Dear Christopher Cat: My daughter, Jayne, was charmed by the book “Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat” by HJ Frederick. Jayne adopted a shelter cat that looks like Timber Howligan, named him Timber, and now thinks he may be a secret agent because he makes so many unusual sounds. She wants to learn cat language so she can join the animal spy business. What do I tell her?
Christopher Responds: I agree with Jayne’s favorable assessment of “Timber Howligan” and applaud her desire to learn cat language. She can start by checking out Timber’s website at www.timberhowligan.com.
I’ll help by reviewing feline vocalizations, body language, scent communication, visual signals and tactile communication.
Vocalizations range from the trill or chirp we cats use to greet feline and human friends to purring. In addition, we meow in dozens of ways, and each meow has a distinct meaning.
Hissing and spitting usually indicate that a cat feels threatened or defensive, while growling and snarling signal the start of an attack.
Body language, the most important method of communicating for us cats, uses the face, eyes, ears, tail and body posture. When I greet a friend, my body relaxes, my hair lies flat against my skin, and my tail stands up and often quivers.
When I want to look large enough to scare away an enemy, the hair on my body and tail stands out, my tail becomes erect and my back arches. By contrast, when I’m fearful and want to look inconspicuous, I crouch and drop my tail.
When I’m content and relaxed, my tail sways gently, but when I’m annoyed, it twitches.
My ears also communicate feelings. Erect ears show I’m alert, whereas ears flattened back against the head signal fear or aggression.
We cats also leave scents produced by glands at the corners of the mouth, on the cheeks and sides of the forehead, on the foot pads and along the tail. Head butting is a common way of leaving a scent signal. When we scratch a vertical surface, we’re leaving our scent and a visual sign.
Tactile communication occurs when we rub against or groom other group members, including our humans.
Jayne will enjoy becoming adept at cat language, and someday, she may even join the animal spy fraternity, perhaps as a veterinarian.