24 April 2016

How to Communicate With Your Feline Friends

(Cheryl Wallach)
You might be right in expecting to communicate with your cat but feline experts suggest they are less vocal than your average dog.

Instead, cats are more apt to read body language and communicate by what they show not what they say.

Communicating with the cat, albeit entirely plausible, is “not as easy as learning to speak dog,” John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense and co-author of an upcoming book on feline training told Atlas Obscura.

Cats come by non-verbal communication quite naturally – from day one the mother-kitten relationship is almost entirely based on body language and odours.
Some studies show “meowing is basically unheard of in feral cat colonies,” and is deemed to be a ruse they created to get the attention of humans, Atlas Obscura reports.

Humans, typically, are verbal when it comes to communication and also rely on tone and facial expression to convey and read messages. It works to some extent with dogs but with cats, who have very few facial muscles, it isn't so easy.
Bradshaw says you might want to rethink a chat with the cat. “Actually, people do meow at their cats, that's quite harmless, but I don't think it does much for the cat,” he says.

Bradshaw says while meowing won't make much sense in any attempted conversation between a cat and its human, a soft “vocalization ... like a little bird noise or chirrup, brrrrip” which mimics a way of cat-to-cat greeting might be enough to do some bonding.

Much research shows with the cat, the tail is where it is at – a number of messages are conveyed via tail movements.

But that is, clearly, a one-sided conversation when the tail-less human is at the table. “The one thing we can't do is raising our tails vertically, which is probably the most important signal a cat can give to another cat,” says Bradshaw.

So, what happens when you mix non-chatty cats with very verbose humans?

Mikel Maria Delgado, who studies human/pet behaviour and specializes in cat behaviour, doesn't dismiss the fact cats might be gleaning information from humans' expressions.

In Atlas Obscura, she cites studies which show cats behave differently when their owner displays happy or angry emotional clues and that “extremes of behaviour” - be it angry or happy voice tones or exaggerated facial expressions - do resonate with some cats.

Still Delgado warns against reading too much into the findings.

Rather than it being bonafide communication, she suggests, it could be a cat “following a very basic associative pattern” and only caring about an owner's “emotions in so far as how those emotions have a predictable effect on the cat.”

“This could just be a learned history, associating angry voice with bad things and happy voice with good things,” she says.

When it comes to training, Delgado and Bradshaw concede it isn't nearly as easy with cats as it is with dogs. But anyone who owns a cat knows some can be trained (teaching kitty to use the toilet instead of the litter box is a common and prime example.)

A recent Washington Post article profiled a cat who was successfully 'clicker trained' (by the 'click' of her owner's tongue) to sit up on her lap and cuddle.

“It's sadly easy to teach a cat to sit,” Delgado says. “When you pick things they kind of do anyway, it only takes a few minutes.”

You can also train cats to respond to specific words like 'sit' and 'high five,' but save your breath because cats respond better to gestures than to words and would typically respond better to someone holding a hand up rather than saying a command.

And keep in mind felines have short attention spans so training sessions are best if brief. “You have to figure out when the cat is receptive, because 90 percent of the time they won’t be,” says Bradshaw.

Other studies show ways in which cats behaviour is meant to send a message.

They include; a cat rubbing against you to mark you as his/her property, playful heading-butting as a show of affection and rhythmically kneading with his or her paws, alternating between the right and left feet, as a sign of happiness, contentment, or playfulness.

Some suggest a cat licking you is the ultimate sign of trust and if your cat tries to eat your hair, she may be trying to "groom" you, say she really loves you and, perhaps, suspects you need a bath.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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