Talking to Cats

Cat communication is so nuanced and subtle, and it's fascinating to watch.

Cat communication is so nuanced and subtle, and it's fascinating to watch.

Binga occasionally has play aggression toward Boodie. When this happens, she stalks Boodie and jumps her until she cries. Whether or not I break them up, I’ll often find them cozying up together a little while later, but it’s still disturbing while it’s going on. And I’m not the only one who doesn’t like it. Summer sat in a doorway and watched Binga’s latest aggressive bout towards Boodie with a concerned look on her face. Once the episode was over and all the cats had followed me into the bathroom to ask for breakfast, she went up to both Binga and Boodie and touched noses with them, as if to say, “Why can’t we all be pals?” Boodie glanced sideways at her, shook her ears with a little whimsical nod, and walked out. Knowing that it was an invitation to play, Summer followed.

Cat communication is so nuanced and subtle, and it’s fascinating to watch. Unless they really need to emphasize something, cats generally don’t bother meowing at each other. Vocal communication is a poor replacement for feline body language. One ear twitch is worth a thousand meows. Keeping this in mind, aren’t we cheating ourselves out a better relationship with our cats by talking to them so much and not paying enough attention to our body language?

The problem is that cats are so accommodating that we might miss this. Since humans chatter most of the day, cats quickly figure out that the easiest way to communicate with us is by using their own vocalizations. One of my friends had a cat that was so determined to crack the human language code that he actually sat in front of her, trying to twist his meows into some approximation of human words. When he failed miserably, and his attempt was received by some stifled laughter, he stalked away in mute frustration.

It’s so natural for us humans to talk and be talked to, that it’s easy to slip into the same routine with our cats. But by doing so, we may be losing out on some great moments. My best moments with Summer are silent, like the evening I was trying to relax on the couch and read a book – and she kept jumping up and dropping a toy on my head. I’d take the toy and toss it, and a few minutes later, she’d be back, dropping the toy on my head again. No words were necessary. Summer doesn’t need to say, “I love you.” She has head butts. Why not just head butt back? The slow “I love you” blink is becoming more well-known among cat lovers (just remember to look away after you blink – continued staring is seen by cats as aggression).

Cats generally only vocalize at other cats when they’re in distress, like Boodie telling Binga to stop being mean, or sometimes if they’re happy, through little chirps. Cats meow at people because it gets our attention – they tell us when they want dinner, they complain when they’re in the car on the way to the vet – or they will meow at us merely because we are talking to them and they know we want a response. But wouldn’t it be a fun experiment if you tried having a silent day, in which you only communicated with your cat nonverbally, no talking at all? You might uncover a whole new language you weren’t aware of.

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