Behaviourist's corner

How do cats communicate

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Understanding your cat’s body language can be a hugely rewarding experience and will help create a special bond between you. Here are some tips on how to transform your time together.

It’s natural to be disheartened if your cat slinks off when you try to stroke her, or lashes out when you give her a tickle, but it’s important to recognise that cats’ needs are different to our own. As APBC-accredited cat behaviour counsellor Vicky Halls explains, ‘When a cat does something, it’s easy for us to compare it to what a human would do. In fact, cats tend to do things for a totally different reason – they want something, but it’s not always attention. Their species has learned to survive on its own, and the concept of love is a little bit alien to a cat.’

Individual preferences

Every cat is an individual – what one cat loves, another will merely tolerate – so the secret is learning to read your own cat’s body language. Vicky often tells cat owners to follow their pet’s lead. ‘Be calm and don’t force yourself on your cat,’ she says. ‘Instead, let her control the interaction in a safe way.’

Mistaken beliefs

Two signs that are often misinterpreted are head-nudging and rolling over. Head-nudging enables your cat to transfer her scent to you, rather than being a request to be patted. And rolling over most definitely does not mean ‘tickle my tummy’. ‘Cats instinctively know that the belly and abdomen need protection because the skin is at its thinnest there,’ explains Vicky. ‘They immediately sense danger if they see something coming towards their tummy from above, so it’s an area best avoided.’ If your cat exposes her tummy to you, it may mean that she trusts you and is relaxed in your company, but it’s best to reciprocate with a gentle stroke to her head rather than by touching her abdomen.

How to enhance your relationship:

  1. Lightly tickle the sebaceous glands around the cheeks, chin and forehead – this helps the transfer of scent, which makes your cat feel safe.
  2. Keep contact brief – your cat will tell you if she wants more.
  3. Cats are individuals, so while some like being rubbed above the base of the tail, for example, others don’t. You’ll soon find out her preference.
  4. Avoid heavy, rapid strokes – most cats prefer a light touch.
  5. If your cat stops purring and her muscles stiffen, she’s asking you to end the contact.
  6. Your cat will feel reassured if you look at her with relaxed, half-closed eyes and keep your head at a slight angle.

Finally, Vicky has a special trick for dealing with anxious cats. It involves simply carrying on as if the cat isn’t there. ‘If you can train yourself to “fail to see&rdguo; the cat and do everything in a normal way, your cat will feel camouflaged and safe,’ she says. With time and patience, your pet is much more likely to come to you for contact and affection.

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