There’s a book on the market: “The Secret Language of Cats: How to Understand Your Cat for a Better, Happier Relationship”. The key to the title is that the language of cats is secret by which the author means it’s different and to many people a mystery. The book gets good write-ups but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it myself because you don’t need it to unlock the secrets of feline language. You just need to be observant. It also helps a lot if you drop an anthropocentric approach to life.
I’ll deal with “anthropocentric” first. This means looking at the world entirely through human eyes and the belief that everything revolves around humankind. People tend to do it as we dictate what happens on the planet. Except when nature gives us a hard smack on the wrist and tells us that she is the boss (global warming).
I have always felt that there are two keystones to a successful relationship between human and cat, (1) loving your cat because from love understanding flows because you want to understand and you want to help and make their lives good and (2) respecting your cat which flows from loving your cat. If you respect your cat, it means you drop anthropocentrism and you begin to think like a cat and even behave like one!
Understand the basics through observation
You can communicate with cats quite accurately actually. It does take a little bit of time and effort but this comes easily because you are in a close and mutually supportive relationship. Learning happens naturally as you automatically learn about your cat in this kind of relationship.
And I believe you don’t need to know all the vocalisations, the tail positions, the ear positions, the facial expressions (of which there are up to 300!) and so on to understand your cat.
Rhythms and routines are important
You should try to connect with your cat through daily routines and rhythms in life. It certainly helps tremendously if you have a routine life which sounds boring but as you know cat like routine. Routines help the connection because you end up doing things together at the same times. This facilitates mutual understanding.
The basic meow
What you’ve got to understand (everyone does) is when your cat wants something and the vocalisations for that is the meow. The meow varies a lot between individual cats but is, in essence, a request.
Agitation, distress, stress – key emotions
You should understand when your cat is becoming agitated for whatever reason and particularly for reasons of how we interact with them. A lot of cat caregivers inadvertently agitate their cat which can lead to “bad cat behaviour” which it’s not. It is simply a natural, instinctive and feline reaction. That’s where the understanding as to come in.
The classic is mishandling a cat through over-petting or a child being two rumbustious with a cat provoking a swipe by the cat and a scratch. Try to understand cat aggression through the eyes of the cat. I see a lot of people analyze cat behaviour as if they are analysing human behavior. That’s what I mean about anthropocentrism.
The cat’s so-called “independence” is misunderstood. They aren’t independent. They depend on us because they live in our world. I don’t think that you can successfully live with a domestic cat if you are away from the home all day every day from dawn till dusk. It’s likely to produce separation anxiety in your cat and consequential health problems probably. This is not a criticism of people who try to achieve this but I think people should reflect seriously on whether they are in a position to adopt a cat at a certain point in their working lives. Sometimes people are simply not able to meet their cat’s needs not because they are negligent or careless but because they have stronger alternative obligations.
Relating to your cat
A classic act of anthropocentrism is to hold a cat like a baby. That happens a lot and I don’t think it’s okay most of the time. It puts the cat in a vulnerable position. I’ve seen Taylor Swift do it in photographs. It’s the caretaker’s duty to ensure that their cat feels confident and reassured. Relating to a domestic cat as a baby is not what the experts would advocate. Or a toddler. It tends to create misplaced expectations as well as inappropriate handling of a cat.
Expectation management is very important in cat caregiving. By this I mean if you expect a domestic cat to behave like a small human or a dog you might be disappointed. Disappointment can undermine the relationship when the objective is to support and strengthen the relationship.
You don’t really need to know that when your cat greets you when you come home with their tail in the vertical position and they rub against your leg that they are demonstrating a friendly greeting and then exchanging their scent on their bodies with yours. That’s what’s happening but all you need to know is that they are pleased you are home which is obvious.
Challenging their mental equilibrium
But you do need to know that if you have many cats in your home, you are challenging their emotional equilibrium because they are forced to share a small space which is unnatural to all cats, both domestic and wild. They like their defined space called a “home range”. If you force them into a small space the home ranges overlap which can be acceptable to a certain extent but there’s a limit.
The domestic cat is very adaptable. This is demonstrated in the way they’ve changed over the thousands of years of their domestication in living with humans. They’ve become quite sociable for instance. So, cats do adapt to living in multi-cat homes but the experts say that there is a much greater chance of aggressive behaviours cats when they are forced together in this way.
Routines are a framework and a form of communication
That’s something you should know. But returning to routines, these create a framework for the relationship in which you don’t need direct communication between human and cat because you both know what’s happening at those times. You know your cat likes to do X, Y, and Z at a certain time and they know you do X, Y, and Z at a certain time. It’s like a jigsaw which falls into place. The routine becomes a form of communication.
The home range is an important part of a domestic cat’s lifestyle
There are many complex and overlapping behaviours when a cat becomes aggressive and defensively aggressive but you don’t really need to know them to live contentedly with a domestic cat companion. You see these behaviours when a cat is defending their territory against an invading, for instance. There’s a whole bundle of behaviours there but you don’t need to know them in minute detail. These are behaviours between cats.
In the single-cat home they wouldn’t apply unless cat is allowed outside and they defend their territory there. But the home range is an important aspect of a domestic cat’s lifestyle and therefore mentality. People should be aware of this because it feeds back into their behaviour and it affects whether they are content or agitated.
Learn what they like
I think it’s important to learn what your cat likes and to provide those interactions that you have learned that your cat likes. You want to make your cat happy. It’s up to the caregiver to find out how it can be done and commonsense applies.
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