The training necessary to make a cat easy to live with is minimal when compared with what the average dog requires in order to become a pleasant companion. Training for many cats includes only housebreaking (housetraining) and teaching them to come in response to their names, but many other things can, and sometimes must be taught. Cats need to learn that curtains, houseplants, tabletops, and kitchen counters are off limits. They need to learn that biting and scratching are unacceptable ways to play with people. Some cats shake hands, retrieve balls, sit on command, and do other tricks that are amusing but not necessary for good companionship. Since only a small part of this book is devoted to understanding your cat’s behavior and modifying it when necessary, you may find the following books interesting and useful:
Bohnenkamp, Gwen, Manners for the Modern Cat, Perfect Paws, P.O. Box 885214, San Francisco, Calif. 94188. Dunbar, Ian, and Gwen Bohnenkamp, Series of behavior booklets that include Litterbox Training, Household Destruction, Social Problems, Hyperactivity, and Nocturnal Activity, Biting and Scratching, and Cat Training, James and Kenneth Publishers, 2140 Shattuck Avenue, # 2406, Berkeley, Calif. 94704. Also available are a series of audiocassettes on feline behavior and a cat behavior booklist. Fox, Michael W., Understanding Your Cat, St. Martin’s Press, N. Y ., 1992.
In order to have a good relationship with your cat and to have success in any training you choose to do, you must be able to understand your cat’s body language. Failure to do so not only prevents you from really appreciating the nuances of your cat’s disposition but also can result in serious scratches and bites to you. Cats’ body language can be most easily understood if you remember that relatively subtle alterations in pupil size, body hair, ear, mouth, whisker, tail, and body position can combine with vocalization in numerous ways to indicate your cat’s mood. The following information describes only the most basic and obvious ways a cat uses his or her body to communicate.
The neutral posture is assumed by a relaxed cat calmly observing his or her environment. The cat’s mouth may be held open or closed. The tail is usually held in a relaxed, lowered position, and both ears are pointed forward.
When alert, a cat’s whole body becomes more rigid, the ears are held erect, and the tail becomes slightly raised. Often the tail twitches and the cat holds his or her mouth closed as the whiskers are brought forward. Alert cats may purr when they are relaxed with the person (or object) that draws their attention.
As an alert cat moves forward to greet you, the tail will move to the straight-up position. Although the back may be slightly arched, a friendly cat saying hello always keeps the fur lying smooth. He or she may purr and/or rub the side of his or her head against you.
Unlike the alert cat who pushes forward to give a friendly greeting, the frightened (threatened) but self-confident cat may rush forward and attack. This cat’s facial expression becomes menacing as the pupils constrict and direct eye contact is maintained. Both the ears and whiskers may be
directed forward when there is a clear intention to attack. The tail may stand straight up, but most often it extends out from the body and its tip flicks back and forth, expressing disturbance with the situation. Hissing, growling and spitting complete the threatening picture. Should you need to handle a cat exhibiting this body language, be prepared to risk a bite or severe clawing. Unless the aggressive cat can be left undisturbed for at least thirty minutes, this mood is difficult to change.
Cats who feel threatened but are less self-confident may adopt similar body language but turn their bodies to the side and fluff up their fur to appear larger than they would otherwise. They also draw their whiskers back and flatten their ears against the backs of their heads. The pupils dilate and the mouth is opened wide to display the fangs. The cat will often scream and hiss. (This is a typical Halloween cat posture.) Sometimes a cat displaying the defensive threat type of body language can be gradually calmed down with soft talking and cautious attempts at petting, but there are many gradations and variations in this body language pattern, especially if the cat is in a situation that elicits conflicted emotions. Misguided attempts to handle or calm the cat can result in injury. To complicate matters further, male cats may display similar body language in play.
Fearful cats often assume a crouched position while maintaining the ruffled fur, flattened ears, and vocalizations of a more aggressive cat. Extremely fearful cats who are willing to defend themselves may roll onto their backs with their claws unsheathed and their legs ready to kick and scratch. When fear turns to complete submission, however, the cat will become quiet, smooth his or her fur, and avoid eye contact with you. It is usually safe to handle a fearful cat once he or she has become submissive as long as you are careful not to scare the cat again.