Do you have a quiet cat or a chatty catty?

Pete Keesling

One of my friends mentioned a magazine article about how cats communicate and he asked me what I thought. Everyone agrees that most cats try to talk to us, especially when they’re hungry and it’s dinner time. Researchers have spent huge amounts of time and money trying to get inside the minds of domestic felines. (What a great job that must be; imagine getting paid to analyze kitty-cat conversations.)
One Stanford study from a few years ago claimed the average housecat makes more than 30 different sounds, each with its own significance. After reading that, I watched and listened to our cat, Rumpy, to see if he had anywhere near that kind of vocabulary. I was a little disappointed with my findings.
At the time, Rumpy was 15 years old, and a devoted member of our family. He was constantly with me, whether in the house, the garden or out in the barn. Rumpy seemed to be a feline of few words. He quietly got what he wanted most of the time, and it was usually food or affection. If he told me how hungry he was (with at least four different “words”), I’d feed him. After an afternoon snack, we’d both take a nap. No talking now. Just a soft, contented purr.
I chronicled at least nine different sounds Rumpy made over the course of his life, each with its own significance. For example, when he entered a darkened room and wasn’t sure if he was alone, he’d vocalize with that same inflection you or I would make: “Anybody here?” If he saw me from across the lawn in the back yard, it was a different sound. He’d call loudly to get my attention. It sounded like, “Hey, over here!” Shame on me if I didn’t respond and go over to pat him on the head.
After reading about those talented cats at Stanford, I started to wonder why Rumpy seemed so limited in his verbal communication skills. My school teacher wife told me I should have read to him when he was young. Too much television, I guess.
Anyway, back to my friend’s discussion. He didn’t agree that cats have verbal skills.
“They only meow at people. One word,” he said. “And communication between cats is silent except maybe when they get in a fight. Then it’s all screams and the fur flies.”
And for the most part, that’s right. If you watch cats together, you quickly see that most of their communication is body language. There’s no need to talk. One cat can tell exactly what the other is thinking by his or her actions.
Imagine two cats entering a room at the same time. If one is happy to see the other, his tail and ears are both up … sort of, “Hi, how are you?” That’s a friendly greeting. But if he feels threatened, his tail will be down, his ears pinned to his head. No need for small talk. Body language says it all.
But I’m sure cats try to talk to us, even though my friend disagrees. They do it for one good reason. They want to communicate. So they try to mimic us and make the same sounds we use when we talk to them. It’s imitation, the highest form of flattery. We speak and they try to answer.
Rumpy tried to talk to me all the time. His vocabulary might not have been comparable to those Stanford cats, but I think he did a pretty good job for a self-educated feline. I almost always knew what was on his mind. And he knew I’d stop what I was doing if he called me.
Why does a cat’s tail get so big when he’s scared?
It’s all part of his defense if he feels threatened. There are small muscles (called erector pili) attached to each hair follicle under the skin. These muscles contract when he’s frightened, making his hair stand up tall. He looks bigger and more formidable to any adversary.
People have these same muscles. Hence the phrase heard in so many scary stories, “I could feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”