When my younger son was little, Doctor Doolittle figured prominently in his cultural experience. Entranced by the book and, later, the movie, we watched it on rainy days or as a treat after a morning or afternoon’s excursion to the park or zoo. Avid zoo goers, we spent hours each week engaged in animal watching. Neither of us could get enough of watching the white footed monkeys as they swung with abandon between trees or the interaction between a mother giraffe and her child. We were able to watch, first behind glass, and then in the savannah habitat, the progress of a newborn African elephant and the incredible bond between the mother elephant and her little one. These days, animal videos appear to dominate Facebook, and I am perfectly content to spend the odd half hour (or two, or three) chuckling at the antics of baby goats, pet pigs, weasel babies and clever cats. Recently I saw a video of two cats sitting in a window “chatting”. It was fascinating viewing and as I watched I thought about how, over the years, my own cats and dogs have communicated with each other and with me. I thought about Dr. Doolittle and his extraordinary ability to communicate with animals and wished, not for the first time, that I could have a conversation with one or more of the creatures who “people” my daily life. Without species bias, I am going to risk saying that most of us “get” dogs. They appear to be so easy to read. They wear their emotions on their sleeve (oops, paw?) since their expressive faces and body language are, according to researchers who study animal behavior, readily accessible to humans. Cats, on the other hand, are known for their opaqueness. Considered by cat fanciers (me) to be a large part of their charm, this hard to read quality adds to their mystique and attraction. Recently, Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, gave a presentation in which she asserted that compared with dogs, there are likely many cat behaviors that owners are misinterpreting, at least partially because so much more research has been done on canine behavior. Recent studies have turned up some pretty interesting information concerning cat communication. John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and author recently compiled a list of typical cat behaviors and their possible meanings. What follows is part of that compilation:
Purring=happiness…well, possibly…but there are other factors involved. Cats DO purr when they are happy, but an injured or sick cat may also purr. According to researchers, purring may be interpreted as “don’t go anywhere, please.” Cats don’t have a good way of asking for help—it isn’t part of their language—so they do “the purring thing” (John Bradshaw, University of Bristol). Bradshaw adds, “this meaning is not exactly right, but it is the closest they can get to it.”
Winding around and rubbing your legs=It wants something…probably true, but observations of feral cats living in communities often show them to spend several minutes rubbing up and down the body of a cat who has returned from hunting. They also wrap their tails over each other’s backs—it’s like a human hug. According to researchers it is the cat’s way of saying, You’re back! I missed you!
Facial expressions…Most of us don’t think of cats as having facial expressions, but researcher Cromwell-Davis does not agree. Careful observation shows that when a cat is stressed or pained, the facial muscles tense, much as they do in humans. A relaxed cat’s face will reflect that state of happiness or calm.
Watch for the long, slow blink: It is an acceptance gesture. It is a sign that the cat is absolutely comfortable with you and/or the other animals in their habitat. The science behind this easily observable event has to do with declining levels of cortisol (stress hormones).
What about the “Meow”, you ask…well, adult cats don’t meow to communicate with other cats. A mother cat will meow to her kittens, and a cat will meow to a human, but that is the extent to which this most common cat-feature occurs. Feral cats are primarily silent. About once in 100 hours you will hear a meow; yet domesticated cats, as you probably know if you’ve got one, will meow their little heads off, all day and (sometimes) all night. People think of the meow as classic cat behavior, but it’s something they have learned to do to attract our attention. According to John Bradshaw, it is a device developed by domestic cats as a way of communicating with humans. Pretty clever, I’d say. Additionally, the meow can take one of several forms. Generally it is the specific cat/owner relationship that makes us correctly determine if a meow means I’m bored; please feed me; or (in my case) just let me out one time and I will never ask again! So each meow is an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound rather than some universal cat-human language!
Body language also is a communication tool, but I am saving that for next time…A Very Happy New Year to you from all of us, Canine, Feline and Human at With a Little Help From My Friends. Come and visit us and ring in the New Year with a cat conversation or a doggy discourse!