An article in this week’s New Scientist takes an in depth look at how cats communicate with each other and you.
Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw from University of Bristol Veterinary School says that cats cannot be considered completely domesticated – much of their behaviour reflects their wild instincts. And most cats in the wild are solitary and would think of other cats as rivals.
This is still an issue, even though domestication has made them less wary of other cats, and indeed people. Over the years, they had to learn to communicate – and it seems that the ‘tail up’ gesture is a key communication tool for the cat.
Think about it. When your cat comes to you for a stroke, it will quite often approach with its tail up. The same goes for if two cats are approaching each other and thinking about whether to fight or if it is safe to come closer. This gesture most likely grew from something wildcat kittens did, many many years ago, when greeting their mother.
The key time for a kitten to learn to trust people (albeit in its unique feline way) is said to be between 4 and 8 weeks. If a cat does not meet a human until it is 10 weeks old or older, it may well fear people for the rest of its life. (This does not mean it will never settle, but it will perhaps have a different relationship with the person it deigns to live with!)
Purring, perhaps surprisingly, does not always mean a cat is ‘happy’. It can mean it is hungry or slightly anxious. Experts have said that purring could actually be a manipulative noise that will elicit a response from a human!
Again, the tail up sign is the clearest way a cat shows its affection to its person. A cat approaching a person with its tail up will often follow this with a leg rub.
But whatever affection a cat shows its owner, this is actually surpassed by the affection a cat shows where it lives. They remain territorial – another remnant from their wild heritage – and there are many tales of cats finding their way back ‘home’ when owners have moved. (Incredible Journey, anyone?) Other cats get stressed when there are changes to their home (decorating, a new baby – particularly, a new cat) and may show strange behaviours, or even move out.
John Bradshaw says many pet cats stray and get ‘lost’ even if they are well looked after. They turn up and get adopted by someone else. These cats are not feral, there are just other people’s pets looking for a safe territory to call their own.
And for anyone who has had the pleasure of reading the brilliant children’s book ‘Six Dinner Sid’, where Sid has 6 people who think he is theirs, then this may not signify a greedy cat, nor a lost cat. Sid may have just been finding his home territory too ‘risky’ and found places less stressful at specific times of the day.
If you feel your cat is stressed, then talk to your vet or a pet care specialist as there are things that can help. There is also lots of good advice about cat behaviour including how you can help cats live together in your home.