Dogs we get, mostly because they are so easy to get. They have expressive faces and body language that we can read pretty accurately, according to researchers who study animal behavior. Cats, on the other hand, are known for their emotional opaqueness and standoffishness; even the cat-ladiest of cat ladies might think that their pets don’t seem altogether interested in communicating with them, as long as the food arrives on time.
But that’s probably not entirely accurate, say the researchers who study cat-human communication — and, yes, this is a real field of scientific study, albeit a small one. Deciphering meaning in the behaviors of pets — meaning that went much beyond feed me now, anyway — was once dismissed as mere anthropomorphism, but that’s no longer the consensus among this community of researchers.
Rather, there’s a growing belief that cats are as expressive as dogs, argues Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, who recently gave a presentation on the subject at a conference for cat behaviorists in Atlanta. It’s just that we misunderstand or don’t see what they’re trying to communicate.
Compared with dogs, Crowell-Davis said, there are likely many cat behaviors that owners are misinterpreting, at least partially because so much more research has been done on canine behavior.
“I do think that, over time, we’ll see that cats aren’t that mysterious,” said Mikel Delgado, a Ph.D. candidate in animal behavior at the University of California, Berkeley (and the author of a recent study that suggested it’s totally fine to be a bit of an overbearing pet parent).
Researchers have already turned up some interesting stuff, though — here’s what the current findings can tell you about how to speak cat.
The one thing you probably think you understand about how cats communicate — purring means they’re happy! — isn’t exactly right. Cats do indeed purr when they’re happy, but that’s not the most accurate translation of the sound’s meaning, Cromwell-Davis explained. “You can have cats that are happy and content purring, but also a cat that’s injured or sick will purr,” she said.
Instead, purring means something more like, don’t go anywhere, please. It’s more likely a solicitation for care, in other words, than purely an expression of contentedness. “They haven’t got a good way of asking for help — it’s not in their language — so they do the next best thing, they do the purring thing,” said John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and the author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. “The meaning is not exactly right, but it’s the closest they can get to it.”
Your cat is happy to see you when you get home from work, maybe. Your cat rubs its little furry self against your legs when you walk in the door, and you think, It wants something. That … is probably true, but it’s not all the cat is trying to communicate, Cromwell-Davis said, judging from her observations of groups of feral cats living together. (She believes that, contrary to popular opinion, cats are not as solitary we tend to believe; she finds feral cats tend to stick together in groups or families.)
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