Friday, July 2, 2010
By Julia Williams
I remember seeing a funny cartoon where a woman is babbling at length to her cat. The last frame says “What Fluffy hears: blah-blah-blah-Fluffy-blah-blah-blah.” This is, I am sure, how many people perceive human-to-cat communication. These same people also think cats have only one sound: meow. As a lifelong cat lover, I’m positive they’re wrong on both counts. I’ve seen proof that my cats understand many different words I use. I’ve also identified about twelve different vocalizations for each cat.
I know, for instance, that a long, demanding “Mee-O-O-O-O-O-W” means someone is really hungry (or thinks they are). I can tell when they’re begging for a treat, when they’re asking for some attention, and when they’re just saying hello. Chirping and chattering noises mean they’ve spied a bird outside the window. Much to my chagrin, I also recognize the vocalization that means, “Look Ma, I’ve brought you a present, and it’s still alive!!” All of these sounds are quite distinct and easy to recognize. However, scientists have identified about 100 different vocalizations in cats, so I still have a long way to go to master cat communication. I’ve only scratched the surface of “cat speak,” but it’s a start.
If you want to know what your cat is saying to you, there are two simple things you can do:
1) Pay attention to the meow
If you’re not really listening to the vocalizations your cat makes, you might think every meow sounds the same. Pay closer attention, and you’ll quickly see how different they are. Pitch, intensity, frequency and volume all come into play, and reflect different emotional states and physical needs. Nicholas Nicastro, a graduate student at Cornell University, documented hundreds of different feline vocalizations in house cats and their wild cousins.
Nicastro’s study found a clear negative relationship between pleasantness and urgency. “The sounds rated as more urgent (or less pleasant) were longer,” Nicastro said, “with more energy in the lower frequencies. Whereas, the sounds rated as more pleasant (or less demanding) tended to be shorter, with the energy spread evenly through the high and low frequencies.”
In order to differentiate what each meow or vocalization means, it helps to notice the circumstances surrounding them. For instance, if your cat is making urgent-sounding, loud noises in your ear when you are trying to sleep in, they are likely saying “Feed me NOW!” If they come into the room and give you several short meows in a row, they might be saying hello. Each cat is an individual and will have its own vocal variations, but if you watch what they’re doing when they meow, you can eventually learn what they’re saying by the sound alone.
2) Pay attention to body language
Just like humans, cats can say a lot without making a sound. Cats use their tails, ears, whiskers, eyes, face, fur, entire body and more to communicate and to show various emotions. Learning to read the body language of your cat can be a tremendous help in understanding their different vocalizations. When a cat’s tail is standing straight up, it means they’re happy to see you, they feel safe, and all is well in their world. A puffed up tail indicates a fearful, defensive and emotionally charged cat. Head-butting is a sign of friendliness and affection. To learn more about this silent form of feline communication, read The Body Language of Cats.
Once you begin to understand “Felinese,” you may also want to explore ways to teach your cat what you are saying to them. My cats know simple words and phrases like snack, dinner, crunchies, shower, go out, good night and get down. I’ve taught them these words using repetition, consistency, complementary actions and tone of voice. It also helps not to view cats as just “dumb animals” but as intelligent creatures who can understand more than most people give them credit for. I speak in full sentences to my cats, and their actions tell me they understand. For example, I will say to Mickey, “Do you want to go out now?” and he will run over to the door. Rocky likes to sit on the ledge of my tub while I shower, so I will say to him, “Rock, I’m going to take a shower now.” Most of the time, he beats me to the bathroom.
Learning to communicate with your cat and being able to understand what they’re saying can help you develop a deeper bond with them, and it can simplify things too. I realize I am the “Crazy Cat Lady” personified, but honestly, I don’t think it’s all that hard to understand what a few different meows mean. Try it – you might be surprised to learn that Felinese is your second language!
Read more articles by Julia Williams