TUNING INTO YOUR INNER CAT
There is nothing cat lovers like more than a ‘cat whisperer’. This is a person with the almost supernatural ability to read a cat’s mind. As there is so much variation in the life experiences, environments and personalities of individual cats, the chances of being irresistible to all is highly unlikely. However, this doesn’t stop the enthusiastic bluffer strutting his or her stuff and giving ‘cat whispering’ a jolly good try.
To limit the potential for disaster, don’t raise expectations ahead of your visit to a cat lover’s home. If it all goes well, and you appear to build up a mutual understanding with the cat, you can make the discreet claim in retrospect. Doing your homework will also enable you to adjust your approach accordingly. For example, if your friend or acquaintance refers to his or her cat as an ‘absolute tart’, you will know that the creature is going to adore you and you can make all sorts of howling cat etiquette mistakes yet still be the best thing that has happened to it all day. Other similar statements include, ‘He loves everyone’ (no brainer), ‘He’s so chilled’ (this cat may not be all over you, but you may be able to take liberties and keep all your fingers) and ‘She’s ever so sociable’ (this too seems like a safe bet).
Prior to arrival, make sure you do not smell of dog or cat and that you haven’t just been in a cage full of big cats or gorillas. Your odour must be as non-threatening as possible. Avoid the liberal use of aftershave or perfume, as this can be extremely offensive to the cat’s sensitive nose (watch the nose wrinkle and eye squint for proof). If you want to appear particularly alluring, use the following suggestions with care. If the cat in question is a member of a ‘full-on’ breed such as Burmese, Siamese, or Bengal, you will want to avoid over-stimulation, as you may not be able to find the off button and could end up in a situation where you find yourself the object of persistent unwelcome attention.
SECRET YOUR WAY TO CAT WHISPERING
1. Hide a generous pinch of catnip (dried catmint plant of the variety Nepeta cataria) in your pocket. This usually results in the cat rubbing, rolling, licking and clambering all over you in a euphoric, loved-up sort of way. Go expensive and choose the dried variety that only uses the finest organic flowers and leaves rather than the dusty old stalks. Occasionally a cat will get hyper-aroused and have a frenzied nibble so beware of the location of your pocket to protect vulnerable parts of the anatomy nearby.
2. As an alternative to the above, place a valerian herbal ‘tea’ bag (the ones with hops and fennel seem to be particularly popular) in your pocket instead. Valerian is known to be an effective remedy for insomnia, so there’s every possibility that the cat will nod off halfway through the love-in.
3. Put tuna juice on your pulse points (wrists, behind the ears). Be warned of course that the fishy aroma will not be so appealing to your host, especially if there is a romantic dimension to your relationship, so keep it subtle.
4. If all else fails, cheese, ham and prawns can be very popular, but secreting those about your person without smelling like a deli counter may prove difficult.
THE CAT-PERSON STANCE VERSUS THE NON-CAT-PERSON STANCE
Upon entering the home, the posture and behaviour you adopt will depend on the information you’ve obtained about the cat’s response to strangers. If it is an automatically-friendly-no-matter-who-you-are sort of cat, then you will probably surprise people less if you behave like a typical cat lover. This involves crouching down on first sight of the cat and making soothing noises. At this point, you stare directly at the cat (from a safe distance) with wide eyes and extend your arm towards it with your forefinger and thumb rubbing together in rapid clockwise rotation. Simultaneously you commence kissing noises by pursing your lips together and sucking in sharply. This instruction may be lost in translation, but if you get it right you will convince your host that you are indeed a 100% bona fide cat lover. Ironically, this is the very behaviour that puts most cats off as, in their world, you will be behaving like a dangerous lunatic intent on proving to them that their paranoid pessimism is absolutely justified. Many cats tend to get used to it though and realise in a resigned sort of way that it is a human’s clumsy way of saying hello.
However, a significant number of cats do not fall for this manner of approach at all, and if you have been forewarned that the cat in question is likely to be stand-offish, you would be better adopting the next strategy. This approach is very different and, to confirm your status as a natural cat whisperer, you should explain that your behaviour has a definite purpose. As you follow each step, decode your actions for maximum admiration from your host.
Step 1 Ignore the cat completely as you arrive (in the unlikely event it didn’t leave the building at the sound of the doorbell). Give the following explanation, ‘Now, I know Pooky Snooky is a little shy so I am purposefully giving him the social camouflage he craves.’ This is a euphemism for, ‘I am deliberately ignoring your cat but don’t be offended.’
Step 2 Walk normally, do not tiptoe or feel inclined to whisper, and give the following explanation, ‘It’s very important to act and speak normally because hushed tones and gentle steps can look unfamiliar and therefore potentially alarming.’ This is another way of saying, ‘I refuse to behave like an idiot just because there’s a drama queen in the house.’
Step 3 Sit down with your legs together, hands in your lap and eyes downcast, providing the following explanation, ‘I am adopting a particularly non-threatening body language for when your cat comes into the room in order to show I am not dangerous.’ If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you could try entering the living room and immediately lying on the floor, explaining that the cat will receive you better if you are at cat level. This is not an option for the faint-hearted or arthritic, or when visiting people you hardly know. You also run the risk of looking particularly stupid if Pooky has left the building and has no plans to come back any time soon.
Step 4 Assuming that the cat is in evidence, the chances are that it will now tentatively approach you to find out what on Earth you are playing at. The old saying about cats and curiosity has more than a vestige of truth. Allow your catnip/cheese/ham/tuna juice to do the talking. Speak gently as if addressing a newborn baby, telling the cat that it is ‘beautiful’ (extend the ‘eau’ sound as cats seem to like this). Do not touch or attempt to rush your feline friend, allowing him to make all the moves. Give the following explanation, ‘I am allowing [Pooky] to explore me by maintaining my non-threatening stance.’ This is another way of saying, ‘I haven’t got a clue what to do next, so I will allow the cat to decide what happens now while I remain perfectly still.’ If the cat stalks out of the room, don’t panic. Simply stroke your chin and say confidently, ‘As I thought. A classic case of tactical non-engagement. Easily addressed over time.’
Step 5 Adopt your more normal body language and way of sitting, talk normally and graciously accept the compliments flying in your direction that you are undoubtedly a ‘cat whisperer’ of the highest order.
If you are scared of cats, you probably shouldn’t be attempting to masquerade as a cat whisperer in the first place and you will likely find step 4 particularly alarming. Fear is difficult to hide from a cat (actually any genuine emotional reaction is hard to conceal from it), so you may want to replace step 3 with more usual ebullient gestures, sprawling body language and loud laughter. You will also, of course, NOT be carrying any catnip or cheese kitty contraband; the last thing you want is to invite attraction by smelling attractive. You can then be content with explaining what you might have done but say instead: ‘I know your cat is a little nervous and I’m a great believer in a cat’s freedom to choose whether it socialises or not.’ That will make you sound like a real champion of feline rights, which nobody can possibly argue with. One further point for the ailurophobe: you can still bluff from a distance when your palms are sweating, your mouth is dry, and your heart rate is 120. You can draw attention to the irony of your love for the cat being thwarted at every turn by the extent of your violently allergic response each time you go within 10 metres of one. Don’t forget to look forlorn, sniffing a little and dabbing your eyes.
SUSSING OUT CAT BODY LANGUAGE
You can either study feline behaviour for years or take a shortcut and get the basics from the list that follows. The bluffer knows which choice to make.
|Body language/posture||What the cat is thinking|
|Ears vertical and pointing forward, tail vertical with tip wilting to one side or quivering.||‘Well helloooo! Got any catnip?’|
|Sitting or lying with its back to you but ears rotated towards your direction.||‘I do not wish to indulge in social intercourse but I am keenly aware of you so don’t try any funny business – like, for example, stroking me without permission.’|
|Cat crouches down on its stomach with forelegs folded under (a bit like a teapot).||‘Busy doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do, I’m busy going nowhere la la la la la…’|
|Cat in a teapot pose with shoulders hunched and forefeet on the ground with paws sticking outwards.|
Depending on what’s happening – it means either:
‘Keep calm, keep calm, not entirely sure what’s going on here but must look casual,’ or ‘Good grief, I feel sick as a dog. Too much cheese I fear’ (particularly if accompanied by lip-licking and a worried expression).
|Cat raises up to squat on all fours with head extended, mouth open and tongue protruding. Sides start to heave and there is a rhythmical belching sound.||‘Thought so…Stand back!!’|
|Rubbing face and body around human legs.||‘Please stand still while I mark you with my scent. Do not interrupt me or attempt to fiddle with me, I’m on a mission…’|
|Standing on hind legs and head-butting your hand.||‘Give me a stroke. Or some catnip. Or else you get sprayed.’|
|Leaving the room with a flick of the tail at the sound of your voice.||‘Up yours! What a jerk.’|
|Dilated pupils (eyes look round and black).|
Depending on what the rest of the body is doing, it can mean either:
‘What the f…??!!’
‘Oh great, a game!!!’
‘I knew it. I’m going to die.’
‘Someone’s out to get me.’
|Body language/posture||What the cat is thinking|
|Cat mooches in and flops on its side, looking at you.||Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means, ‘Tickle my tum.’ Some cats learn to love this, and some don’t. But why take the chance?|
|Cat goes onto its side with all four feet in the air, ears flattened and mouth open.||‘Don’t come any closer, unless you want to die.’ (Get this one confused with the previous at your peril.)|
|Cat’s tongue quickly licks its nose, followed by an exaggerated swallow.||‘I have no idea what I’m doing. But neither do you. Now we both feel tense.’|
|Cat stares directly at you, crouched with head lowered, dilated pupils, thrashing tail from side to side.||‘You who are about to die, I salute you.’ Advice for you here: don’t panic – just lower your gaze and very, very slowly back away.|
|Cat stares directly at you, crouched into a tiny space with ears lowered, tail tucked into the body and mouth open.||‘Oh no. Maybe, it’s my turn to die!’ Advice to you here: make the cat’s day and leave it alone without any need for reassurance that he is indeed safe. Just go.|
|Cat has dilated pupils, tail thrashing from side to side, sudden staccato movements, dashing from place to place, staring at a point on the ceiling.||Referred to as ‘intermittent madness.’ Don’t try to analyse it. Just let it happen.|
|Cat has mouth gaping, upper lip curled back, nose wrinkled, remains still with a faraway expression on its face.||‘Is that URINE I smell?’ Called the Flehmen response (see also pages 13 and 117).|
|Cat stands on your stomach, treads and claws rhythmically on your chest, while purring and dribbling.||‘Mum!’|
|Cat curled up in a typical sleeping pose, with eyes pressed shut.||‘If I pretend to be asleep, they might all clear off.’|
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gets you started. When you are interacting with any cat, you would be well advised to follow the adage ‘less is more’. Keep your response brief and half-hearted (looking too keen makes you appear dangerous) and always follow the cat’s lead, for example, ‘You want something? Okay. You want more something? Okay…’, etc.
When it comes to ‘talking’, there is such a wide variation in cat vocabulary that it’s really difficult to learn cat without appreciating regional and even household dialects. The basics are:
Hiss = ‘Back off.’
Growl = ‘I said back off, matey.’
Screech = ‘Are you deaf? I said BACK OFF!’
Yowl = ‘I want sex.’ This is common in the cat that has not been neutered. Or, in the neutered population: ‘I’ve got all this energy and nowhere to use it up.’ Or ‘I’ve finally had it with Fang. I’m going to sort him out once and for all, right NOW!’
Miaow = Considering there are at least 19 different sounds associated with the miaow, this basically constitutes a whole dictionary of definitions. The most common being:
- ‘Morning/afternoon/evening, where do you think you’ve been?’
- ‘Feed me.’
- ‘Open the door.’
- ‘Stroke me.’
- ‘Brush me.’
- ‘Play with me.’
- ‘Entertain me.’
- ‘Feed me more (oh well, worth a try).’
Chirrup = ‘Hello!’
Purr = ‘Loving this,’ or, given that many cats purr when they are in pain or even dying, ‘Glad you’re here, feeling a little vulnerable so I want you to know that I appreciate your support in this time of need.’
CLICKER TRAINING A CAT
There is a particular method of training animals that is becoming extremely popular. It uses positive reinforcement (always a good thing to talk about as it’s the modern, good-welfare approach to training) and a unique signal (from a device called a ‘clicker’) that creates an important link between an action you are attempting to get the cat to perform and a reward. You could try using voice commands alone, but people talk a lot and it’s not remotely clear to cats what we are saying most of the time. The sound of this clicker (a little plastic rectangular box with a metal tongue in the top) is a sharp, novel sound that is heard every time the cat does something that gets a reward.
‘We cannot, without becoming cats, perfectly understand the cat mind.’
St. George Mivart,
nineteenth-century English biologist
Most people associate clicker training with dogs but, in theory, you can train any animal to perform a task or behaviour for a reward: lions, dolphins, pigs and chickens included. Cats, of course, can also be included in this list if you are very, very lucky. But most of them will regard you with undisguised contempt.
The biggest problem with a cat is getting it to do anything ‘on command’. They may like tasty treats, but won’t be particularly used to performing to get them. Looking cute by the fridge, they reckon, is normally enough.
If you do find a cat who simply LOVES ham, chicken, cheese or anything that is not intrinsically poisonous, you may be onto a winner. Bear in mind before you start, cats have very short attention spans. Don’t bore them, and keep each ‘training session’ short and sweet.
THE BLUFFER’S GUIDE TO CLICKER TRAINING
To start your introductory lesson, you will need your clicker and a stick, or something like a magician’s wand that you can use as a ‘target’.
• Start the training session when you know the cat is hungry and have a handful of favourite treats available. Removing food at night and training before breakfast may be a good idea but this may start the lesson with an air of resentment.
• Make a clicking sound with the clicker and, immediately afterwards, offer a treat to the cat.
• Do this a couple of times, without saying anything or touching the cat, to enable it to associate the click sound with the proffering of its favourite treat.
• Once the cat has formed an association between the click sound and the treat, you can start ‘shaping’ its behaviour.
• Offer the target wand to the cat. Its instinct will be to touch its nose to the end of it. Once its nose touches the wand, make a click immediately and then offer a treat.
• Try this again, only move the wand slightly further away. Once touched, click and then offer the treat.
• Allow the cat to walk away at any time. This will happen quite quickly. A five-minute session would be nothing short of a miracle.
You will, in theory, soon have a cat that responds to the wand and you can achieve a great deal by ‘luring’ it to desired locations to enable it to touch the wand and get its treat. The cat will soon be jumping onto, or even through, objects (forget the ring of fire) in pursuit of the target. Or, more likely, you will probably have a pocket full of soggy cheese morsels, a feeling of frustration and a cat in another room wetting itself with laughter. It’s always worth a try, though…
PROVERBS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
In a cat’s eyes all things belong to cats. England
Beware of people who dislike cats. Ireland
All cats are bad in May. France