Cracking the Cat Code

November 04, 2017 3 min read

Cracking the Cat Code

Don’t you wish Rosetta Stone created a course in Cat Language? It would serve the whole cause of human-feline communication. Fortunately, scientific researchers are hard at work learning how cats communicate.

Here’s what they’ve uncovered:

 


Sound.

Ask any preschooler what the cat says, and you’ll hear a predictablemeow.(Unless you’re in Japan, where cats saynyan.) But did you know cats rarely meow at each other? They reserve that sound for their mothers and their humans. Cats are not silent creatures, though. They purr, howl, yowl, hiss, chatter, growl, chirp, and spit.

Meowing communicates a need for attention or service, but purring signals contentment or self-soothing behavior. House cats purr by vibrating their larynxes at 25-100 Hertz. Tigers, panthers, and lions cannot purr, but snow leopards can. Apparently, how ossified the species’ hyoid bone is determines purring ability.

In contrast to purring, most feline vocalization indicates sadness, fear, or displeasure. Chattering is an exception. Cats chatter when watching prey through the window. It could signify frustration at their inability to hunt, or perhaps it mimics the fatal bite of a hunter on the neck of the hunted.


Scent.

We humans use sound as our primary communication sense. Cats, however, use scent. They have scent glands on their paws, lips, chins, cheeks, heads, and butts. When your cat rubs one of these body parts against you, she’s claiming ownership by leaving her signature scent on you. It’s a memo to other cats:This human is mine.

From the outset, scent guides a cat's life. Though born blind and deaf, kittens have fully developed senses of touch and smell. Thanks to the Jacobson’s organ in the top of a cat’s mouth, the animal can eventastescents. That’s a handy skill to have when pumpkin spice pot-pourri fills the house but not so great when you’re surrounded by dirty laundry. Yet, that’s what cats choose to smell—their people.


Sight.

Cats reveal a lot through body language. They can convey things like:

  • Trust - Cats signal confidence by baring their bellies. Unlike dogs, though, that doesn’t mean they want you to tickle them. If you’ve tried it, you understand what we mean.
  • Fear - An arched back and puffed up fur (calledpiloerection) can mean your cat is nervous. A sideways dance sometimes accompanies this look.
  • Happiness - A cheery cat carries a vertical tail.
  • Anger - In cats, a tail between the legs means somebody’s getting huffy.
  • Affection - Cats show affection through kneading and licking. As kittens, that’s how they drew down milk from their mothers.

For a complete handbook to visual communication in cats, check out Rhett & Link’s hilarious and helpful video.


Showing pain or distress.

Cats, in general, maintain a stiff upper lip. So if your cat is hurting, how will she let you know?

  • Hiding - Can’t find your cat? Often a pet in pain isolates itself. She could have found a safe, out-of-the-way spot where she can wait out the ache.
  • Biting and scratching - A hurting cat may lash out even at familiar people. Cats are especially liable to react if you touch a tender spot.
  • Reduced mobility -Is your cat refusing to go up and down stairs? Not chasing the laser pointer? Ceased tearing around the house for no particular reason? She could be suffering.
  • Sloppy grooming - Felines are renowned for their fastidious personal hygiene. But cats in pain don’t like to groom since contorting into those awkward positions can increase their discomfort. If a previously well-groomed pet starts looking unkempt, it may be time for a trip to the vet.
  • Litter box issues - Unless the litter box is dirty, occupied, or feels unsafe, cats prefer to use it. Is your cat toileting on the floor even though you have plenty of clean litter boxes arranged in safe, usable areas? She may find climbing in and out of the box painful. For any cat with ongoing bathroom issues, consult your veterinarian. And for senior cats, try a topless Modkat Litter Tray.

No matter what the scientific community discovers about feline communication, we cat lovers know the most important thing our cats communicate to us—I Love You, Human.

We love you back, kitty cat. We love you back.

 

image: fantom_rd/iStock/Thinkstock



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