~ How To Speak Cat ~
people are so enamored with their new cat or kitten that they give it a
wide-eyed, unbroken stare, little realizing that they are communicating a desire
to attack it, eat it, or drive it from their territory.
With many species of wild and domestic animals, communication is mostly through
body language. In fact, experts even tell us that human communication is 70
percent gestures and expressions.
In this article I hope to reveal the dance to you, and to give you a few short
gestures which will improve your experience with your cat, and his/her
experience with you, particularly if you are in the process of introducing a new
cat to your environment. Bear in mind that I work with a population of Ragdoll
cats who are mellow, generally accepting, and adaptable. I am not sure how these
ideas would apply to Bengals or other breeds.
most important gestures are the blink, and the blink/ignore. The blink/ignore is
used for a cat who is new to the environment, or is uncomfortable for any
reason. Look the animal in the eye, give a slow, deliberate blink, and then turn
your head and body away from her and think to yourself, "I am totally ignoring
this animal". The blink is a sign of territorial acceptance, an assurance that
you do not have an agenda. The ignore grants the animal space.
If the cat has been in the environment for some time, a slow blink when you come
in is much like a greeting/acceptance/reaffirmation. Cats blink at us often.
They must think us quite dense for not returning their blinks.
I once had a lady call me and tell me she was distressed because she bought a
kitten from another breeder and it was terrified and would not come out from
under the couch. I told her about the blink/ignore. She called back 30 minutes
later just amazed. She'd done the blink/ignore and the kitten ran out from under
the couch, jumped into her lap, and started purring. (That was such a dramatic
result it surprised me!)
The Pick Up/Put Down
a cat, not a teddy bear. It has the opinion, as we all do and should, that it
owns itself. The deep basis for abuse is someone else demonstrating that they
own you. If you were at a Safeway, and a huge person you didn't know ran to you,
picked you up, and smothered your face with sloppy kisses, you would be
absolutely appalled. Cats feel this way if a person does this who they have no
I had a person come and look at a kitten which I knew to be tame and social.
This person held the kitten and when the kitten squirmed slightly, he did not
put it down. The kitten meowed, "Please put me down". The person did not
respond. Finally I asked for the kitten to be put down and the kitten ran and
did not come out until the person left. A week later a mother and her teenage
daughter came to look at the kitten. She would not come near at first, but,
forgiving creatures they are, slowly began to make overtures. It turned out that
the daughter was an animal person. She waited until the kitten crawled into her
lap. She petted the kitten but did not confine it. The kitten persisted until
she did pick it up. Immediately the kitten, with a slight squirm, asked to be
put down. The girl picked up the signal and placed her on the carpet. The kitten
asked to be picked up again, and this time did not ask to be put down. That
kitten went home with that girl, much to everyone's delight.
One of the most important things a small animal wants to know is, if I consign
my body to this huge hulking creature, will they free me if I ask? If the answer
is no, your cat will not want to be affectionate with you. If the answer is yes,
your animal, whether it is a cat, a bird, a horse, a dog, will feel confident
You can shorten the amount of time it takes for an animal to feel comfortable
with you by doing these things: Pick the cat up, give it a quick kiss, put it
down BEFORE it asks, and turn and do a complete ignore. A few minutes later,
repeat this. You will basically be telling your little creature that the pickups
are temporary. They will end. It is not your intent to confine. You will notice
the animal becoming more comfortable being picked up, and you can hold it for
slightly longer. ALWAYS put a cat down if she asks immediately. Many people wish
they had a lapcat and don't realize their actions taught their cat not to be a
lapcat early on.
Hiss vs Purr
I once saw a lady attempt to quiet a distressed cat by saying, "Shhhh" and the
cat was becoming more and more frantic. If you wanted to comfort someone, you
wouldn't say, "DANGER DANGER!!" Any "sss" sound which a cat hears it will
immediately translate as danger or hostility. This is why they hate vacuums,
hair driers, and anything that sounds like escaping air. If one cat crosses the
boundaries of another, the insulted cat will threaten and say, "Sssssss". This
tells the intruder they are over the line and in imminent danger of a whack. If
a cat jumps up on a counter, and you say, "Get down Puddy", it won't know what
you are saying. If you hold an unblinking stare and say, "Sssss", it will.
Conversely if you roll your tongue quietly like a purr, this will comfort or
reward a cat.
Discipline vs Love
The most important principles for establishing boundaries with a cat, or any
animal, or even your children for that matter, is that relationship must come
before behavioral modification. You are not programming a machine, you are
opening up intelligent thought to a being. You want this to be an aspect of
relationship and a bonding experience, rather than being demeaning and
You are not "training" a cat to stay off the counter, you are establishing the
counter as your territory which you do not want intruded upon. There is a HUGE
difference in this. "Training" assumes the cat is a programmable machine and it
demeans them. Establishing a boundary assumes intelligent thought and this
enriches a cat's life. Cats will get this. To have relationship exceed
discipline means you are going to have to be patient. When the cat jumps up on
the counter, say, "Pssss" softly, then walk over and lift the cat down. Then,
when it is down, purr to it, stroke it, thank it, and walk away. Do this many
times, and each time the pssst gets a bit louder. Eventually, you will include a
mild spanking and then the cat will get the idea. I don't use water guns. The
way cats maintain boundaries in their prides is an increasingly loud verbal
warning accompanied by an unbroken stare. Eventually if these warnings go
unheeded, one cat cuffs the other. To spank a cat, hold it by the scruff and
paddle the hind quarters softly with the flat of your hand. Increase the force
until you can barely feel the cat tense its muscles. This tells you the cat is
uncomfortable. Then put the cat down. Once a cat understands your intent, you
will be able to lock a stare and say Pssst from across the room, and the cat
will heed you. It should not be necessary to paddle a cat more than twice in its
life. If done correctly, your cat will have a deepened respect for you - you are
a powerful creature, but your requests are consistent and reasonable, and if
heeded, you don't use your power. Cats get this.
Children In The House
If you have children, you need to teach these concepts to them or they, meaning
to love, will torture a cat. I have read that statistically, children who are
raised with animals have better self images. But I think this far underestimates
the wholeness animals bring to the lives of children. Animals can teach many
things and can fill our children with love if the basics of human/animal
relations are shown to kids early on.
Being the Alpha Cat
have a cat or multiple cats in the house, YOU need to be the alpha, or your cats
will not be happy. Cats love a great alpha. It's been interesting to be a part
of a cat pride where the members are not fixed and there is a working social
structure much like it would be in the wild. If an alpha queen holds her
position with too much force, the personality of the pride is more tense. I have
seen some wondrous alpha cats who work hard not just to keep order, but to make
sure everyone feels comfortable and safe. The head queens will not let pride
members fight. If a fight breaks out, they will rush in and growl, lock stares,
and if the fighters do not desist, they will attack and physically break it up.
They want the environment safe and quiet for kittens. I had one alpha queen who
would be the first to greet guests and visiting dogs. She would sniff the dog,
and as the frightened members of the pride looked on, she would turn her back on
the dog and sit down with it directly behind her back (an ignore). The whole
pride would relax and resume their activities.
The Core Attitude
What you think of your animal will determine the level of success and depth of
your relationship. We don't truly own any creature. If an animal lives with you,
it is your responsibility to provide for it and in turn, you are graced with its
presence. That is the trade. But no being on the planet may own the soul of
another being. The animal is who it is. It needs space to make decisions, it
needs time to form relationships. The fact that an animal does not have as big a
brain as we do does not mean it is locked in perpetual childhood. Pet animals
mature faster than people do. They regard themselves as adults. An animal who is
devalued and forced will retreat. An animal who is pandered to and spoiled will
disrespect you. If you have the right attitude about animals it will affect
every subtle move you make around them. You will be giving them their space and
encouraging them, while communicating about and gently maintaining your own
boundaries. Animals are strongly drawn to humans who have this balance.
Cats look to people to be the Alpha, to love and encourage, to maintain
reasonable boundaries consistently, and never to confine or condescend. People
who can do this are blessed with their animals opening themselves up completely
in love and trust. These are the basic principles for success in relationships
with other people too. It is hard to quantify the value of having animals in
your home with you and with your children. They are living treasures.