DOES YOUR CAT SPEAK TO YOU? updated7/23/2019

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CAN YOU SPEAK ‘CAT’?

As cat owners, we speak to our cats and wonder if they could understand what we are saying. Well, wonder no more, while cats don’t understand

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our spoken language, cats speak and understand through body language. Teaching your cat simple commands like “down” and “no!” will make her a better pet, while words like “Treats!” and “Dinner!” will help her associate you with something pleasurable. In time a gentle “no” will stop most unwanted behaviors and they will respond lovingly to stroking, brushing, and even being allowed to sit quietly next to you or on your lap.

Most cats are as eager to speak to you as you are to speak to them. While there are a few cat breeds that are aloof and prefer to be left alone, most domesticated cats will attempt to communicate with their owners. And, they will use different 

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parts of their bodies to show affection and acceptance, or even displeasure.

Cat language is a complex mix of facial expression, tail position, ear position and other forms of body language in addition to scent and sound. Cats learn to make demands of us by observing which of their sounds cause which human responses.

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In additional to their obvious meowing, purring, hissing and growling, cats will use their ears, eyes, tail, and sometimes their entire head or body to let you know what they are saying. So here is a crash course on speaking ‘cat’.

CATS SPEAK THROUGH THEIR EARS:

When a cat is curious about a situation, their ears will be facing forward and sometimes pointed in the direction of a strange sound. Interestingly, even when cats are asleep, their ears will move in response to a sound.  When a cat feels

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threatened, he/she will turn their ears sideways and a highly agitated cat will twitch his/her ears rapidly. This is a sign that the cat is preparing to attack if the menace continues. The next stage of agitation is to flatten their ears tightly against its head as the cat prepares for a fight.

CATS SPEAK USING THEIR TAIL:

When cats are happy and contented they carry their tails straight up with the end curled. If they are excited their tails will twitch. However, if they are anxious their tail will be down and twitching. When they are excited to see you their tails will vibrate rapidly. A cat’s tail also tells us when the cat is frightened. A tail tucked low between the legs is a sign that he/she is frightened. When the fur on the tail sticks straight up, he/she is not only frightened but can retaliate with aggression.

CATS CAN SPEAK WITH THEIR HEAD:

Head butting, head rubbing, and rubbing their flank and tail against a person is a sign of greeting, affection and ownership. A wet nose kiss means ‘I love you’, but licking means ‘I adore you,’ or ‘you are the best’.

Cats have facial expressions. Most people don’t pay attention to their cats’ facial

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expressions because we don’t think of cats as having facial expressions. But Crowell-Davis doesn’t believe that’s true, judging from her own work with cats that have behavior problems. If you do begin to pay attention to their faces, she said, “you’ll see when they’re stressed or when they’re pained the facial muscles are tensed, and when they’re happy or relaxed, their facial muscles are relaxed.” More specifically, watch for a long, slow blink, said Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and author of How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language. “The slow blink really is an acceptance gesture,” Weitzman said. “They do that when they’re absolutely comfortable with you, and they do it with other cats as well.” It’s not clear why cats do this when they’re feeling calm and comfortable, but Weitzman said, “it’s likely an autonomic response … having to do with the cat having its cortisol [stress hormone] levels down.” Many cats will actually look embarrassed if they fall or do something stupid and they see you watching them.

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CATS SPEAK USING THEIR VOICE:

Whether your cat is vocal or not, she will be fluent in body language, a key component of her interactions with you and other animals. By learning to recognize in to both his/her body and his/her voice, you can learn to differentiate between

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messages For example, a short meow means: “Hey, how ya doin’?” Multiple meows mean: “I’m so happy to see you! Where’ve you been? I missed you!” Mid-pitch meows is a request of some kind. Drawn-out mrrraaaaaoooow: means that the situation is dire. “I’m really hungry”, or “please please pretty please can I have a treat?” A low pitched mraaooww: is a complaint, but a high-pitch RRRROWW!: indicate pain.  Most often, purring is a sign of contentedness, but can also be used when in pain or afraid — an instinctual response to hide weakness from predators. And of course, hissing says: “Steer clear. I’m angry and I’m not afraid to draw blood.”

The one thing you probably think you understand about how cats communicate — purring means they’re happy! — isn’t exactly right. Cats do indeed purr when they’re happy, but that’s not the most accurate translation of the sound’s meaning,

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Cromwell-Davis explained. “You can have cats that are happy and content purring, but also a cat that’s injured or sick will purr,” she said.

Instead, purring means something more like, don’t go anywhere, please. It’s more likely a solicitation for care, in other words, than purely an expression of contentedness. “They haven’t got a good way of asking for help — it’s not in their language — so they do the next best thing, they do the purring thing,” said John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and the author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. “The meaning is not exactly right, but it’s the closest they can get to it.”

Your cat is happy to see you when you get home from work, maybe. Your cat rubs its little furry self against your legs when you walk in the door, and you think, It wants something. That … is probably true, but it’s not all the cat is trying to communicate, Cromwell-Davis said, judging from her observations of groups of

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feral cats living together. (She believes that, contrary to popular opinion, cats are not as solitary we tend to believe; she finds feral cats tend to stick together in groups or families.)

As such, there’s not exactly a universal cat language when it comes to meows. Rather, as Bradshaw writes in his book, “a secret code of meows … develops between each cat and its owner, unique to that cat alone and meaning little to outsiders.” This was demonstrated in a 2003 study by Cornell researchers, documented in Bradshaw’s book, in which they recorded meows from 12 cats in five everyday scenarios. They then played those recordings to pet owners, and found that only the owners could correctly decipher the scenario in which the meow was recorded. So cat owners can tell with some accuracy what message their cat is trying to get across via its meows, whether it’s feed me or I’m bored or whatever else, but “each meow is an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound rather than some universal cat-human ‘language,’” Bradshaw writes.

Like humans, no two cats are exactly alike. Cats have personalities and likes and dislikes. And, it will be worth your while to determine the idiosyncrasies of your pet. For example, while most cats hide when they are in pain, my cat wants to cuddle

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when she is not feeling well. When she was pregnant, I placed a small box with soft bedding in my closet for her to have some privacy when she gave birth. During the delivery however, she would only stay in the box if I sat with her. Naturally, I sat with her through the birth of her five gorgeous babies. And, she was so appreciative that I would be there for her. It really pays to

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understand what your cat is saying to you. It can lead to many wonderful hours of loving on each other.

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