Whether you are interacting with a person or a cat, communication is straight- forward if you follow some simple guidelines: observe the individual’s behavior, interpret her body language, make sure all her body parts are congruent (they all say the same thing), interact, and then reevaluate. Better communication with our feline companions comes down to six simple steps.
1.Learn their language.
2.Listen with all your senses.
3.Use cues that work for cats.
4.Avoid miscommunication traps.
5.Teach a common language.
1. Learn Their Language
Peter rescued Pearl just a few weeks ago. He noticed that Pearl spent most of her time hiding with her tail curled under, body crouched, and pupils dilated. Unlike previous kittens he had interacted with, Pearl could not be enticed closer by fuzzy mice or wand toys. When Peter approached Pearl, she hissed. She assumed a Halloween cat posture with an arched back and bottle-brush tail.
Peter thought that perhaps if Pearl knew he was in charge, she might be able to relax. Peter consulted the Internet, where he was instructed to “pretend to be the mother cat, scruffing the kitten firmly by the loose skin above her haunches while suspending her body in the air.” When he attempted to implement this advice, Pearl yowled and sank her teeth into his skin.
In this case, Peter’s misguided plan to act and “speak” like a cat backfired. Pearl, who was already fearful, became defensively aggressive and went into fight-or-flight mode. A mother cat may pick up her young kittens by the scruff, but this is mainly to carry them from one place to another, not as a form of discipline. When a human “scruffs” a kitten or adult cat, it can cause pain and stress.
We cannot replicate cat behaviors, and cats do not see us as members of their species. Our goal is not to mirror cat behavior in an attempt to “speak cat.” Rather, we can use knowledge of our cats’ language to better understand their emotional states and anticipate how they may react. Our ability to understand and predict our cats’ behavior will help prevent miscommunication that may inadvertently diminish our bond or create more misunderstanding.
Realizing his mistake, Peter took a different approach. Instead of imposing himself on Pearl, he created a private suite just for her a quiet sanctuary room with a litter box, food, water, some toys, and a perch next to a large bay window. For a few
minutes several times a day, Peter sat at the threshold of the room with his body turned away from Pearl. He was silent or spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. He did not move and dared not reach for Pearl.
Slowly, day by day, Pearl came out from hiding and began to approach Peter. When Pearl bunted her cheek against Peter’s knee, he knew that she was starting to relax. Once Pearl’s anxiety diminished, she became increasingly social every day. After only a few more weeks, she began chasing the fuzzy mice Peter tossed down the hall. It was a slow process, but the result was well worth the wait.
Peter respectfully observed and interpreted Pearl’s body language. He used this information to continually evaluate and adjust his interactions with her. He recognized that the direct and forthright approach humans use to greet each other could appear threatening to a cat.
By modifying Pearl’s environment to help her feel safe and secure, Peter was able to diminish her stress and improve her comfort. Hideaways and vertical spaces in the form of boxes, shelves, and perches allow for easier escape in response to a perceived threat. Cats seem to enjoy an aerial perspective, which lets them easily spot both predators and prey. Had Peter restricted Pearl’s ability to escape by approaching her or picking her up, Pearl’s fearful behavior may have escalated to vocal and postural threats, and ultimately a physical attack.
2. Listen with All Your Senses
A cat’s heavy reliance on nonverbal communication requires us to listen with all our senses so we do not miss important information. Observation is a skill that is developed and refined over time. Humans are not naturally adept at observing subtle body postures, facial expressions, and tactile cues, especially in another species. Recognizing and then deciphering what your cat is saying takes practice.
Strengthen your observation and communication skills by constantly observing how your cat’s body language changes in response to your behavior and the environment. Your back-and-forth behavioral dialogue will make you a better tabby translator.
3. Use Cues That Work for Cats
Cats respond to a variety of human cues, including gestures and vocalizations. Dr. Adam Miklosi and his team found that the cats in their study correctly interpreted their owner’s pointing gesture, using it at a distance to find hidden food. In fact, cats performed just as well as dogs on this task.
We consciously use gestures and verbal cues to communicate with our cats, but do cats pick up on our unexpressed emotions as well? In short, yes. Our emotional state may influence our cats’ perception and behavior. Research conducted by Dr. Isabella Merola and her colleagues indicated that cats pay attention to their owners’ facial and vocal emotional reactions to an unfamiliar object and may change their own behavior to match their owners’ emotional response.
For example, in Dr. Merola’s research, when an owner acted fearful of an electric fan that their cat had not seen before, the cat looked back and forth not only between the fan and her owner, but also between the fan and the exit route. If your cat looks to you for guidance in a novel situation, behaving calmly may provide a sense of security to your cat.
4. Avoid Miscommunication Traps
To cats, humans may look and act like predators: we’re giants with ominously fast movements and loud voices. In any interaction with a cat, we need to slow down and talk softly take our shout down to a whisper and allow the cat an easy retreat. When an interaction is not going well, it’s okay to stop, reassess, and try again later.
Earlier we discussed how behaviors such as licking, tail wagging, and belly exposure are often misinterpreted as friendly or affection-seeking signals. How can you determine whether your cat truly wants to be petted or is going to deliver a bite that says Please don’t touch me? How do you know whether licking is friendly allogrooming or a nervous displacement behavior?
Observe the rest of your cat’s body language. Are her ears and tail telling you she’s relaxed or worried?
Sometimes there is a lack of congruence in body postures that can be confusing. For example, the tail may say one thing and the ears another. This could indicate that your cat has conflicting motivations or is unsure of how to respond in a given situation. That conflict is frequently an indication of stress. To determine how your cat is feeling and avoid miscommunication traps, read your cat’s entire body and behavior rather than focusing on just one body part or behavior.
5. Teach a Common Language
Training is a common language that enables humans and cats to communicate more effectively. When our message is clear and the outcome is positive, cats understand and trust our intentions. Although people commonly believe that cats cannot be trained, you might be surprised to learn that cats can be trained in the same way that dogs are. But you must be patient! Just as we cannot expect humans to understand a foreign language without being taught, we cannot expect cats to automatically comprehend what we are saying.
You can teach your cat almost any cued behaviors some with a practical purpose and others just for fun. These might include “go to your bed,” “sit,” “stay,” and “high-five.” The safest, most effective way to train a cat is using positive rein-forcement. For example, you can teach your cat to go to her bed by tossing a treat onto the bed, saying “go to your bed,” and then saying “yes!” and giving another treat when she is on the bed. That way, you are rewarding her for performing the desired response. The more often you reinforce the behavior, the more likely she is to do it in hopes of obtaining the reward.
Rewards might include a treat, a toy, praise, or petting. Which reward you use will depend on what motivates your particular cat. When deciding on a reward, keep in mind that what motivates a cat may be different from what motivates you or another animal.