If you've ever been in a Cat Vs Dog debate and you take a preference of the former, you'll be familiar with the response: "But, cats are so cold", "They're mean" and "Cats scare me". Dogs are often considered the friendlier, happier and most loyal pet.
But cats and cat lovers alike can now prove their critics wrong, because according to a growing body of scientific research, felines are probably just as expressive as canine companions. It’s just that humans misunderstand or don’t always see what cats are trying to communicate.
Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, says in New York Magazine's blog Science of Us, that compared with dogs, there are likely many cat behaviors that owners are misinterpreting, because so much more research has been done on canine behavior.
"Part of the problem arises when people take their knowledge of dogs and apply it to cats," says Karen Sueda, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. She believes feline body language is more nuanced than that of dogs.
We summarise the most commonly mistaken cat communications and what they really mean.
Purring means "Don’t go anywhere, please"
What you think purring means: This sounds like a happy cat
What it's really saying: Happy is not the most accurate translation of the sound’s meaning, says Cromwell-Davis. It's more likely an indication that they need care. “They haven’t got a good way of asking for help — it’s not in their language — so they do the next best thing, they do the purring thing,” said John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and the author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.
When a cat rubs itself against your leg it's hugging you
What you think it means: The cat is charming me for milk
What they're really saying: “When cats are coming back from hunting, what we commonly see in the feral situation is they may spend several minutes rubbing up and down, up and down, against each other,” says Cromwell-Davis. “They’ll also wrap their tails over each other’s backs — it’s like a human hug.”
This symbol for reuniting after a period of separation likely applies to the way pet cats interact with their owners. “When you’ve been at work or school all day, and your cat comes up and rubs back and forth against you, and he may wrap his tail across your calves — what your cat is doing is taking a friendly greeting behaviour that normally functions within their species and moves it to relating with the human species,” she said.
Slow blinking means the cat trusts you
What you think slow blinking means: He/she might be feeling sleepy
What they're really saying: In the feline world, closing one’s eyes in the presence of another is the ultimate sign of trust. Slow, languid blinks are a sign of a cat's affection.
In Science of Us, Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and author of How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language, confirms “The slow blink really is an acceptance gesture. They do that when they’re absolutely comfortable with you.” He adds that slow blinking is likely caused by a cat's levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) reducing.
A blank-faced cat could be thinking many things
What you think a blank face means: This cat does not look amused
What they're really saying: While many think cats don't have facial expressions, Crowell-Davis doesn’t believe that’s true. From her work with cats that have behaviour problems she says if you look close enough “you’ll see when they’re stressed or when they’re pained the facial muscles are tensed, and when they’re happy or relaxed, their facial muscles are relaxed”.
Cats 'meow' because they're trying to talk to humans
What you think a meow means: It's the signature sound of all cats, right?
What they're really saying: Surprisingly, cats don't meow to other cats. In fact, observations have shown feral cats meow about once every hundred hours; they’re generally very silent. But domesticated cats have learned to meow to get our attention. “It’s really something they’ve adopted as a way of communicating with humans,” says Bradshaw.
What's even more fascinating, is that a secret code of meows can develop between each cat and its owner that outsiders can't understand. In a 2003 study, documented in Bradshaw’s book (Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet), researchers recorded meows from 12 cats in five everyday scenarios.
When they played the recordings to their owners, only they were were able to correctly decipher which of their cat's meow occurred in which situation.
You see, cats really are considerate little pets. It just takes a little more understanding.
Words: Sejal Kapadia