Dogs we get, mostly because they are so easy to get. They have expressive faces and body language that we can read pretty accurately, according to researchers who study pet behavior. Cats, on the other hand, are known for their emotional opaqueness and standoffishness; even the cat-ladiest of cat ladies might think that their pets don’t seem altogether interested in communicating with them, as long as the food arrives on time.
But that’s probably not entirely accurate, say the researchers who study cat-human communication — and, yes, this is a real field of scientific study, albeit a small one. Deciphering meaning in the behaviors of pets — meaning that went much beyond feed me now, anyway — was once dismissed as mere anthropomorphism, but that’s no longer the consensus among this community of researchers.
Rather, there’s a growing belief that cats are as expressive as dogs, argues Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, who recently gave a presentation on the subject at a conferencefor cat behaviorists in Atlanta. It’s just that we misunderstand or don’t see what they’re trying to communicate.
Compared with dogs, Crowell-Davis said, there are likely many cat behaviors that owners are misinterpreting, at least partially because so much more research has been done on canine behavior. “I do think that, over time, we’ll see that cats aren’t that mysterious,” said Mikel Delgado, a Ph.D. candidate in pet behavior at the University of California, Berkeley (and the author of a recent study that suggested it’s totally fine to be a bit of an overbearing pet parent).
Researchers have already turned up some interesting stuff, though — here’s what the current findings can tell you about how to speak cat.
The one thing you probably think you understand about how cats communicate — purring means they’re happy! — isn’t exactly right. Cats do indeed purr when they’re happy, but that’s not the most accurate translation of the sound’s meaning, Cromwell-Davis explained. “You can have cats that are happy and content purring, but also a cat that’s injured or sick will purr,” she said.
Read more Pet Behavior about at nymag.com