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Cat talk
By Carina Norris

Cats may not actually 'talk', but they have a large vocabulary of meows and other sounds, as well as a vast range of body language.

Because we don't speak the same language as our cats, there are often misunderstandings - our pets don't realise what we want them to do, and we don't realise what they're trying to tell us.

But by learning just a little feline language, you will be able to better understand your cat.

Speaking cats

One researcher claimed to have identified at least 100 different sounds and some people have tried to translate them into a language like our own. Although you can't match up different meows to 'words', some sounds seem to be used regularly for the same purpose, and owners often learn to recognise some of what their cat is trying to communicate. For example, your cat may have a "can I come in?" meow, and a "I'm hungry!" meow. Also, the tone of a cat's voice can give away a lot, such as whether your pet is angry, or frightened. For different 'emotions', cats use a whole range of coos, chirrups, meows, mews, hisses and growls.

Purring

Most people associate purring with a happy cat, but sometimes a purr can mean that the cat is in pain - it will generally be obvious when this is the case. Slightly harder to distinguish from a contented purr is the 'embarrassed' purr that cats may use when they feel nervous - it serves a similar function to a nervous giggle in a human. Kittens can purr from the time when they are around one week old.

Hisses and growls

These sounds are reserved for a cat who is threatened, angry, or both. Generally, a growl means "be careful, I mean business," and the cat may emit a sudden hiss, often accompanied by spitting, if its warning is ignored.

Body language

Cats also use a wide range of facial expressions and body postures for communication.

An alert cat gazes forward, with its ears are pricked, ready to pick up any sight or sound cues. Nostrils and whiskers may twitch if the cat is also slightly nervous, as the cat brings its senses of smell and touch into play as it attempts to recognise whatever caught its attention in the first place.

If it is another friendly cat, human or other animal, the cat will run to greet it, often with its tail held high. This is a classic cat greeting, which you may have seen when your cat meets you when you arrive home. The tail is raised so that other felines can sniff the cat's bottom - to cats, scent is extremely important for recognition of friend and foe!

Threat displays

If a cat sees a threat, it will first freeze and look at the intruder. Its whiskers, ears and nose may twitch and its tail may flick slowly back and forth. As the cat attempts to identify the threat, its whiskers and ears may point forward. If the intruder continues to approach, the cat will turn so that it is standing sideways on to its rival, though its head still faces the potential enemy. Gradually, the cat's hairs stand up on end, and it may arch its back and fluff up its tail like a bottlebrush! This threat display is designed to make the cat look much bigger and fiercer than it really is, and is usually accompanied by frightening hissing, growls and spits.

If a rival comes very close, the cat will anticipate a fight. Its back legs will be tensed, ready to spring forwards or run away, and one front paw may be raised, claws unsheathed, ready to lash out. The chin is tucked in to shield the throat, and ears are flattened back against the head for protection. The cat draws back its lips to reveal its sharp teeth, and continues to voice its disapproval.

All the while, the other cat will act out a similar choreography. Eventually, the two cats will either fly at one another and a full-blown cat fight, complete with ear-splitting screeches, will ensue; or one or other aggressor will back down.

Cats may also show frightened-agitated body language when they feel threatened by a human. If you find yourself faced by a cat with eyes wide and darting from side to side, body crouched ready to spring, ears back and tail lashing - then beware! The next stage could well be lashing claws. Back away, talk to the cat in a soothing voice, and don't attempt to touch it until its ears have returned to their normal position.

Tail talk

Cats' extremely mobile tails can express a variety of emotions. a tail held erect indicates contentment, or a welcome. Unlike a dog's wagging tail, a wagging tail on a cat spells trouble. Slow waving from side to side generally means the cat is cross or threatened, and when the waving intensifies to a strong lashing back and forth, the cat's emotions are running very high, and it may be about to attack.

Paws

Contented cats will often knead their owners' laps with their forepaws, as they purr with contentment. This is a throwback to the time when they were kittens, and would purr and knead their mother's belly as they suckled. If you tickle the tummy of a relaxed cat lying on its back, it may 'knead' the air, as its mind slips back to the blissful days of kittenhood...

Scent talk

A cat's sense of smell is extremely sensitive, and cats use scents to tell other felines who they are, where they've been and when, whether they are male or female, and whether they are ready to mate. When a visitor - feline or human - comes to your house, your cat will sniff them to see who they are, who they've met, and where they've been.

Some of this information is passed on when cats meet each other, and some is left in the form of scent marks - odiferous 'calling cards' for other cats to find.

Cats scent mark their territories by rubbing their scent glands against objects. Scent glands are located on a several locations, including the sides of the cat's face and lips, the base of the tail, and between the toes. You have probably seen cats 'chinning' objects, rubbing them with the base of their tail, or scratching with their claws - as well as leaving a visible mark, scratching also deposits scent.

When a cat finds another cat's mark, it may turn and leave, or alternatively attempt to cover up the mark with its own, depending on which cat is the 'top cat' and also which of them is the 'resident' and which is the intruder.

Does your cat weave in and out of your ankles? By doing this, a cat first marks you with the scent glands on its face, then swipes its tail around your leg, to reinforce the scent mark with its tail gland.

Urine marking

Urine is a very potent territorial mark to cats, which is all very well when a pet uses it outdoors, but quite another matter in the house!

Male cats may spray droplets of strong-smelling urine onto objects around the perimeters of their territory. First the cat examines an object such as a post, turns his back on it, lifts his tail then, making treading movements with his hind legs, squirts a jet of urine. Sometimes he will turn and examine and sniff his signature, and occasionally repeat the whole performance.

It is much rarer for female cats to spray. If this occurs, it is generally seen in unneutered females, whose hormonal balance is upset, or who are under stress.

In fact, stress may cause any cat, neutered or unneutered, to scent mark using urine, though the smell is nothing like as strong as the that from an unneutered tom cat! Cats thrive on security, and something like a house move, the arrival of a new baby, a new kitten or puppy, or even a change in their owner's routine. If a cat is really upset, it may even deposit its droppings as scent marks. If you think your cat's marking may be stress related, check with the vet to rule out illness as a cause, then attempt to restore the cat's sense of security.

Flehmen reaction

When cats investigate the scents left by other cats, they may draw back their lips and grimace in what is known as the Flehmen reaction. This draws the scent back to a special organ, far back on the roof of the cat's mouth, called the Jacobson's organ. This organ provides a sort of a combined smell-taste sense.

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