World

Talking to cats: Careful, they're easily misunderstood

For the growing number of cat owners who want to connect with their often-aloof fur babies, experts say there's something to gain from those attempts at communication.

San Diego doctor is helping people discern what cats are trying to convey with their 16 meows

Researchers are aiming to unravel the mystery of cat sounds and actions by helping people discern what cats are trying to convey. (Andrew Davidson)

When it comes to cats, those meows mean … well, a lot of things.

With each purr, yowl or even blink, felines are saying, "Hello," "Let's snuggle" or "Beat it, Mom." For the increasing number of cat owners who want to connect with their often-aloof fur babies, experts say there's something to gain from those attempts at communication.

Cats are very independent, and so they are easily misunderstood, says Dr. Gary Weitzman, chief executive of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA and author of the new National Geographic book How to Speak Cat. He aims to unravel the mystery by helping people discern what cats are trying to convey.

Blinking is like a kitty kiss.- Dr. Gary Weitzman

Crafty kitties can make 16 different meow sounds and usually only unleash them when people are around, he said. Meows can be their way of saying feed me, pet me or let me out, and hardly ever get exchanged between cats.

That's because cats learn they can get something desirable from people if they meow, said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists and a professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine. She also wrote the 2003 textbook Feline Behavior.

The meaning of a scratch or a hiss is pretty clear, but cats can talk in more subtle ways — with their eyes and tails. A slow blink from a feline, for example, is like a wink between friends, Weitzman said.

Like a handshake

"Blinking is like a kitty kiss," he said.

Dr. Gary Weitzman, chief executive of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA and author of the new National Geographic book How to Speak Cat, gives a chin scratch to Stewart in San Diego. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)

And extending their tails straight up equates to a human handshake, he said. A cat perks up that appendage as it approaches to show it's happy to see you.

Susan McMinn, 55, of Tryon, N.C., was eager to try the slow-blinking exercise with her Siamese cat, Jade, after reading the book.

"I sat and blinked slowly at my cat, and she blinked right back. I know she loves me, of course, but now I feel I understand her communication even more," McMinn said.

McMinn has owned Jade for 10 years and has had six cats over her lifetime, but she says it's clear she still has a lot to learn. "And I thought I was an expert!" she said.

Even ear and whisker movements signify something worth listening to. If a cat's ears are flat, don't get close because it's scared or facing a fight, Weitzman said.

Help them prey

A kitty is happy, calm or friendly when its whiskers are naturally out to the side. Twice as thick as a human hair and rooted three times as deep, the whiskers guide them, help them with prey and show how they are feeling.

Learning to communicate with cats becomes even important for those who adopt a pet based only on the colour or breed they want versus a connection with the animal.

At Happy Cats Sanctuary in Medford, N.Y., a potential owner might ask for a "white cat with fluffy fur," said Melissa Cox, director of communications and development.

She tells them not to go by looks alone because the true indicator of compatibility is spending time with a cat and getting to know it.

For McMinn, she says she isn't done with the book and plans to use some of its training tips. But now she knows "what to look for in her (cat's) tail and ear movement, whisker positions and in her eyes."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.