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

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

Cat Displacement Behavior

To understand what a displacement behavior is, let’s first think about humans. When we are bored, we might twiddle our thumbs. When we are nervous, we might bite our fingernails. These are actions with no real goal or purpose, save to alleviate some of the pent-up emotion.

If the person starts to do these things more and more and the problem goes unchecked, he or she could develop what is technically known as a “stereotypy,” which is really just a prolonged, repetitive behavior that serves no apparent purpose and may even be self-destructive.

For cats, a displacement behavior is “an out-of-context or irrelevant response to anxiety,” according to the organization Cats International. An example they give concerns a harassed cat. The cat could run away or stand its ground and fight. Or, it may surprisingly display another behavior, such as grooming. Grooming causes cats to feel calm and reassured, so the cat is in essence trying to self-medicate during the stressful situation.

Cats are very tidy, and they spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Parasites and other problems can cause biting and skin sores. But if your pet gets a clean bill of health from a veterinarian and yet still seems to engage in unhealthy, repetitive behaviors, you might consider looking at sources of stress. Perhaps a new cat or dog in the house is terrorizing your cat. Maybe a new roommate causes stress, or there is persistent loud noise. The trick is to identify the stressor and remove it. That should end your cat’s need to engage in displacement behaviors.

Find Your Perfect Kitten

Adopting a new kitten is a major moment, as many cats are living longer lives and are remaining active throughout that period. In short, the decision you make today could affect your own life for decades to come.

In her book Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat -- Not a Sour Puss, Pam Johnson-Bennett shares five primary tips on how to quickly determine a kitten’s temperament.

1. Watch the kittens carefully to see which ones are playful, confident and friendly. These desirable characteristics will likely improve your relationship with your new kitten well through its adulthood.

2. Get close to the kitten by getting on your hands and knees near where the kitten is. Observe how the kitten reacts. If it jumps away, bites or hisses, you could be in for trouble in the future.

3. Try offering a toy, such as a feather wand, and then watch how the kitten reacts. A normal, playful response is to bat and pounce at the toy. To remain healthy, kittens and cats must exercise. Getting them to do so will be so much easier if the kitten is really motivated to play.

4. Gently pick up the kitten and hold it. Although the kitten might be a bit squirmy, you should not be bitten or attacked. That can be a reflex reaction in some fearful cats. The bad habit, if left unchecked, could make for a painful start for both of you.

5. Does the kitten want to hide? If its parents were not well-socialized, often that desire to run away from humans passes on to the kittens. A kitten that is at least willing to interact with you will usually be much better adjusted as time goes on.

If you are willing to devote care and attention to your kitten, you will likely have a devoted friend for life.