Saturday, April 28, 2007

Messages from my cats

My cats, Tyrone and Lionel, have been with me for nearly five years now. We have gotten pretty good at reading each other. For my part, I have grown increasingly aware of subtle distinctions in my cats' vocalizations, and I have learned to interpret a variety of non-vocal cues. In short, I am learning cat language.

When Tyrone darts out the apartment door into the hallway, rolls over, and rubs his back on the carpet, I tend to think he's laughing at me in a feline way. "Gotcha again," he says, knowing that his little prank has held me up either going out or coming in. Sometimes, for a bit of extra spite, he runs upstairs to the landing, or even all the way up to the next floor. I know he has never tried to run away; I couldn't coax him outside if I tried. He is just messing with me.

Tyrone also has his own, special way of saying: "I want some lovin'." If I am sleeping, he jumps onto the bed and pushes his forehead against my face. I call it the "head-butt of love." I usually wake up just enough to scratch behind his ears for a moment, then fall asleep again; then he head-butts me again to get a little more stroking. Typically, my alarm clock rings about five minutes later, so it doesn't really cost me that much sleep. Maybe I'm misreading this; maybe Tyrone's inner clock is running a touch fast, and what's he's really saying is, "Hadn't you better be getting up about now?"

On very rare occasions, Tyrone will walk right up onto my chest and lie down on me - and only when I'm reading on the couch. He is more the type of cat who will hold down a corner of the foot of my bed at night, or who will stretch out on the foot-rest next to my couch while I am reading, or who will rub against my leg while I'm working on the computer, inviting me to pick him up and scratch his belly.

Lionel is the cat consistently voted "most likely to hop on Pop." Almost every evening, whether I am trying to read or trying to sleep, he climbs on top of me and tries to snuggle. Sometimes this results in an extended session of full-on TLC, which Lionel encourages with his virtuoso purring technique. I massage his ears and he massages my chest right back. Things only get uncomfortable when (A) he can't find a comfortable spot without sticking his knobbly knees and elbows into me, or (B) he takes it into his head to kiss my nose or ears with his bristly tongue (see close-up at left). Then there's the odd occasion when he tries to groom my hair, which mostly tickles just a little bit, and occasionally hurts a lot.

Tyrone occasionally kisses, but he never gives any tongue. Actually, it's more like he's checking my breath to see what I had for dinner. But there is still something tender about the way he sometimes cranes his neck to touch his nose to my lips, sniffing slightly.

Particularly when he was younger, but even to this day, Lionel has enjoyed having his back scratched just at the base of his tail. His reaction is always the same: he bristles a little, arches his back a little, and sends a variety of body language signals that, at first, seem like a prelude to clawing and biting. Yet he stays put and purrs, encouraging me to continue. When I translated this behavior to my stepmother, she laughed out loud; but I stand by my translation: "I hate that - don't stop!"

Also, I have heard my cats talking to each other. My mother made noises of concern and worry when I told her that much. But that was before I added: "I don't understand the language they're talking." Nevertheless, on three or four different occasions I have heard an exchange between my cats in what sounded like monosyllabic words, grouped in sentences. I can't help but stop and listen when I notice this going on. Usually I find them staring each other in the face, and the conversation ends with one of them giving the other a stiff right hook and chasing him out of the room. Makes me wonder whether my cats are tuning into soap operas while I'm out at work.

Even with the claws removed from their front paws, cats can punch pretty hard. I know it because Lionel has smacked me in the face a few times, usually for handling him in a way he didn't like - such as trying to give him medicine. I now know better than to try that. God did not give me enough hands to hold Lionel still and force an eye-dropper down his throat. With Tyrone it isn't difficult, but Lionel is a real fighter. He can fight his own diseases, then, without my help.

Finally, my cats can make their displeasure known. For example, when I don't come home at a reasonable hour, they send me a feline message which I can smell from two rooms away: they make a B.M. in such a way that it balances perfectly on the edge of the litterbox, defying Tidy-Cat to cover up the odor until I go and clean up the mess by hand. It makes me sick, but I get the point: after they have slaved over a hot windowsill all day, letting no neighborhood squirrel, rabbit, or bird go by unremarked, the least I could do is get home while the sun still shines, so they can play the slip-past-Daddy-and-roll-on-the-hall-rug game, and get some serious loving.

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