When I was a kid, I loved Dr. Dolittle. I had a recording of the music from the 1967 movie, and I would sing along with it: “I can walk with the animals, talk with the animals, and they can squeak and squawk and talk to me.”
As Dr. Dolittle discovered from his wise parrot, Polynesia, most animal languages are a mixture of sound and movement. But Dr. Dolittle notwithstanding, it has been only recently that we have started to look at and understand communication and emotion in animals.
At the World Small Animal Veterinary Association conference, which I attended last September, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kersti Seksel spoke on understanding feline communication. For communication to exist, she says, there must be a sender, a means of sending the message and a receiver. “The receiver doesn’t have to be present when the message is sent,” Seksel says, “but the receiver does have to receive and understand the message. That’s where most issues start.”
Our cats are sophisticated communicators, despite not being able to speak English. Their vocalizations, for instance, are highly individualized and specific. The sounds they use to communicate with each other, such as those between a mother and her kittens, are different from the vocal commands they issue to people. Owners, the ones who are paying attention, anyway, soon learn to recognize and interpret what their cats are saying.
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Cats not only have a language they use only with humans, they also use different body language with humans than with other cats, Seksel says. Body language encompasses the position of the eyes, ears, tail and head, body posture and facial expression. Communication among cats is subtle and quick. It often goes unnoticed by people. Often, owners think cats are getting along, when in reality violence is simmering just beneath the surface.
For instance, you might think that one of your cats has merely entered a room. But often, that cat has signaled to the other cat or cats in the room with a twitch of the ear or switch of the tail that he wants something – maybe the chair another cat is in or the food bowl he’s snacking from – and he’s in no mood to be trifled with. When the other cat gets up and leaves, in a seemingly casual manner, he’s not being nonchalant.
Cats leave the presence of aggressive cats very slowly because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, Seksel says. When feline tension turns into an all-out fight, the combatants don’t just kiss and make up. Cats can stay highly aroused for two to seven days afterward, Seksel says. She recommends separating cats for at least a week after a fight.
Scent is another way in which cats communicate, both among themselves and with people. When your cat gives you an affectionate head butt or rubs up against your leg, he’s using pheromones secreted from glands in the cheeks, chin and paw pads to mark you as a member of his community.
When he scratches, he’s leaving pheromonal messages for other cats. Pheromones are an important form of communication among cats. Among other things, pheromones signal reproductive status and social rank and indicate danger. “Veterinary hospitals are full of pheromones all the time because cats aren’t happy to be there,” Seksel says.
When you can learn to understand lingua felinica, you are well on your way to earning your cat’s respect, not to mention heading off behavior problems before they become serious.
And in the immortal words of Dr. Dolittle: “If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages, think of all the things we could discuss.”
Four unusual breeds have joined the roster of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club. They are the Spanish water dog, the Cirneco dell’Etna, the Bergamasco and the Boerboel. The curly-coated Spanish water dog will join the herding group, along with the Bergamasco, an Italian sheepdog with a corded coat. The Cirneco is a hunting breed that will become a member of the hound group. The Boerboel is a large South African farm dog who will join the working group. He’s a member of the mastiff family. That brings the number of AKC-recognized breeds and varieties to 184.
▪ The Winn Feline Foundation has awarded seven feline medical research grants totaling $111,392. The studies funded will investigate a device that allows low-stress imaging for cats in respiratory distress; treatment for a fatal tick-borne blood parasite that is seen increasingly in cats; improving the feline genome; developing a test for the silver coat color – one of the few remaining cat colors for which there is no genetic test; effective chemotherapy for injection-site sarcomas; improving the safety of a drug used for sedation or preanesthesia; and ways to improve treatment of skin allergies and skin diseases.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian
Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton. Becker can also be found at
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