Written by Sparrow Marcioni
Most people talk to their pets and assume they understand exactly what’s being said. Often, owners perceive a reaction that indicates Fido or Fluffy does understand, but is it the words, tone of voice or body language our creatures understand?
For instance, how many times have you had to give your cat a pill or apply flea medication, and before you take a step, your cat, who never hides, is under the bed? How did they know?
Cats are very perceptive. They watch your eyes, hear your tone of voice and keep an eye on your hands and body language, just as they watch other cats. Feline language is a complex mix of facial expression, tail position, ear position and other forms of body language, in addition to scent and sound. Your eyes are most critical because they look where your attention is focused.
Cats consider staring rude or aggressive behavior, so unless you are disciplining them, you should not stare with your eyes wide open. Try slightly closing them or looking sideways and winking or blinking to get them to return the gesture. Cats usually do not vocalize when communicating with another cats, with the exception of a hiss or growl. But vocalizing is how they communicate with us. Cats learn to make demands by observing which of their sounds cause the desired human responses.
When teaching your cat to understand you, use different tones of voice for each command. One of the most valuable words is “No!” Focus your attention directly on them with a stern face and speak in the same firm, authoritative tone each time, possibly adding a hand gesture to point at whatever it is you want them to stop doing.
We are constantly teaching the cats at La Maison du Chat not to claw furniture, so our command for that is “no claws” with a gesture to move off the furniture or a tap on their paw. It takes a little time, but most can learn. Of course, some will choose not to listen and may require additional motivation to obey your wishes.
Always use your gentle, loving, higherpitched voice when offering treats and rewarding them for obeying, even if it’s just telling them they’re good kitties. And always do so with a smile. Your gestures should match your command. If you say “no” and pet your cat instead of pushing her away, she will interpret your actions as a welcome signal. And always be consistent with your requests and responses when you speak. Listen and watch for their responses as well.
For instance, if their tails are straight up, they are happy, but if the tails are twitching, they are excited or anxious. If the tails are vibrating, they are very excited to see you (or the plate of food you are holding.) If their fur is standing straight up along their spines, it’s a sign of extreme aggression, but if they are puffed up all over their bodies, they are afraid. In a cat fight, the aggressor’s fur is usually standing up along the spine, and the victim will be puffed up all over to make themselves look bigger and fiercer. If their tails are low and tucked under, they are frightened.
You can tell cats are excited or aggressive when their eyes are dilated, but slow blinking is like blowing you a kiss. If their ears are back against their heads, they are showing fear, anxiety or aggression. But rubbing against you, head butting, sniffing, nose kisses or licking are all signs of affection.
With a little practice, you can talk to your cat, even if your friends eye you suspiciously.
Sparrow Marcioni is the chief animal behaviorist at La Maison du Chat, a Reiki practitioner and founder of CatRangers Rescue. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770.831.5513.
Here are a few tips on how to interpret their sounds and gestures:
• A short meow is usually a way of saying “Hello,” while multiple meows mean they’re happy to see you.
• A mid-pitch meow means they want something.
• A long, drawn out meow means they really want your attention.
• A low-pitched meow is usually complaining.
• Purring can have multiple meanings, so it’s important to consider the circumstances. It usually means they’re content and happy, but sometimes it can mean they’re sick or feeling threatened.
• Hissing is a sign of anger or sometimes fear and is intended to make you back off.
• Clicking or chirping means they have seen a bird or other prey.