Softer, nuanced communication with your cat

Intro: This is a guest post from Albert Schepis who has a vast amount of experience in living with domestic cats. I completely agree with Albert on this.

Dog talk?

How do you communicate with your cat?  Pretty much like you would a dog, right? Wrong, sorry, or rather they read us a little differently, so if you treat your cat like a dog, your cat isn’t understanding you the same way. Both animals want and try to understand what we seem to say, but what they end up doing with it guides what they look for. Dogs have evolved, with our doing, to depend on us to tell them what to do and think. They pretty much can’t do anything without our permission. Cats decide on almost every aspect of their own lives and don’t take direction very well, so they don’t look for it and are confused when we try to manage them. Beyond that in terms of companionship, we all crave and enjoy it, and everyone understands affectionate gestures, but what is different or special about the cat/human relationship and how they communicate?

Communicating with your cat softly and gently
Communicating with your cat softly and gently. Pic: Pixabay.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

From all I’ve read and seen, it’s easier than most people think, and while I hate cliches, in this case more is less, and it’s not so much what you say but how you say it.   By mastering that art, cats bring out our gentle nature, if we let them.

Soft voice light touch

Cats respond to a softer voice and lighter touch than what we as humans, especially guys, are used to giving; that’s how they’re built.  We say and they look for more by way of our physical or body language.  Cats are more tuned into that than we are, and they are very good at it.  The problem is that we are poor at giving it and hence transmit confusing messages and intent to our pets.

Quiet of the night

That’s probably one reason nice older ladies get along with them so well. Cats naturally thrive in the quiet darkness of the night. That’s when they come alive and rampage through the house, right? During the day they tend to hide or ignore the hustle and bustle of our world.  It’s a high for them, and I get that. I enjoy the occasional midnight walk outside when things are calm.  It’s rejuvenating.  So, when your house is quiet at night, it’s like a breath of fresh air to your cat. They get a rush from it, which can be so refreshing that they explode with energy and run around like a demon possessed. If that bothers us then perhaps if we gave them more of what they crave in the daytime, they would do a little less rampaging at night, but they’re pretty much wired for night time activity so probably not.

Gentle and frequent interactions

They like gentle interaction and little moments of acknowledgement. When I walk by my cat who is napping, I say their name along with a “you’re such a good boy (or girl)” and I usually see them open their eyes a little, give me a blink, sigh, stretch and relax even more. They like to know that we appreciate we’re in the same moment together.

Domestic cat hearing

We know they hear very well and respond nicely when I speak softly. It doesn’t matter what words I say as much as I say them softly. And that makes sense, being that their hearing, along with their other senses, is so acutely sensitive.

Indeed, at night when I’m watching TV, typing or listening to music, I might often see one or more of my cats suddenly perk up as they hear something outside that I couldn’t hear if my life depended on it. I know this because I investigate everything they do.

They hear very, very well, though it doesn’t mean they listen, or rather they likely process and ignore a huge amount of information so as to distinguish a possible threat approaching. I’m sure that can be overwhelming, which may contribute to why they snooze much of the day and apparently ignore us. There’s so much going on around them that might contribute to sensory overload, which is probably why we as humans are so messed up.

Humans can like high volume sounds

While some of us retreat from the daily madness of our world, we’re just not as good at blocking things out so we turn up what we want to pay attention to in order to distinguish it. We listen to loud music, we like fireworks, loud cars, fast-paced news, horror movies, foul language, extreme sports and shocking videos. I don’t know that being extreme is working very well so we might take a note from the cat’s handbook on life and try chilling out a little.

Veterinarians talking loudly

Another example I notice is when I bring my cats to the vet. The vets tend to talk loudly, or it may seem that way to me. My cat and I would be waiting quietly in the exam room when the vet comes bursting in with a booming voice asking how we’re doing. I think people do that to exert their authority and instill confidence, which may work on us people but not the scared little animal patient.

I tell my vets to speak softer, that we both can hear them fine and my cat would appreciate a gentler approach. I’m not impressed with booming voices either, and even semi-loud conversational volume is too much for me. I only discovered that since I started paying attention to my cats and turned the volume down all around me. Cats have a tough enough time with all the commotion and barking dogs at the vet, they don’t need a doctor who intimidates them too.

Tone of voice and body language

In fact, I’ve found, and it’s said, that cats don’t need to hear us jabber on like motor-mouths. They pay more attention to the tone of our voices and body language. I don’t think they understand verbal language very well anyway, which is our domain. Dogs can understand lots of words, which is nice when you want them to bring you your slippers. Even animals like gorillas, some of which who’ve learned thousands of words, end up doing better with sign language or symbols.

Whispering sounds

So, I’ve experimented communication with my cats by saying less. I tried whispering to them and just making slight “hmm” and “meh” noises and pretty much mimic what they do. Makes sense to me, and they seem to respond to it as much as if not better than if I were to “explain” things to them.

Nuance

I think human language is mostly just extraneous noise to them. Rather it’s the act of communicating, the subtle nuances that they respond to. I’ve had “conversations” with my cats that have lasted minutes where we just make slight noises back and forth to each other from across the room.

Head tilt

It also doesn’t hurt to do a little head tilt to the side and get down low. That little tactic was the one and only thing that ended up befriending a neurotic neighborhood cat off the street and into my care. As with the act of petting, I think a gentle manner of communication helps build a comfortable and trusting bond between us, and it’s no small miracle that it brings out our softer, better nature.

Dog talk – dog vocabulary

Out of interest, researchers from Dalhousie University, Canada, wrote in Applied Animal Behavioural Science that a dog’s vocabulary includes between 15 words to 215 words with an average of 89 words or phrases which is equivalent to a one-year-old human. I guess it pays to talk in human language to dogs. We need a similar study for cats. Dogs are always chosen over cats in studies.

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