From Feline to Family Member

Has the idea of “owning” a cat become as dated as the three-dollar gallon of gasoline? Surveys by the Delta Society -- a Washington state group that studies the human-animal bond -- regularly show that the majority of pet stewards regard their cats, dogs and birds as family members. It fits, then, that 56 percent of pet people surveyed in 2004 by the American Animal Hospital Association were willing to risk their own lives for their pets, while 64 percent were certain that their pet would come to their rescue in a time of distress. 45 percent even said their pet listens to them best. In contrast, only 30 percent named a spouse or significant other as their most valued confidante.

Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy of Redondo Beach, Calif., supports the notion of cats as compadres. “It’s important to change the paradigm of ownership. We are pet guardians. We’re here to show them, like we show our children, how to get through life.” Read on for seven helpful tips on how to turn this paradigm shift into a reality.

Call Him Al
Whether aloud or simply in your head, you refer to your cat by name dozens of times a day. While your furry friend may not know the difference between “Fluffy” and “Felicia,” the humans in his or her life certainly do. What you call your cat will impact how you and others in the house will relate to it. “It’s about the intention, and the sentiment behind giving your cat a human name is strong,” says Galaxy. “The paradigm shift has to begin with some sort of action.”

Play Ball
“I can’t think of a better way to bond with a cat than playtime,” says Galaxy. “It can involve everyone in the family, and it’s crucial to a cat’s health and well-being.” Cats are hunters by nature, and manipulating their prey, which in this case could be a faux mouse on a stick, will engage them and intensify your connection. Give your complete attention to the game to make your cat feel truly valued. That means no TV in the background when it’s kitty’s quality-time period of the day.

Mi Casa Es Su Casa
For a cat, feeling at home is about believing it controls the territory. “A cat has to feel like it owns every square inch of your house,” explains Galaxy. For people, that usually involves placing your human partner’s name on your lease or deed, but cats instead respond to strategic placement of cat condos, scratching posts and the like. When these are located in well-traveled areas of your home, such as the living room, and at heights that allow your cat to gaze down upon the people in the room, they will feel most secure in their territory.

Say I Love You
While you may never meow well enough to be convincing, you can communicate with your cat in its language. The cat “I love you” is delivered with your eyes, not with your voice. Galaxy advises, “Start by looking at your cat in soft focus, not a stare. The first word, ‘I,’ is this soft look. The second word, ‘love,’ is a slow blink. Then ‘you’ is the soft look again.” Do this a couple times daily and your cat may eventually “say” it back.

Make Introductions
Depending on how sociable your cat is, it may want to get to know your visitors. Paradoxically -- from a human point of view, at least -- the best thing your guests can do is drop food and then ignore the animal. “When your friends drop treats on the floor, your cat will develop a positive association to them,” says Galaxy. After that, all visitors should feign indifference. “Cats never go to the people who call them. Ignore them and they’ll come to you. It’s your job to trick your cat into thinking the introductions are taking place on his or her terms.” 

Make Nice, Even When Al Doesn’t
Cat discipline only makes sense when you catch your feisty feline mid-act. As little as a moment later, a cat cannot make the connection between the squirt gun blast and the garbage bag they just tore into. Belated attempts at discipline will be misunderstood by your cat as arbitrary aggression. “They have no clue, so why damage the relationship that way?” asks Galaxy.

Ensure Your Cat’s Continued Care
While cat owners are likely to outlive even pets with nine lives, providing for a feline in case of an unexpected turn of events is crucial. “Again, it’s about intention, and you need to make sure that your cat has a full life after you’re gone, that your pet doesn’t wind up in a shelter,” says Galaxy. It is becoming more and more common for cat companions to provide for their animals in their wills and bequeathing money to a human loved one who will continue to value the cat’s companionship.

Treat your cat like a family member, and it will return the favor, soft-staring and blinking in response as you confide your deepest secrets.

Photo: Corbis Images

Do cats respond to different human languages or accents?

Your question reminds me of what happened to a British friend of mine, Irene, who lives here in the states. She has a beloved cat, George, who lives in her home. Her rapport with George is great. He understands basic commands, responds quickly when she calls him, and can seemingly even read her moods, knowing exactly when to provide companionship.

This summer, Irene took in a houseguest from Denmark, Anette. Anette loves cats too, so she and George hit it off -- except when Anette would speak to the cat. Although Anette speaks good English, George would simply never respond to her commands.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that cats become used to the tone, rhythm and other aspects of our individual voices, which go beyond the language itself. You and a friend may say the same word, for example, but it will sound different to the listener. Cats may be incredibly sensitive to such differences.

Biologists at the California Institute of Technology, for example, recently shared that, “in both animals and humans, vocal signals used for communication contain a wide array of different sounds that are determined by the vibrational frequencies of vocal cords.” Some of these are likely unique to specific individuals, while others (in the case of humans) are directed by the language or the person’s accent.

If you have a good rapport with your feline, your speech patterns are probably music to your cat’s ears.Version:1.0 

Your question reminds me of what happened to a British friend of mine, Irene, who lives here in the states. She has a beloved cat, George, who lives in her home. Her rapport with George is great. He understands basic commands, responds quickly when she calls him, and can seemingly even read her moods, knowing exactly when to provide companionship.

This summer, Irene took in a houseguest from Denmark, Anette. Anette loves cats too, so she and George hit it off -- except when Anette would speak to the cat. Although Anette speaks good English, George would simply never respond to her commands.


Photo: Corbis Images

What to Do With a Feline Loudmouth

When my beloved 19-year-old cat, Sweetie Pie, recently started to become more vocal, I began to worry. Not just because her screams wake me up at all hours of the night, but because hyperthyroid disease runs in her family. This sometimes-deadly condition causes over-activity of the thyroid gland. One of its most obvious symptoms can be excessive meowing.

News shared by veterinarian Noel Grandrath, DVM, at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in California, gave me a huge sigh of relief. She determined Sweetie Pie’s thyroid, based on blood work, was OK. But why was my cat becoming such a feline loudmouth? “Sometimes older cats will vocalize more often,” she explains, mentioning that “a touch of dementia” can affect elderly felines.

It turns out many reasons, in addition to hyperthyroid disease, can create seemingly non-stop meowers. Here are three common ones:

Feline senility This is good news, believe it or not, since it’s a sign that cats in general are living longer. “As with humans, the life expectancy of cats is increasing and with this longer life runs the greater chance of developing dementia,” says Dr. Danielle Gunn-Moore, a specialist in feline medicine at The University of Edinburgh’s Royal School of Veterinary Studies. She adds that studies suggest “28 percent of pet cats aged 11-14 years develop at least one old-age related behavior problem and this increases to more than 50 percent for cats over the age of 15.”

Noisy breeds The genetic makeup of your cat can affect how noisy or quiet it is. “Orientals are the quintessential loud mouths,” according to Nicholas Dodman, program director of Animal Behavior at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. While he says many breeds, like Persians and Maine coons, tend to be less vocal, Siamese felines seem to have no meowing inhibitions. Balinese, Burmese, Javanese, Tonkinese and other breeds can also be audibly expressive.

Owner control While studying meowing at Cornell University, researcher Nicholas Nicastro found that cats could manipulate us with “demanding calls.” These are “the kind we hear at 7 AM when we walk into the kitchen and the cat wants to be fed,” he says. “The cat isn’t forming sentences and saying specifically, ‘take a can of food out of the cupboard, run the can opener and fill my bowl immediately,’ but we get the message from the quality of the vocalization and the context in which it is heard.”

How to Hush a Noisy Cat
If you and your veterinarian have ruled out medical or age-related causes for your cat’s excessive meowing, here are some gentle, yet effective, ways to quiet your kitty:

1. Take charge “Cats are domesticated animals that have learned what levers to push and what sounds to make to manage our emotions,” Nicastro says. “When we respond, we too are domesticated animals.” Don’t respond to every loud call if your cat is clearly pushing your buttons to get its way.

2. Don’t reward the midnight meower Cats have the uncanny ability of recalling every rewarding experience. If your cat screams at 2 AM and you get up and feed it, your pet may come to expect such good service every night. Cat behavior counselor Dilara Parry, who works with the San Francisco SPCA, advises that if cat cries are keeping you awake, “you can try earplugs, or pulling the cover up over your head, or you could close the door to your bedroom.” The point is to not become a nighttime slave to your feline. Over time, your cat will learn to not associate meowing with being waited on.

3. Reinforce regular feeding and play times Cats are creatures of habit and thrive under routines that meet their basic needs. Parry advises that you stay on “a set schedule as much as you are able.” That means regular veterinarian visits, feeding a high quality diet according to manufacturer guidelines and grooming and playing with your pet at defined times of the day.

Finally, keep your cool. Bad habits can take a long time to break and owner patience is needed during the interim period. In some cases, where breed or age-related meowing leads to excessive vocalizing, you may just have to learn to live with the noise. When Sweetie Pie now interrupts me with her meows, the ear-splitting sounds remind me how lucky I am to have enjoyed the company of such a loving, albeit noisy, healthy feline for close to two decades.

Facial Profiling of Cats

For decades, researchers studying humans and other animals have been analyzing how the shape of an individual’s face can predict behavior. As you might imagine, such facial profiling is highly controversial, but elements of it are rooted in scientific fact. Many studies show that hormones like testosterone, which can affect behavior, also influence bone structure. But if you factor in genetics tied to a certain cat breed, the predictions aren’t as clear.

In The Cat Behavior Answer Book: Practical Insights & Proven Solutions for Your Feline Questions, however, author Arden Moore shares how Kit Jenkins, program manager for PetSmart Charities, developed a theory of cat face geometry after more than two decades of study. Jenkins includes the following three basic cat facial shapes in her theory:

Square
Cats with this type of face tend to be big. Maine coons, for example, often fall into this category. Jenkins says they “are the retrievers of the cat world.” She thinks these cats are often more doglike, readily offering affection to their owners.

Round
Cats that fall into this category tend to have circular heads, flat faces and big eyes. Persian and Burmese cats exemplify the look. Jenkins says they tend to be more submissive and wary, but will be affectionate with trusted humans.

Triangular
Cats with this look often have faces that start to narrow at the nose. Siamese and Cornish Rex felines are two examples. Moore says Jenkins describes them as being “curious, smart, athletic and chatty, and they thrive in active households.”

While generalizations can be made based on breed characteristics, they do not tell the whole story. Keep in mind that an individual’s life experiences also play a huge role in behavior. A well-socialized and cared-for cat is likely to be friendly and confident, no matter what it looks like.

How Do Cats Jump?

There’s a one-word answer that solves the mystery as to how cats evolved the ability to right themselves in midair and land on their paws: trees. Cats have all the tools for climbing, such as claws, strong legs and sleek bodies. It is believed that the ancestors of today’s domesticated cats therefore spent a fair amount of time climbing trees. Falling out of a tree could obviously spell disaster, so cats over the millennia evolved an ability known as “air righting.”

Roger Tabor, author of the book Understanding Cat Behavior, explains that this skill is a reflex action. Looking at a cat right itself, you wouldn’t notice all of the motions involved. But when you view it in slow motion, you would note that it’s a three-part process.

1. The cat turns its head and the front part of its body so that both are facing downward. At this point, the cat has a better look at where it’s going.

2. The cat twists around the back half of its body.

3. The cat stretches out its limbs and braces itself for the landing.

Tabor also mentions that a cat’s sense of vision combined with special features of the inner ear allow the feline to have an incredible sense of balance. As a result, cats can also navigate fences with ease, not to mention home shelving units.

Even cats have their limits, though. Often, scared cats will climb very tall trees, only to discover that they may not be able to get back down without injuring themselves. The previously mentioned air righting and balance skills may not be enough to overcome the force with which the cat could land on the ground from such heights.

It’s far better to enjoy watching your cat play safely on an in-home kitty tower.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/bedo