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Slow blinkWhen we give talks about cats to groups, especially youngsters, we often ask if they talk with their cats.  The “with” is very important here as what we’re talking about is two-way communication – not just a meow from a cat that wants something, and a “what do you want now?” from the human.  We’ve talked before about how cats have really only developed and adapted the meow in order to manipulate humans, but people who really know cats know they have lots of different ways of communicating with other cats and with us.  They communicate vocally (meowing, purring, and hissing) and with their bodies and behaviour.  They are masters of subtle body language, and the “slow blink” is just one of the more subtle ways your cat says, "I love you.”  It's a gesture that we can return.

Our willing victims hopefully go home after the talks and stare at their cats - possibly for the first time – because what we want is to get them slow blinking with their feline friends.  We stress that the cat needs to feel at peace and not threatened – because that is what the slow blink is all about.  Cats slow blink at other cats to show they do not feel threatened, and they are not a threat to the other cat.  In the feline mind, feeling able to close your eyes, even briefly, when with another animal is all about trust.  When the cat closes his eyes, he is allowing himself to be vulnerable to his person.  Hopefully, these humans learn to interpret all their cats’ facial expressions, and the very fact that they become more receptive should lead to responses in kind from the cats.  People that find cats standoffish usually don’t realise the problem is probably with them rather than the cats.

People who do establish a rapport with their cats should soon get to understand feline facial expressions – and cats’ faces are very expressive!  A year or so ago, however, the Daily Mail published the results of a study in America where participants watched short close-up videos of cat faces taken from various positive and negative situations but only showing the face and not the circumstances.  The study didn't involve participants having to guess whether a cat was happy, sad, hungry or angry - they just had to say whether it was a positive or negative emotion showing on its face. Alarmingly, the study revealed that the majority of people surveyed only got about 60 per cent of the expressions correct with just 13 per cent scoring above 75 per cent.  I took the test myself (https://catdogwelfare.wixsite.com/catfaces) and I’m pleased to say I scored rather better than average!

A fearful catWe study Daisy and Poppy’s expressions a fair bit.  Poppy is generally quite open, with a permanently happy face, because she relishes human contact and trusts people – often, we worry, too much.  Daisy is more complex – but because we know her we can interpret her facial expressions and know when she doesn’t want affection and when she craves it.  To us their facial expressions, and what they communicate, are obvious but in talks we show examples of the differences in cats’ eyes, ears and whiskers that show very clearly how they feel.  It’s surely part of sharing your life with an animal that is capable of love, fear and anger – and very capable of expressing those emotions – to get to learn and understand their expressions.  That’s a huge part of cat communication, and we must always remember it works both ways!

FriendsI’ve concentrated on communication through facial expression because I think it is fundamental.  In the talks we also try and show how expressive cats’ tails are – and that often surprises people not used to cats.  I love to see cats strutting along with their tails held high, often with the tip curved over.  To cat lovers it’s an obvious sign the cat is happy and confident.  I worry when I see people trying to talk to cats when their tail is tucked away or – worse – when it’s puffed up or whipping from side to side.  An adorable video on YouTube shows a sighted cat guiding a blind cat by wrapping its tail round its friend while walking alongside.  Nobody could doubt the expressiveness of a tail after seeing that, and nobody could doubt that the sighted cat is communicating with the other cat with every step and every gentle touch.

If you’ve seen two cats squaring up to each other, you’ll have seen yet more cat communication.  One cat might arch its back and puff itself up to look bigger and scarier, the other might crouch down and communicate subservience.  Cat communication can often be misunderstood, and we warn people that if their cat rolls on its back it’s probably not inviting you to rub its tummy.  This is the so-called Venus Cat Trap, and – again – it’s actually about showing trust.  The cat is exposing its most vulnerable part to you, to demonstrate that it trusts you.  On the other hand, it could be a cat that likes tummy rubs!

We haven’t touched on vocal communication because, surprisingly, it’s really the least important as they don’t use sound much with other cats (apart from hissing).  As I’ve said before, cats have developed sounds that elicit reactions from us – if you’re a cat owner and you don’t like feeling manipulated, I’m afraid you just have to live with it!  Lots of studies have focussed on how cats communicate with each other or on how they communicate with us, but my belief is that cats will use whatever tools in their communication armoury that work, whether to another cat or to a human.  It’s a bit like the first time we go abroad and worry about making ourselves understood in foreign parts.  We find ourselves using every tool we have including, and most importantly, facial expression.  We almost unconsciously and automatically read and react to others’ body language all the time – and cats do the same but are much better at it!

Here’s the link to the video that I mentioned:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmmyJ6qQBNI

Andrew Lane

Andrew and his wife Gill are Education speakers for Cats Protection, which offers free talks to schools and community groups of all ages.  For more information go to https://education.cats.org.uk/

A Cats Prayer

Lead me down all the right paths,
Keep me from fleas, bees, and baths.
Let me in should it storm,
Keep me safe, fed, and warm.

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