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Cats That Copy and Impersonate Other Animals

By Jennifer Viegas

Cats That Copy and Impersonate Other Animals

Scientists recently experienced the shock of their professional lives while doing fieldwork in the Amazon forests of Brazil. They were recording some pied tamarin monkeys vocalizing, when suddenly a wildcat appeared on the scene, emitting calls identical to those of the monkeys.

The episode wound up being the first recorded instance of a wildcat in the Americas mimicking the calls of its prey. But what could this mean in terms of your less wild house kitty? Can your domesticated cat copy other animals too?

Cats Mimic Prey

Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Fabio Rohe, who worked on the margay project, suspects all felines could have the copycat ability. “Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a physical cunning which merits further study,” he says.

Although your cat may do nothing more than saunter from its bed to enjoy quality prepared food that you dish out, it still possesses hunting instincts with related talents that surface every now and then, if the opportunity arises. Opportunity in this case could refer to a bird squawking in front of one of your windows, or a mouse scurrying by.

Cat Chatter

“Cat chatter” usually begins with a bird loudly vocalizing near a cat. The cat becomes riveted to the bird. After just a minute, the cat will then start to “tweet” and chatter, its mouth moving in sync with the bird’s beak.

Studies, such as a California State Science Fair project conducted by Kelly McGinnis, suggest that cats communicate better with local birds than with birds they’re not as familiar with. “To recognize them as potential prey, cats have to come into contact with the bird,” says McGinnis, who believes that’s the reason cats respond to local bird sounds. Contact in our scenario, however, could just mean seeing and hearing the birds through a coveted bird-watching window inside your home.

Why Housecats Chatter

“There are a few theories about why domestic cats chatter when hunting,” says certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger, aka The Cat Coach. “The reasons that make sense to me are that they chatter in anticipation or they chatter when frustrated. Another probable reason for this is that they are chattering in response to the surge of adrenalin.”

The word “chatter,” however, implies meaningless sounds. Rohe’s work in the Amazon indicates that the sounds could be more meaningful to the intended prey than previously thought. For example, the monkeys in his study were nearly fooled, and many feral cats succeed in catching birds with their so-called “chatter” technique.

Feline Deception

Krieger thinks birdlike meowing is only one skill in a cat’s impressive hunting tool kit. Cat have also “perfected the art of stalking and waiting,” she points out. “I suppose one could say that by not moving and visually blending in with the environment, they are deceiving their prey into believing that there are no immediate threats within striking distance.”

Mice and other potential cat prey are often no match for your cat’s sensitive whiskers, padded paws to mask movements, keen ears and overall sleek ways. That’s one reason cats often startle their owners when they jump up on them: You may not even hear your pet’s approach.

Can Your Cat Mimic You?

YouTube is full of videos that claim to feature “talking cats,” most of which simply show cats making unusual, human-like sounds when they are annoyed by something or they are about to expel a hairball.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.


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Posted on May 4, 2012

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Posted on September 26, 2011

Karen Warman says: My 6 month old kitten copies an older male cat who has taken to jumping out the door. Using the screen to jump through . I had taped it with ductape and still the older one jumps through it. Now my cat is doing the same. I will never have a screen in my door. But will get a cat door. Looks as if they both are saving me some moola. 

Posted on March 16, 2011

Sandy says: My cat plays fetch and barks!

Posted on March 22, 2011

Neicy says: I have twin cats that are a year old and one of my cats does not meow. Is this normal?

Posted on April 3, 2011

Linda F. says: My cat has an itty bitty meow....which she uses quite effectively! She also plays catch with my husband and a ball ! Both our cats were dumped...our older one was horrifcally abused and took her a long time to learn to trust...but we bonded and she tolerates my husband!

Posted on February 6, 2011

Nena says: that grey cat is gorgeous!!

Posted on February 6, 2011

Nena says: If you want to pick up your cat you have to first pet her head and back all the way to her tail for a few minutes to get her to feel safe, otherwise she will be scared when you pick her up even if she knows you. Most cats are easily startled and hate being picked up because they feel attacked and constrained by being picked up. That's why you have to calm her first by petting her head and back to remind her that you're not going to trap her. It's Cat Etiquette. Like you wouldn't go up to a human and just bear-hug them, you'd say hi first. Petting her head is saying Hi.

Posted on May 15, 2011

Lady says: We had a Siamese that would say my name quite clearly, sounding almost exactly like my Mother, whom he learned to mimic w/ complete precision! Now we have an orange tabby doing the same, but he also has a couple of extra words, being "don't, and "no". Believe it!

Posted on April 10, 2011

Molly's "dad" says: Molly thinks she's a dog, sometimes, and we've begun referring to her as a "cog". She follows us through the house, is facinated with cars, sleeps with us, she begs for food and plays catch. Bizarre.

Posted on January 14, 2011

Eric says: I have an orange cat. There are known to be more social then others and he has a great time mimicing my dog. He also chatters at the local dirds when he is outside on his leash.

Posted on January 12, 2011

Meg says: im convinced my cat is actually a puppy, he likes to fetch, play tug-o-war, chases other cats, growls when someone comes to the door.. and his latest trick is grabbing throw blankets off of the couch with his mouth and tearing at them and shaking them as if it was a rope toy. He has NEVER been around a dog so I have no idea where he picked these traits up but I'm not bothered, just amused.

Posted on October 16, 2010

Jodi Cleary says: Wondering y my cat, smokey, runs away when we go to pick him up....he likes to lay with us when we sleep....but when awake we have to chase him down...why is that

Posted on November 2, 2010

Sanna says:

Posted on January 6, 2011

STEVE says: My cat loves to be picked up and held like a lil baby. Hes a beast though so its pretty funny. Whenever I go to pick someone elses cat up to see if I can do the same, it doesnt work. they make a weird sound and scramble like, wth are you doing?? lol.

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