Cat communication

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A primary method by which cats communicate is through body language.

Cat communication consists of a range of methods by which cats communicate with humans, other cats, and other animals. While superficially cats may seem to lack social behavior, in fact close study reveals a wide repertoire of subtle behaviors, which serve cats in their natural wild setting where they form organized hierarchies, and in their domestic interactions with humans.


[edit] Biting

Cats will bite out of contentedness, playfulness, hunger, and other emotions. When a cat is happy, the cat may sometimes make a weak and harmless bite many owners refer to as a 'nip'. Nipping appears to be akin to human kissing, and as such will be accompanied by other gestures of affection which (depending on the cat) include purring, vertical tail, forward whiskers, rubbing of the face on nearby objects, arching of the back when patted, licking, etc.

A common misunderstanding is that all "affectionate" biting is nipping. When a cat becomes irritated or tired of being patted (e.g. being rubbed the wrong way, being irritated by static electricity, being sore, wanting to sleep, or just being cranky), the cat may cease to nip and start to bite. The crucial difference is that the bite will be harder than a nip but will rarely be painful, and the cat will be displaying other signs of irritation at being patted (e.g. purring stopped, tail no longer vertical (often thumping), whiskers and ears pointed backwards, paw swiping at the patting hand before or immediately after the bite). This is not a sign of outward aggression, just simply a terse request that the cat's human companion should immediately stop some action which the cat has ceased to enjoy.

Playful clawing and biting often happens when teasing a cat (especially a kitten) with fingers or a toy. The cat will lunge at the toy (or the fingers manipulating the toy) and possibly claw or bite. The clawing and biting is sometimes painful but rarely causes injury - either the cat has become overcome with excitement or, especially in the case of kittens, is still learning it can injure others. The cat's intent is still one of affection and playfulness (forward-pointed whiskers, purring, other obvious appreciation of the game). It is recommended that if the human is bitten, he/she should emit a high-pitched noise suggesting pain and a firm "NO!", followed by ignoring the cat for approximately ten minutes.[1]

Aggressive biting is obviously designed to cause injury. Domesticated cats rarely bite with injurious intentions. However, should the cat be rabid or feel that a human (even a friend) might present a mortal danger for some reason, the cat may respond with aggression. An injured cat may bite defensively when approached. Female cats, when nursing new kittens, can also be aggressive when approached before the cat has introduced her kittens herself.

[edit] Purring

Purring can signify not only that the cat is happy, but also very happy in its home. The purring will sometimes be accompanied by a tremble of the tail. It can also be a sign of affection toward their owner and/or others around them. This is the most effective way a cat shows happiness, though the cat may also begin kneading when about to lie down and take a nap.

Though purring is generally the easiest way to assume a cat's contentment, it is not always a sure indicator that the cat is happy. Cats also purr when they are ill, or during tense, traumatic, or painful moments. When suddenly and violently injured, even at moments near death, a cat will often purr. Recent theories surmise that purring is caused by the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins produce a sense of well-being and a decrease in pain.

[edit] Meowing

A cat meowing

While cats occasionally vocalize to one another with purrs, growls, and screams, they generally communicate with one another through body language. When preparing to fight an adversary or to frighten one away, cats can emit long, articulated meows. Most communications recognized as "meow" are specifically for human interaction.[2]

[edit] Other noises

A cat hissing and arching its back to make itself appear larger.

Most cats growl or hiss when angered or in danger, which serves to warn the offending party.[1] If the warning is not heeded, a more or less serious attack may follow. Some may engage in nipping behavior or batting with their paws, either with claws extended or retracted. With cats who are improperly socialized and do not know their own strength, this can result in inadvertent damage to human skin. Like any injury, cat scratches can become infected, and in extreme cases can result in cat scratch fever.

Some cats will snort (exhale sharply) after a determined effort to catch something has fallen short. Cats are also known to make chirping or chattering noises when observing prey, or as a means of expressing interest in an object to nearby humans. When directed at out-of-reach prey, it is unknown whether this is a threatening sound, an expression of excitement or frustration, or an attempt to replicate a bird-call (or replicate the call of a bird's prey, for example a cicada).[citation needed]

While this behavior was originally viewed as the feline equivalent of song, recent animal behaviorists have come to believe this noise is a "rehearsal behavior" in which it anticipates or practices the killing of prey, because the sound usually accompanies a biting movement similar to the one they use to kill their prey (the "killing bite" which saws through the victim's neck vertebrae).

A type of chirrup, the chudder, is used as a greeting. Tigers also use this sound. Some cats may also grunt when given attention. The grunt appears to always be modulated with a purr, making it a kind of closed-mouth meow of affection. Contented sleeping cats make soft humming sounds, similar to sighs, when petted.

The cry of a cat is called a caterwaul.

Cats in close contact with humans use vocalization more frequently than cats who live in the wild, the reason being that owners respond strongly to cat vocalizations, reinforcing the behavior. Adult cats in the wild rarely vocalize; they use mostly body language and scent to communicate. However, cows often make a very similar, yet more guttural noise also referred to as meowing.

[edit] Body language

A mackerel tabby cat kneading a blanket before a nap. Note the forward position of the whiskers, indicating happiness or curiosity.
A young black cat, showing relaxation and happiness.

Cats will twitch the tips of their tails when hunting or angry, while larger twitching indicates displeasure[citation needed]. They may also twitch their tails when playing[citation needed]. A tail held high is a sign of happiness, or can be used as a greeting towards humans or other cats (usually close relatives) while half-raised shows less pleasure, and unhappiness is indicated with a tail held low. A scared or surprised cat may puff up its tail, and the hair along its back may stand straight up and the cat turn its body sideways to a threat, in order to increase its apparent size[citation needed]. Tailless cats, such as the Manx, who possess only a small stub of a tail move the stub around as though they possessed a full tail, though it is not nearly as communicative as that of a fully tailed cat. Touching noses is a friendly greeting for cats, while a lowered head is a sign of submission. Some cats will rub their faces along their guardian's cheek or ankles as a friendly greeting or sign of affection. This action is also sometimes a way of "marking their territory," leaving a scent from the scent glands located in the cat's cheek. More commonly, cats do something called a "head bonk," or "bunting," where they literally bump you with the front part of their head to express affection. [2]

Cats also lick both each other and people (e.g. their owners). Cats lick each other to groom each other and to bond together (this grooming is usually done between cats that know each other very well). They will also sometimes lick people for similar reasons, that is, to "groom" them and to show them care and affection. When cats are happy, they are known to paw their human companion, or a soft object on which they may be sitting, with a kneading motion also called padding. Cats often use this action alongside purring to show contentment and affection for their companions. Other times it can be when the cat is in pain or dying, as a method of comforting itself. It is instinctive to cats, which use it when they are young to stimulate the mother cat's breast to release milk during nursing. As a result, cats hand-raised by humans may lack this reflex. Pawing is also a way for cats to mark their territory. The scent glands on the underside of their paws release small amounts of scent onto the person or object being pawed, marking it as "theirs" in the same way they would urinate to mark their territory.

Yawning in front of their companion and blinking behavior is common in cats and may be a sign of trust or affection. Some cats will respond to a human who dramatically yawns or closes and opens their eyes by reciprocating the action.

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