Their Noses

As with cats in the wild, pets learn about their environment and, in particular, neighboring cats through the odors they detect. Male cats, especially those that spend a lot of time outdoors, commonly scent-mark their territory, backing up to an object and squirting urine on it to leave a pungent message. The spray doesn’t keep other cats away; it just lets them know the marking cat is around.

A cat that’s neutered before he begins spraying probably won’t urine mark indoors (unless he has a physical problem; check with your veterinarian). But both male and female cats use their sense of smell in other ways—rubbing their cheeks on you or your furniture, for example, to deposit pheromones that help them identify their space.

People who have more than one cat often see them butting heads and rubbing cheeks. They will also raise their tails, allowing one another to sniff their rear ends, a sign of mutual acceptance. That’s worth keeping in mind when introducing a new cat or kitten into your feline family.

Cat Talk

Cats definitely vocalize—some softly, others raucously. They make "murmurs," such as purrs, that reflect calm and invite closeness. They make loud, intense hisses, growls and screams that indicate aggression, a fight or mating calls. And they use "vowel patterns" to express their needs and desires—the "meow" and its variations.

Individual cats may develop their own personal vocabulary. But here’s a brief "glossary" of recognizable vowel patterns:

* Short meow: a standard greeting

* Multiple meows: very excited greetings

* Mid-pitched meow: a plea for something

* Drawn-out mrrroooow: a demand for something

* Low pitched MRRRooooowww: a complaint or expression of displeasure

* High-pitched RRRROWW!: an expression of anger, pain or fear

* Chatter (rapid teeth-chattering): frustration

By watching what cats are doing when they sound off, owners can quickly learn the difference between "let me out" and "feed me."

What Else?

Cats often apply feline modes of communication to their interactions with humans. Here are some translations of common behaviors:

* Rubbing head and flank against you: A greeting and a means of marking you as his

* Tilting head back, nose upraised: "I acknowledge you"

* Ears back: Fear, anxiety…or feeling playful; also used when sniffing something they’re curious about

* Slowly blinking eyes: A show of affection; a cat’s way of saying he’s comfortable with the company he keeps

* Wet nose "kiss" or tap: Another affectionate gesture

* Head-butting: Friendliness, affec-tion

* Licking or chewing your hair: Grooming, like a mother cleaning her kittens; a sign of love and respect. Consider yourself blessed!

What Are You Telling Your Cat?

Beyond learning what your cat is trying to tell you, there are ways to help him understand what you’re saying.

If you’re just being casual and friendly, your cat will be comfortable with your normal speaking voice or a slightly higher tone. Yet you should also develop a lower-pitched "command tone," distinct from your regular voice, for when he does something wrong. Or you can try a quick, sharp, hiss—a negative he’ll understand because it’s how cats themselves say "no." Either way, your cat will know you’re displeased.

And just as cats show they’re feeling peaceable by slowing blinking their eyes, owners can do the same. To cats, staring is an intimidation tactic, but if you slowly blink your eyes at your cat, he’ll understand that the look is not a threat. He may even consider it an invitation to come get petted.

As for teaching cats words, well, we learn to understand their vocalizations and they learn to understand ours in the same way—through consistent repetition.

If you say the same word, sleep or bed, every night, your cat will begin to associate the repetitive sound with your actions. If he’s invading your space—jumping into your lap while you’re doing paperwork, for instance—say "no" or "later" and give him a gentle but firm push, without showing affection. Be patient and keep using the same word; your cat will get the message.

It may take some time, but it’s worth the effort to develop a mutually satisfying dialog. In the end, you and your cat will have a special bond that is at once rewarding and meaningful.

Ellen Eller is a freelance writer and editor residing with her husband, Mike, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. She is a regular contributor to local newspapers in addition to Wisdom magazine.

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