YOUR CAT'S VOCALIZATIONS AND BODY LANGUAGE TELL YOU AND OTHER CATS WHAT HE'S THINKING
By Kim Campbell Thornton
When I was a kid, I loved Dr. Dolittle. I had a recording of the music from the 1967 movie, and I would sing along with it: "I can walk with the animals, talk with the animals, and they can squeak and squawk and talk to me."
As Dr. Dolittle discovered from his wise parrot, Polynesia, most animal languages are a mixture of sound and movement. But Dr. Dolittle notwithstanding, it has been only recently that we have started to look at and understand communication and emotion in animals.
At the World Small Animal Veterinary Association conference, which I attended last September, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kersti Seksel spoke on understanding feline communication. For communication to exist, she says, there must be a sender, a means of sending the message and a receiver.
"The receiver doesn't have to be present when the message is sent," Dr. Seksel says, "but the receiver does have to receive and understand the message. That's where most issues start."
Our cats are sophisticated communicators, despite not being able to speak English. Their vocalizations, for instance, are highly individualized and specific. The sounds they use to communicate with each other, such as those between a mother and her kittens, are different from the vocal commands they issue to people. Owners, the ones who are paying attention, anyway, soon learn to recognize and interpret what their cats are saying.
Cats not only have a language they use only with humans, they also use different body language with humans than with other cats, Dr. Seksel says. Body language encompasses the position of the eyes, ears, tail and head, body posture and facial expression.
Communication between cats is subtle and quick. It often goes unnoticed by people. Often, owners think cats are getting along, when in reality violence is simmering just beneath the surface.
For instance, you might think that one of your cats has merely entered a room. But often, that cat has signaled to the other cat or cats in the room with a twitch of the ear or switch of the tail that he wants something -- maybe the chair another cat is in or the food bowl he's snacking from -- and he's in no mood to be trifled with. When the other cat gets up and leaves, in a seemingly casual manner, he's not being nonchalant. Cats leave the presence of aggressive cats very slowly because they don't want to draw attention to themselves, Dr. Seksel says.
When feline tension turns into an all-out fight, the combatants don't just kiss and make up. Cats can stay highly aroused for two to seven days afterward, Dr. Seksel says. She recommends separating cats for at least a week after a fight.
Scent is another way in which cats communicate, both among themselves and with people. When your cat gives you an affectionate head butt or rubs up against your leg, he's using pheromones secreted from glands in the cheeks, chin and paw pads to mark you as a member of his community. When he scratches, he's leaving pheromonal messages for other cats.
Pheromones are an important form of communication between cats. Among other things, pheromones signal reproductive status and social rank and indicate danger.
"Veterinary hospitals are full of pheromones all the time because cats aren't happy to be there," Dr. Seksel says.
When you can learn to understand lingua felinica, you are well on your way to earning your cat's respect, not to mention heading off behavior problems before they become serious. And in the immortal words of Dr. Dolittle:
"If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages, think of all the things we could discuss."
prevent disease spread
Q: With all the talk of the Ebola virus a few months ago and how it can live in both people and animals, I'm curious about what other diseases can affect humans and animals. How are they spread and can they be prevented? -- via email
A: That's a great question. Diseases that can be spread from animals to humans are called "zoonoses" (pronounced zo-uh-NO-sees). Some diseases, called "reverse zoonoses," can also be spread from people to animals. The causes of zoonotic disease are bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. Zoonotic diseases or infections can be transmitted through bites or scratches or when the infected area is touched.
Some zoonotic diseases you may have heard of are rabies, ringworm and salmonellosis. Other diseases or parasites that can spread between animals and people include E. coli infection, roundworms, hookworms, leptospirosis, Lyme disease and Staphylococcus infection. Staph infections are a good example of reverse zoonoses, being more commonly transferred from people to animals.
Zoonotic diseases are of special concern when someone in the household has a weakened immune system. This could be someone who is sick or who is simply very young or very old. Those people are more at risk of contracting disease because their immune systems aren't strong enough to fight off disease-causing invaders.
Good hygiene is the best way to prevent the transmission of diseases between animals and people. Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling your pet (especially if he has an infectious disease), as well as after handling pet food, including dry food. Make sure kids do the same. To prevent transmission of parasites such as Cheyletiella or scabies mites, roundworms and hookworms, deworm your pet regularly. Rabies, of course, is fatal, so it's essential to vaccinate your pets against the disease as required by law and to seek immediate treatment if you are bitten by a potentially rabid animal. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Four new breeds
join AKC ranks
-- Four unusual breeds have joined the roster of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club. They are the Spanish water dog, the Cirneco dell'Etna, the Bergamasco and the Boerboel. The curly-coated Spanish water dog will join the herding group, along with the Bergamasco, an Italian sheepdog with a corded coat. The Cirneco is a hunting breed that will become a member of the hound group. The Boerboel is a large South African farm dog who will join the working group. He's a member of the mastiff family. Their addition brings the number of AKC-recognized breeds and varieties to 184.
-- The Winn Feline Foundation has awarded seven feline medical research grants totaling $111,392. The studies funded will investigate a device that allows low-stress imaging for cats in respiratory distress; treatment for a fatal tick-borne blood parasite that is seen increasingly in cats; improving the feline genome; developing a test for the silver coat color -- one of the few remaining cat colors for which there is no genetic test; effective chemotherapy for injection-site sarcomas; improving the safety of a drug used for sedation or preanesthesia; and ways to improve treatment of skin allergies and skin diseases by looking at the differences between the bacterial and fungal organisms normally found on the skin of cats compared to those found on the skin of cats with allergies.
-- Researchers are finding more and more evidence that pets can provide people with measurable health improvements. The results are seen primarily in the area of mental health, with stress relief being a major benefit. A recent review of 69 studies found evidence that human-animal interactions could lift mood and reduce stress and anxiety, perhaps by activating the hormone oxytocin, Christie Aschwanden reported last month in The Washington Post. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.
CAPTIONS AND CREDITS
Caption 01: Cat behavior is complex and interesting. Learning how cats communicate can help us better understand them. Position: Main Story
Caption 02: Pet ownership is associated with reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and decreased risk of heart disease, studies show. Position: Pet Buzz/Item 3