Talking With Cats Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Talking With Cats

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A very fluffy white Persian cat.
You've seen them both at work and games
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
    How would you ad-dress a Cat?
– TS Eliot, The Ad-dressing of Cats

You may want to talk to your cat; if you do, you'd certainly like it to listen to you, and you'd like to get some sort of a response in return. So how do you address a cat, and how do you interpret its response? The philosopher Wittgenstein said: 'If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.' This is probably true of domestic cats as well, but this Entry will attempt to explain those areas where human and feline thought processes do overlap.

Sounds Cats Make

First, we'll explore the range of sounds a cat makes:

  • The meow - everybody knows that cats meow, but they only do it to humans. Cats don't talk to each other using meows at all, and we'll explain why later in the section on cat psychology. The meow generally means that the cat wants something from the human, perhaps to go out, or in, or out again, or some food. Food is always welcome.

  • The chirrup - this sound is like a high-pitched trill and usually goes up in pitch. Imagine a Spaniard or Italian rolling their 'r's and saying a long 'rrrr'. The chirrup is a cat's way of saying: 'Hello, I'm pleased to meet you.'

  • The purr - cats purr deep in their throats as a sign that they are happy. A contented cat can apparently keep up a continuous purring, as they can make the sound while breathing in as well as breathing out. It sounds like a trilled 'r' – once again, using our Spanish or Italian friend to do the trilling, but without a break. Cats also occasionally purr when they are under stress, frightened, sick, in pain, in labour, or even dying. It shouldn't be too hard, though, to work out whether your cat is happy or in pain.

  • The hiss - is a throaty 'h' sound accompanied by backward-pointing ears. It signifies anger and fright. A cat will hiss as a warning to you not to come any closer. A cat will not normally hiss at his owner. If it does, it will feel mixed emotions while doing so - perhaps shame, perhaps apprehension that it is going to get clouted.

  • The caterwaul - this wailing noise is not usually used by cats to talk to humans. It is generally reserved for the middle of the night when the cat is on a wall outside in the dark and you are trying to sleep. It sounds like someone with a very high-pitched voice being tortured, and will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The traditional human response to a caterwaul is to fire a boot at the cat, but this is fairly ineffective. Putting your head under the pillow might help.

  • The chatter - a cat that is staring intently at a bird before pouncing on it will often make a chattering noise. It sounds like 'ya-ya-ya-ya' and is made while moving the jaw but keeping the rest of the body absolutely stationary. It's not known exactly why cats do this. They are not trying to talk to the bird, quite the opposite. It could perhaps be a method of exercising the jaw before crunching on the bird's neck, but this seems unlikely. All the rest of the cat's muscles are ready for action without the need for any such exercise.

Body Language

Of course, cats don't just talk with their sounds, they also use body language. The most important parts of their body in this are the ears, tail and eyes.

  • Ears forward is the look of a happy cat. Ears back means apprehension, while ears down means fright.

  • Tail held high with a little curl at the end means a happy cat. Tail horizontal with end twitching slightly is ambiguous - it can be contentment or interest. Tail horizontal and being lashed from side to side means anger.

  • Eyes wide open can be a sign of aggression or extreme interest. And extreme interest isn't always the reaction you want from a cat, given that they are hunters. A relaxed, carefree cat will close its eyes slightly, or even blink, to show it is not worried you are about to attack it.

The Psychology of Cat Communication

You can see that there are some ideas in a cat's vocabulary that involve attacking and being attacked. This is because cats communicate for different reasons than we do. Humans are pack animals. We thrive on company and our speech is designed to reinforce a bond of togetherness. Most people think the purpose of speech is to communicate information, but if you examine what the average human says on a night out at the pub, a lot more of it is to be sociable than actually imparting information.

Cats, on the other hand, are solitary creatures. In the wild they tend to live and hunt alone, and if two cats come together a fight usually occurs. Even mating takes place amid an atmosphere of intense dislike between the concerned parties. So cat communication is much more about aggression than human communication is. The main cat-to-cat calls are the caterwaul for distant aggression and the hiss for close-up combat.

That's why there's not much you can do with a cat when it is making either of these sounds, other than step back out of harm's way.

Cats also make great use of their eyes as offensive weapons. Two cats fighting will often do a face-to-face, staring into each other's eyes in an attempt to intimidate the other. This is why when talking to your cat you should avoid staring directly into it eyes – it will take this as aggression.

Of course, the one cat-to-cat interaction that does not involve aggression is a mother cat with her kittens. The kittens will meow when they want food, and this call easily gets transferred to the cat meowing at its owner when it wants food or access through a door. The chirrup is similarly something that cats might do in a family, although it rarely occurs between two adult cats.

Sounds You Should Make

So now it comes to how you should talk to your cat. You've already been told not to stare directly into its eyes. This would be interpreted as a hostile act, especially so if you do it while peeping out from behind something at a height of six inches above the ground. Expect to get your face ripped off if you try this. No, when you are looking into a cat's eyes you should blink slowly. This reassures it that you are not being aggressive.

As an interesting aside, it's worth noting that, because cats are nocturnal creatures, they try to maximise the amount of light into their eyes by widening their pupils. When a cat is about to pounce, you'll see the pupils of its eyes suddenly widen. This means you've got about a quarter of a second to protect yourself. And since the action is completely instinctive and involuntary, the cat doesn't know it's doing it, and doesn't understand how you're always able to anticipate its attack. In its eyes, the force is with you.

So what should you say to your cat? Perhaps it is time to consult TS Eliot again:

I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!

This shows that the normal method of talking to dogs, showing them you are the boss, is not appropriate to cats. Eliot is suggesting you acknowledge the cat as your superior. This is an extreme viewpoint, but it's certainly important that you at least acknowledge the cat as your equal. (It is not, but you can fake it.) So you should use a relaxed, familiar tone.

I find that if I talk to the cat as if he is an old friend that I haven't seen in a few months, then he will come over to me and answer back. Not 'Here kitty, kitty' but 'How are you, cat, are you well?' Crouching down and snapping my fingers while talking, the cat will usually approach close enough to allow me to tickle him above the shoulders.
– An h2g2 Researcher

Since cats' meows and caterwauls go up and down in pitch a lot, it is a good idea to do this yourself in your speech. The cat won't understand the words, but will understand the emotion in the speech; exaggerating the up and down will make it more interesting for it.

Like most smaller animals, cats can hear much higher pitched sounds than humans. Many people use a higher pitched voice than normal when talking to cats, although we're not aware of any experiments which show this helps. One thing is certain, though. A cat will hear a high-pitched 's' sound very clearly at a great distance. If you want to attract a distant cat's attention, a simple 's' will suffice. This is probably why the traditional 'puss-puss-puss' call is used.

If I Could Talk to the Animals

With a bit of practice, you'll have all the cats in the neighbourhood coming to you when you call them. You'll be able to get your cat to roll over when you say: 'Roll over, Grampuss!' And when your cat decides it's had enough and prepares to attack, you'll know the signs and make a hasty retreat in time.

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