Do you know what your cat is trying to tell you? A new book helps cat lovers interpret body language and vocalizations
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The ways of cats can be mysterious, especially if you’re new to them. But even lifelong cat lovers can learn something new from author/illustrator Lili Chin’s book “Kitty Language” (kittylanguagebook.com), an illustrated guide to understanding cat body language, behavior and vocalizations.
Playful illustrations and easy-to-read text take readers on a tour of the feline body -- eyes, ears, whiskers, tail, expression -- and explain what those flicks, twitches, pupil changes, postures and more are saying about a cat’s mood, feelings and desires.
Chin first became interested in animal behavior and training when she adopted a Boston terrier, Boogie, in 2007. Learning to understand the small, subtle signals of stress that preceded reactive behaviors was an eye-opener, and she began drawing his body language to help her understand what he was communicating.
“The illustrations went viral,” she says. “I started working with dog behaviorists and trainers to create dog body language charts to educate the public.”
That led to the publication of her first book, “Doggie Language.” It included illustrations of different breeds, since canine body language can vary depending on the presence or absence of a tail or whether ears prick up or hang down.
After Boogie passed away in 2020, Chin acquired two cats, Mambo and Shimmy. Not knowing much about cats at the time, she took a deep dive into what was known about feline behavior to ensure that she could recognize if they were happy and well.
“I did a lot of research. I spoke to a lot of cat experts and read books and was obsessed with watching my cats and drawing them. And then it felt like it was a good time to do a cat body language book.”
One of the ways I judge the value of a book is whether I learned something new. And I did! When cats quickly lick their lip or nose and then swallow, it suggests that they may be feeling uneasy or concerned.
Another fascinating fact is that whisker structure varies by breed. For instance, curly-coated cats such as Cornish and Devon rex also have curly whiskers. Maine coons tend to have longer whiskers than other cat breeds. The hairless sphynx has no whiskers or eyelashes.
For Chin, writing about how to recognize whether cats were playing or fighting was of special interest. Mambo and Shimmy are good friends, she says, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if rough-and-tumble action is done in a serious or lighthearted spirit. For answers, she spoke with Kristyn Vitale, Ph.D., who studied social behavior in cats. Vitale explained it this way: “It’s like sports. You want to win. It’s stressful. There’s stress when you’re trying to win, but it’s still fun.”
If you’re unsure, body language tells all. Fun play is mostly silent, with no hissing or growling; swatting or smacking is done with claws in, not out; bites don’t inflict pain or injury; and the cats take turns being on top.
The book also discusses how cats use scent to communicate, how to recognize the expression of a cat in pain, why cats pretend to sleep and the most entertaining feline stress reliever -- the zoomies.
To successfully interpret what a cat is telling you, consider context, and look at the whole cat. Get to know the cat as an individual, and try to understand what they’re experiencing in the moment. A lot depends on a cat’s age, health, breed and sex, as well as other factors, including environment. With their keen senses of sight, smell and hearing, cats can be exquisitely attuned to sounds or actions we don’t even notice.
Chin hopes her book will inspire cat lovers to observe and pay closer attention to their cats. “That is important in terms of making sure we don’t stress our cats out and that we help them stay safe and comfortable,” she says.
Are dental chews
good for teeth?
Q: Can dental chews really help my dog’s teeth? What kind should I buy?
A: While brushing your dog’s teeth daily is the gold standard for keeping teeth and gums healthy, chances are good that you do it only sporadically, if at all. So while I still encourage you to do that, I’m happy to let you know that dental chews can aid in reducing tartar and keeping pet teeth clean -- science confirms it. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Animal Science (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7511057) found that giving a daily dental chew could help slow the development and progression of periodontal disease in dogs.
Avoid chews that are too hard, like bones or antlers. If a chew would hurt if you banged your knee with it, it’s too hard. I asked veterinary dentist Jan Bellows for some additional tips. Here’s what he says:
1. The chew must be safe, digestible and soluble so it will dissolve rapidly and not get caught in the esophagus or intestines, requiring surgery.
2. The chew should contain GRAS (generally regarded as safe) ingredients with few chemicals.
3. The chew should be nutritionally complete.
4. The chew should have proven dental benefits (decreased production of plaque and/or tartar).
5. Most important, the chew should be accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC.org). VOHC reviews applications from chews that have conducted two double-blinded studies that not only show at least 20% plaque/tartar retardation, but are also considered safe.
Dental chews work best when your dog has had a comprehensive dental exam to identify and treat any problems and when you combine their use with an annual professional cleaning performed under anesthesia so your veterinarian can take dental X-rays, clean beneath the gumline and extract any teeth that are broken or causing issues in the mouth. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
to video calls
-- Parrots are highly intelligent and social, but when it comes to meeting their complex cognitive and emotional needs, they often don’t have opportunities to soar. A study that taught parrots to video call each other may be a first step toward remedying that. Eighteen birds of different parrot species, including African greys, cockatiels and macaws, took part in the three-month study, which produced more than 1,000 hours of video observations of the birds’ behavior. With the support of their human caretakers, they learned how to place calls to each other whenever they wanted. Participating parrots engaged more regularly in social behavior like preening, singing and play, and parrots who made the most calls also received more calls. Find out more here: gla.ac.uk/news/headline_949129_en.html.
-- Siamese have a reputation as the chatty catties of the feline world (uexpress.com/pets/pet-connection/2022/09/19), but they’re not the only ones. Other members of the so-called Oriental family of cats, such as Balinese, Orientals, Tonkinese, Bombays and Burmese, usually share their gift of gab. For a quieter companion, look to breeds such as the Persian, Maine coon and Norwegian forest cat.
-- A hospital in Sint-Truiden, Belgium, has built a pavilion to allow pet visits for long-term care patients, Reuters reports. Pets weren’t allowed in St. Trudo Hospital, so patients had to see them in the courtyard. The new indoor space, which is separate from but connected to the hospital building, enables people to have visits with their dogs or cats for an hour per week, thanks to funding from a cancer charity. "For long-term hospital residents, mental well-being is very important in their recovery, and reconnecting with pets really helps," said hospital spokesperson Miet Driesen. Starting in September, the hospital also plans to use the pavilion for animal-assisted therapy sessions to aid mental and motor skill rehabilitation. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.