Monday, September 5, 2016

Book Review: How to Talk to Your Cat

Happy Labor Day, U.S. readers...I hope all of you are blessed with cats with whom you can talk today! Long, long review, written and scheduled to post in advance. 

Title: How to Talk to Your Cat


Author: Jean Craighead George

Date: 1985

Publisher: Warner

ISBN: 0-446-39150-6

Length: 99 pages

Quote: “Will Cramer not only altered his own behavior when the animals spoke to him, he altered theirs by speaking to them in their own language…he told me…that he just watched what the naimals were doing…then observed what happened next.”

First, Jean George was “scientifically” trained to resist attributing human thoughts to animals. Then, she scientifically observed that, although it’s difficult to do large-scale studies, communication with animals is often possible by acting on the premise that something resembling human thoughts may take place in other animals’ brains. Then she was able to write books like How to Talk to Your Animals, of which How to Talk to Your Cat is a three-chapter excerpt. They’re not cut and dried enough to read like “hard science.” They’re “anecdotal observations.” But they work.

Being by nature whimsical, I’ve whimsically expressed some of what I’ve learned about animals—cats most recently, and before that chickens—as “interviews.” People have legitimately complained that the idea of interviews with animals, other than Koko the gorilla and Alex the parrot and a few other animals who have learned some sort of “rigorously constructed” sign language, seems like fiction. Well, it is. Even the “rigorously constructed” sign language is subject to interpretation; what “Fine animal gorilla” says to me may be different from what it says to you. It’s definitely translation, and it may be inaccurate translation, when we interpret animals’ nonverbal communication…but it works.

How does it work? If we have time we can go back and analyze it, which is what George does in some parts of this book. In some ways her analysis seems almost oldfashioned: “We no doubt send out odors that announce our sex,” George says tentatively. When the Highly Sensory-Perceptive nose isn’t clogged up by reactions to more toxic chemicals in the environment, it recognizes them, though only in the 1990s was scientific research able to “prove” that humans exude recognizable sex pheromones that not only announce our sex but also our state of health, fertility, and receptivity. 

George quotes Will Cramer, a self-taught animal whisperer, saying, “The cat smells that you think people are the only critters who can talk.” Do cats pick up a pheromone that communicates that much? Human science has yet to identify that pheromone. The cat may be going by body language, instead. George cites research documenting that, although cats probably see less (or notice less of what they see) than we do, they hear much more. Cats make relatively few distinct vowel and consonant sounds, and rely more on pitch to express meaning; they hear, and use, pitches humans don’t hear—which they’re probably making during some, not all, “Silent Miaow” scenes.

Does your cat know you’ve given it a name? You can test this. Has your cat given you a name? George found a study documenting that some domestic cats make a distinct sound that refers in some way to their humans, use it when communicating with other cats, and try to use it when communicating with their humans, although most cats who’ve been smart enough to do this have probably given up hope that their humans have enough intelligence to learn to respond to their names. It remains to be learned how cats name humans, or whether their names for their humans relate to other concepts in their minds. One novelist imagined a cat calling her own human “Warm” and her human’s mate “Pest,” which seems to work for the way some cats relate to two halves of a human couple…but is that really the thought process at work? We may never know…

It is, nevertheless, possible to learn at least a pidgin “cat language,” and use it. Cats who bond with humans who try to learn “cat language” are likely to be courteous enough to learn bits of “human language” and become Listening Pets…so one human’s ability to communicate with one cat may reach phenomenal heights, unlikely to be matched even in that human’s relationships with other cats or that cat’s relationships with other humans.

One major difference between George’s observations and the ones I’ve reported is that George observed normal cats, whereas I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to study social cats. Normal “cats despise each other” and want to be alone. Social cats bond—and their primary relationships are with one another, rather than with even their favorite humans. (This does not keep them from being affectionate pets, or even competing amiably for human attention, although I question George’s assertion that “all cats would prefer to be alone with you.” One of the pleasures of living with social cats is seeing them take turns for petting/grooming sessions with me, yet despite occasional token invitations to humans they definitely prefer to hunt, cuddle, and share mothering responsibilities with other cats.) Although their ability to hunt as teams and rear young as families gives social cats a tremendous survival advantage, and although the social cats I’ve observed seemed to dominate and “socialize” normal cats and other animals, social cats are still a minority of catkind.

Social cats who are sexually active do tell same-sex cats to back off, and some of them even pair-bond and tell other cats of the opposite sex to back off—though social cats who don’t pair-bond can be promiscuous and may encourage prospective mates to fight for their attention. At other times in their lives, social cats are hospitable and seem to seek dominance based on their ability to protect and nurture others, rather than beat others up. This means that a lot of the meaningful nonverbal communication (and behavior) that’s easiest for George and apparently other researchers to document is the kind that doesn’t go on at the Cat Sanctuary, except occasionally among the rival suitors of one female.

Other observations in this book do apply to social cats. The variations on the “meow” are one of them. (If you want to make friends with a shy or wild cat, or make peace with a cat you’ve displeased, “mee-o-ow (with a falling cadence)” is what you say—I hear and say it as more of a “me-ew-ee?”on a pitch humans call falsetto. Note, however, that if you use this pleading “meow” and then do something inconsistent with its “please be my friend” meaning, depending on the cat’s initial view of you, you’re either saying “I’m a liar who should never be trusted” or “I was trying to be funny and need a good lesson.”)

If you want to say “no,” the “mer ROW!” growl on a low tone is also one humans can successfully imitate. Some humans, hearing mainly the “ROW!” note, hear it as more like “Huh-uh” or “Grrrh.” If you match the mother cat’s pitch, almost any cat will react to the “no” tone, not being particular about the human vowels and consonants we use… though some cats will shift quickly from the instant pause in what they’re doing to a defiant response, either repeating what they were doing or growling and glaring back at you.

“[W]hen was the last time a cat growled at you?” George asks readers. At the time of typing, that would’ve been yesterday, when I was clipping a cat’s claws. Some cats use a soft continuing growl note to say something like “Watch out, be careful, I’m warning you.” Vets and groomers hear a lot of this one. Some cats supplement or replace the growl with incessant hand-licking; there are layers of possible meaning in hand-licking but part of the meaning indisputably is “I don’t want to bite you, but if you hurt me I will.”

Play-hunting is all cats’ favorite game; George doesn’t discuss its use as a way to identify minority cat personalities, although I’ve found it to be a reliable one. Cats use different grabbing technqiues, which, George explains, are best suited to grabbing mice, insects, birds, or fish. The “fishing” grab with one curled paw calls for better than average coordination and identifies a clever cat, who may also use its curled paw to scoop the last bits of food out of a tin, work a simple latch on a cage door, and affectionately enfold your fingertip, among other things. (Clever cats are not necessarily social, nor are all social cats intelligent; most of my resident cat family are both.) The “bugging” grab is typical of cats who may be great bird watchers, but are unlikely to be successful bird killers. The “birding” move identifies a cat who may become a “bird specialist” and should be sterilized and confined—the sort of cat I’d recommend to city people who intend to keep their pet indoors, which is not much of a life for a cat and tends to produce neurotic behavior, but at least protects the rare cat who is a real danger to birds.

One thing I particularly like about How to Talk to Your Cat is its levelheaded freedom from the “cats kill birds so let’s lock up or kill all the cats” mania that breaks out occasionally, usually among socialists and almost always among borderline sociopaths, who tend to practice cruelty on cats before graduating to humans. Some humans hate this set of parallel statistics, but because the numbers match so well I like it:

* About 15%--one out of six, not evenly distributed, concentrated in some genetic types within some location—of all cats chase birds. About 15% of all humans are sexually attracted to the same sex. (Approximately another 15% of cats can occasionally be persuaded to chase birds, and another 15% of humans may occasionally be enticed into a homosexual relationship, in situations where their natural instincts are thwarted.)

* Within this 15% minority of aerial-hunting cats, about 10% of cats sometimes succeed in catching a bird, usually at a feeder that’s too close to the ground. Within the 15% minority of homosexual humans, about 10% of men sometimes pursue little boys rather than other men.

So, locking up all the cats to protect the birds makes about as much sense as locking up all the men to protect little boys from child molesters. The fact is that North American birds have coexisted with wild cats, which were stronger, hungrier, and more efficient hunters, for thousands of years before they needed to coexist with domestic cats. If you want to protect birds in North America, ignore the squealing about cats—which is trotted out as a distraction—and pay more attention to the damage poisoned insects do to our most valuable insect-eating birds.

(In Hawaii and New Zealand, the situation is different. Island-specific bird populations have evolved in cat-free environments and do need to be protected from cats.)

George, however, accepts that most cats are—and should be—natural animals who live, hunt, and mate outdoors, as nature intended, despite the centuries of selective breeding that have made most of them smaller and more human-dependent than nature originally intended. How to Talk to Your Cat does not focus primarily on the sterile, confined, unnatural cat-as-pillow-substitute that some writers in this field seem to want to imagine that all domestic cats are or should be. I concede the benefits of making a disabled cat, a bird hunter, or a cat that’s been bred for a lethal or dysfunctional gene, into an indoor pillow substitute, and am not morally opposed to meeting that kind of cat owner’s needs when I meet a cat who’s really unsuited for a natural life. I also think we as a society need to recognize the dysfunctional tendencies within the Humane Society of the United States, and address them by, among other things, adopting the following slogan:

HAVE YOU EVER HAD SEPTICEMIA? THANK A FREE-RANGE CAT.

And, if you spend an afternoon outdoors in a residential neighborhood and don’t see a cat prowling about…don’t move into that neighborhood. It may not look like a slum, but if a neighborhood doesn’t protect (and thank) cats at the top of its ecological ladder, in a few years big aggressive rats will be there.

One thing I don’t particularly like about How to Talk to Your Cat is George’s bemused acceptance of unaltered female cats making sexual displays to humans. I’m bemused when both male and female cats signal the early stage of a fertile phase, or a hormone surge in adolescence, by acting especially affectionate toward me or toward “their” human. Lying on one side and gazing up through slitted eyes is a general invitation to cuddle, used by mother cats to kittens and by social cats to close friends, as well as by cats in a mildly sexy mood. Slithering along the ground on one side seems to be a more specific female display, which young kittens sometimes use to invite grooming and petting. All cats also like to rub their flanks and the bases of their tails against things—scent-marking, as well as enjoying a good scratch or massage. When a cat’s nonverbal message goes beyond that and becomes unequivocally sexual, I think humans should back off, and some of my cats have very emphatically agreed. For normal cats, as for normal humans, sex is private.

George discusses some of the things cats “say” with their tails…only some. The tail tip twitches nervously, apparently uncontrollably since it sometimes warns off prey, when a solitary hunting cat is closing in on its prey. That twitch, while the tail is close to the ground, warns everyone else to back off; the cat is tense and, if distracted, is likely to slap or pounce on the one who distracts it. However, a different twitch, done while the tail is held up in the air, slightly to one side, or waving from side to side, says “Do follow me.” Some cats positively twirl the tips of their tails when leading their human to where the food is stored!

Social cats, and courting couples of cats, occasionally entwine their tails while standing side by side; this display is rarely seen, and George doesn’t discuss it. It seems to express affection and intimacy. I’ve had cats who did it wrap their tails around my arms and legs, too, like possums…but one reason why more cats don’t do this may be that not all cats have enough flexibility and coordination to do it.

George does not discuss the minority of cats who are born with permanently crooked tails, in which the bones and muscles may be so deformed that the tail can’t straighten out even between your fingers, or only deformed enough that the tail resumes its crooked position immediately after it’s been straightened and released. This trait runs in families, may correlate in some way with polydactylism, and seems uncomfortable for cats. My cats Heather and Iris were granddaughters, and Ivy was a daughter, of a polydactyl feral tom I called Pitt (as in “black as”). Heather inherited Pitt’s impressively long, agile tail; she can wrap it around my wrist or leg, or around Irene’s tail. Pitt has an almost identical brother, Damian, with large but not polydactyl paws and a short tail. Damian’s human thought he might have been abused because “When he came to us, the end of his tail was bleeding as if it had been chopped off.” That may have happened…but Ivy had a misaligned bone at the very end of her long tail, and Iris was born with a permanent kink two or three vertebrae above the end of the tail. When Iris was about six months old, and had met Damian (Damian is semi-social and still a neighbor's pet, Pitt was antisocial), Iris started biting and scratching at the kink in her tail in a determined manner, and after about a week she had a short tail with a neat little wound where she had amputated that useless end. Possibly she shortened her own tail because the spastic, crooked end embarrassed her, or interfered with communication with other cats, as well as interfering with her climbing trees.

(One of Pitt’s other kittens learned to answer to the name “Nixon,” because his tail had got a crook. He didn’t live with it for very long.)

With its focus on normal cats, How to Talk to Your Cat gives more attention to nonverbal communication that’s rarely observed at the Cat Sanctuary, while overlooking behavior that’s commonly observed. There’s no discussion of the way social cats use tail-waving to indicate when they want other cats to go around and catch something they intend to trap between two or three cats, for instance—or when they want to be left alone as they close in on something they feel able to catch all by themselves, thank you. Social cats also use a long, loud, growling call to invite everyone to see when they’ve caught something they’re willing to share; the growl says “It’s mine, all mine! You can’t touch this until I say you can!” but it also calls everyone, “See how I caught it!” After reenacting the hunt and tasting its prize, the successful hunter retires and lets the others share the rabbit. And rarely, on very special occasions (I’ve witnessed two), they caterwaul at great length, all up and down a scale that uses the “quarter tones” that make some exotic kinds of folk music sound dissonant or alien to most humans, in a celebratory behavior I can only call singing. I’ve heard only two cat songs of joy, but that’s one more than I’ve heard of normal cats’ calls to fight, at the Cat Sanctuary.

Other developments in “cat whispering” have taken place since How to Talk to Your Cat was written. A book called Good Kitty (which I reviewed at Associated Content, which the author subsequently joined, but I'm not seeing either book or writer at Amazon today) discusses, primarily, the behavior problems of neurotic indoor cats. If you’re able to live in a healthy environment for humans you may agree with me that this focus is irrelevant. However, Good Kitty also discusses newer chemical studies that have uncovered more information about pheromones, which can be used to shape even natural outdoor cats’ behavior. 

There’s also Super Cat, a book the Humane Cat Genocide Society types seem to want to bury, which primarily discusses the fun that can be had if you’re blessed with an especially clever cat…it’s a parlor trick, since no cat will ever really learn to speak English, but it’s possible to teach a cat to recognize black-and-white patterns well enough to “read” a few specific words in English, such as “Food” and “Dirt,” which you can paint on two otherwise identical cans.


I still think How to Talk to Your Cat may be the best first book about human-cat communication, and the book on this topic with the broadest appeal. 

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