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Understanding Cats

As you see in NATURE, cats make loyal, affectionate pets. But even to their devoted owners, cats can sometimes seem aloof, uncommunicative, and definitely mysterious. It is much easier to interpret a dog's wagging tail and joyous bark than it is to try to read a cat's enigmatic face. Scientist Patricia McKinley, shown in CATS, compiled a "feline dictionary" of the different meows that cats make: 15 different sounds that can mean anything from hunger, boredom, and courtship to pain.

Alert cat

Cats use body language to communicate.

But while a meow may speak volumes to a cat owner, a feline's nonverbal clues are often difficult for people to fathom. Cats do use meows to talk to us; however, much of their communication is through scents, body language, and facial expressions. For puzzled humans, here's a guide to interpreting cat behavior.

Defensive cat

A defensive cat will lay back its ears . . .

A cat has several ways of expressing happiness: lying on its back, with its legs splayed to signal that it is submissive and free of fear; kneading with its paws, which scientists think can perhaps be traced to the way a kitten kneads its mother's mammary glands to stimulate milk production; and a trustful, half-lidded look of contentment. But the most familiar way a cat makes its joy known is by purring. A rhythmic vibration from the throat, purring is a cat's way of saying "More, please."

Cats use their tails to send different messages: a tail held high signals greeting, saying that its owner is interested and alert. Unlike dogs, which let their tails hang between their legs to show submission, cats lower their tails when they are stalking prey. And if your cat's tail is lashing back and forth, treat it as a warning sign: this cat is possibly excited about something, but more likely it's annoyed, especially if its eyes are dilated. Provoking it may get you scratched.

Offensive cat

 . . . while an aggressive cat's ears point forward.

No one truly understands the mechanics of how cats purr, but we know that it is independent from breathing. Cats sometimes purr to comfort themselves when they are hurt or frightened, but most of the time, a rumbling cat is telling you that it wants something pleasant to continue, whether it's a gentle stroke or a tasty meal.

Cat rubbing head against table

A cats rubs objects to mark them with its scent.

If a cat asks you for dinner or welcomes you home by rubbing its body across your legs, don't be too flattered. While that cat may like you, it's not rubbing against you for the sheer joy of contact. Rather, it's claiming you as part of its territory. A cat's sense of smell is many hundreds of times better than our own, and every cat has a unique scent, found mainly in various glands around its body. By rubbing itself against objects (including people), a cat marks them as its own.

In addition to transferring scent from its facial glands, a cat will sometimes spray its urine on an object, letting all other cats in the vicinity know who is the rightful owner.

However, there is one instance in which we can be sure that a cat is giving us an affectionate greeting, not simply stamping us with a scent that tells others, "this is mine." If a cat rubs your face with its own, caressing its nose against your upper cheek and forehead, then you have just been granted a cat's highest form of approval. This is how one cat greets another, so if it happens to you, you have just been named an honorary member of that cat's family.

Cats have visual as well as olfactory ways of marking their territory, as any cat owner with a ragged sofa can attest. Cats sharpen their claws for two main reasons: to keep the claw healthy by shedding the outer covering, and to leave visual evidence that the well-grooved object in question is theirs. At risk in a cat owner's home are carpets, couches, and stereo speakers, among other inviting surfaces. The behavior is instinctive; even declawed cats rub their paws along familiar "possessions."

Cats sleep for an average of 16 hours a day

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