Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cat Body Language

After years of whimsical speculation on the meaning of cat language, I finally betook myself to study the subject. I shouldn't have. I feel awfully let down, now that the topic has been demystified. Still, it's nice to know a few things I didn't know before. And the evidence is that those people who say cats aren't as affectionate or intelligent as dogs, simply don't understand cat language. Perhaps they expect them to talk the same lingo as dogs.

Cats mostly communicate with each other by body language and scent. Apart from the mewling of kittens calling to their mother, the caterwauling of cats in heat, and the hisses and growls of cats at war, cats do not as a rule vocalize among themselves. They develop a vocabulary of sounds when they live with humans, especially humans who reward their vocalizing by talking back to them, stroking them, feeding them, etc. While their vocalizations are fairly transparent as to their intended meaning, cats' body language remains a mystery to many people.

When a dog is happy or excited, it wags its tail. Period. Yet dog lovers (I include myself in that category) tend to think of those quivering hindquarters as ever-so-expressive. By comparison, however, cats say much more with their tails. When a cat twitches its tail back and forth, perhaps thumping it against people or objects, this means it's ticked. The level of tickedness is directly proportional to the amount of tail involved. Just the tip waving around might only mean the cat is stalking prey, or playing at doing so. The whole tail in motion means Puss is really irritated. Whether the tail is moving in quick flicks or wide swishes also makes some kind of difference, though I'm not sure what it is; perhaps it's a matter of whether the cat is having a tummyache or whether somebody is getting on its nerves.

Tail posture is a bellwether of mood. A whole range of moods, from happiest to unhappiest, corresponds to the way they hold their tail, from straight up to drooping down. A question-mark-like quirk in the tip of its tail can mean, "Hi there, I'm glad to see you." A puffed-up tail, together with raised hackles, arched back, tippy-toe stance, and turning sideways, add up to a scaredy cat's fight-or-flight response. It's trying to make itself look big in response to a threat. This would be a good time to stay out of range of its claws and teeth, especially if it isn't a well-brought-up "people cat" that has learned how to play without breaking skin.

Until I did my little bit of cat-language research, I didn't realize how many different ways a cat has of saying, "Here's looking at you, kid." For animals that aren't supposed to be very affectionate, they sure have a lot of ways of expressing affection. Touching its nose to your nose is one. Rubbing its cheek against your leg (or hand, or whatever) is another. The amazing "head bonk," where it bumps its forehead into your face, is still another. These last two are also a way cats can mark you as their own, using scent glands on their faces. Rolling on its back to expose its belly can mean trust and contentment. Pressing its body firmly against you means "I want some loving and I want it now." I am flattered to realize how often I have seen all of these signs in my own cats' behavior. I guess they really like me. Who knew?

Who knew that making kneading gestures with its forepaws is a cat's way of signalling happiness? Contented cats will often do this in a soft spot, like a pillow or folded-up blanket, as a sort of nesting behavior. More amazingly, however, they will sometimes carry out this kneading behavior on human body parts. I frequently experience such moments (especially with Sinead), and at such times I'm glad my cats are declawed. They can go on doing this for up to ten minutes at a time, but it can seem longer - and be very irritating - when you don't understand what it means. It's probably the most flattering thing a cat can say to you. It's imitating the behavior of a kitten caressing mummy's teat to stimulate the flow of milk. Your cat is basically identifying you as a mother substitute, and saying you give it that "peaceful, easy feeling." It may also be marking you with more "you're mine" pheromones, using scent glands in its paws.

Another nursing-related sign of affection is nibbling and suckling. Kittens especially do this. Two of my cats - Sinead and the late Lionel - used to suck on my earlobes when they were kittens. They grew out of this behavior as they matured. While it lasted, it made me giggle. Cats will only do this with their favorite person, and usually only as kittens. It's another way of identifying you as their surrogate mother.

Cats groom themselves by licking their fur, and sometimes pulling at it with their teeth. When cats live together, they show TLC to each other by licking and nibbling at each other's fur. And when a cat wants to give TLC to a human friend, it may do the same. My cat Tyrone has done this on several occasions. I put up with it as well as I could, understanding the spirit in which the gift was given, though it feels really weird and at times (i.e. the pulling-with-teeth times) quite uncomfortable.

Cat owners take their pet's relaxed, lazy behavior for granted - behavior such as simply lazing on its side. We really should take this as a compliment, however, considering how high-strung and irritable cats can be. Think on it when, instead of flinching and crouching in mild alarm, your cat greets you when you enter a room or responds when you shift position by rolling from one side to the other, perhaps waving its paws in the air. Rolling on its back and stretching from a lying-down position are also signals of a laid-back kitty.

Then there are a couple of kitty gestures whose meaning I never realized until now: yawning and blinking. Suppose your cat is curled up next to you while you read in bed, or while you're stretched out on the couch in front of the TV. Then suppose your cat looks right at you and very deliberately closes, then opens, its eyes. Or, better yet, suppose that it opens its mouth in a jaw-cracking yawn. This is perhaps a cat's most powerful way of expressing intimacy.

And yet, if you don't understand it (as I didn't), you may think it means little more than "Gee, I'm pooped." Some people might even misinterpret these behaviors as a signal of boredom or disregard. It turns out that this is your cat's way of expressing its highest regard. Who knew? Even more amazingly, if you yawn and slowly blink in your cat's direction, it may respond in kind. This is a language you can actually share with your cat, a message you can both give and receive! I plan to try this out soon.

The silent vocabulary of cats goes on and on. Open mouth, teeth exposed is the visible manifestation of "Hiss!" Open mouth, teeth hidden can mean, "Let's play!" Ears flattened backward and whiskers pulled back mean "Puss off! I want nothing to do with this." Ears up and forward, and whiskers pulled forward, mean "Hey, this is interesting!" Lifting and shaking the paws, one at a time, means "Ick!" This one is apparently based on a cat's behavior when it steps in water. The degree of distate is proportional to the number of paws the cat shakes, from one all the way up to four. How many other animals can register ickiness on a four-point scale?

A cat falling on its side when approached, or lowering its head, is offering submission. A cat crouching and turning its back on you is pouting. Certain cats, such as my own Sinead, may actually reach up with a forepaw and caress you when you pet them, as a way of returning your affection.

Cats are neither stupid nor aloof animals. Whoever said they were, didn't understand their body language. Their vocalizations are also quite varied and interesting, especially when they have attentive owners to listen to them and respond. Cats have excellent memories and are clever problem solvers; one cat has even been observed inventing and using a tool. It is possible to train them to do tricks, though the process doesn't work the same way as with dogs. And if you start early, you can teach a cat to be very sociable and trusting of people. The fact that (unlike dogs) they need to spend some time alone, and the fact that (also unlike dogs) they can survive in the wild without man's help, may make them seem less well-adapted to be humans' companions. But in spite of all this, cats have been on intimate terms with humans for thousands of years, perhaps even longer than man and dog have been best friends. And they are all the more fascinating for their individuality, independence, and complex patterns of communication.

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