Cats learn which sounds elicit the desired response from their human companions and some cats have a wider «vocabulary» than others. HOUSECATS, FERAL CATS AND BIG CATS. Housecats develop a wide variety of sounds to alert humans to their needs and intentions. This is quite logical since the cosseted housecat remains dependent on humans i. Cats kept with other cats are communicating with each other all the time through body language and scent. They are communicating with their owners all the time too, it’s our problem that we can’t understand their language.
Since humans are in charge, it makes sense for the cat to learn to communicate vocally though it must sometimes be frustrating to a cat which has clearly communicated its mood using facial expression to have to explain things vocally to humans. It is the feline equivalent of speaking slowly and loudly to a foreigner! Cats have different personalities and this affects how much they want to «speak» to humans. Personalities are partly controlled by genetics and partly by upbringing so both factors contribute to how much an individual cat talks. Like some humans, some cats probably have nothing much they want to say! Also, some owners are good at reading cat body language and the cat simply doesn’t need to vocalise quite so much. The vocalisation then depends on whether the cat is fearful or friendly.
Stray cats living around restaurants learn to beg appealingly to diners — this is linked to food begging, though some do enjoy interaction and a fuss. Cats also learn to communicate with other household animals e. They are less likely to vocalise because dogs can interpret scent signals and can learn some feline body language. Sometimes the cat must reinforce its unspoken message with a hiss if the other animals ignores or fails to understand body language. Like cats, dogs also rely greatly on body language. In a household setting, cats and dogs are in close enough proximity for long enough that they can learn each other’s body language to some degree.
Feral cats rely more on their native body language. They don’t need so many variations of «meow». They use all the «major sounds» e. Feral cats with little or no contact with humans don’t learn so much «spoken» language as do housecats. They have no need to learn a vocalised «second language» because they are communicating with native speakers of «cat body language». Details of big cat vocalisation is out of scope of this article.
Big cats have their own repertoire of sounds e. Two important differences are that big cats such as lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards cannot purr because their throats are built for roaring. Purring is also found in the cheetah, puma and most small cats such as the serval and ocelot. Cubs may «mew», but adult big cats do not «meow». Individual big cats are sometimes tamed e. Big cats have not been through thousands of years of evolving a domestic subspecies and have not needed to communicate with humans. The first language a kitten learns is that of smell.
A kitten recognises its own scent on the nipple and aims for the same nipple each feeding time. The mother identifies her kittens by their individual scent and by her own scent on them. This then is the first mode of communication the kitten learns. Scent will play an important role all through the cat’s life. Each cat has its own scent signature. When it washes, a cat transfers its scent from these glands to its fur.
This scent is then transferred to objects the cat rubs against — a fencepost, twiggy plants, a doorway or a person’s legs. For example, most of my doors have a grey greasy mark at cat’s cheek level where Cindy marks them over and over again. They use this scent to mark areas and objects around them, other cats, humans and other animals in the household. This helps create a communal smell. A new cat must literally rub up to superior members of the group to mix their scents before becoming an accepted member of the group. Its home territory also has a smell profile and any new smell — another cat or even a new piece of furniture or a scent carried in your shoes or clothing — can cause insecurity and lead to a frenzy of marking activity! When a cat scratches it leaves both a visual marker and a scent marker from its paw-pads. Scent is so important that blind cats can navigate around their indoor territories using a combination of memory and scent trails. Cats who are familiar and friendly with each other often have a greeting ritual. They use a similar ritual to greet their humans or other household animals. They rub their head, flank and tail against the other cat or person to exchange odours. They hold the tail straight up so that the other cat can sniff the anal glands. The language of smell manifests itself in a less pleasant — to humans — way as well. Tomcats spray pungent urine to mark their territories and to advertise their sexual status.