LOS ANGELES — When it comes to cats, those meows mean ... well, a lot of things. With each purr, yowl or even blink, felines are saying, “Hello,” “Let’s snuggle” or “Beat it, Mom.”
For the increasing number of pet owners who want to connect with their often-aloof fur babies, experts say there’s something to gain from those attempts at communication.
Cats are very independent, and so they are easily misunderstood, says Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA and author of the new National Geographic book “How to Speak Cat.” He aims to unravel the mystery by helping people discern what cats are trying to convey.
Crafty kitties can make 16 different meow sounds and usually only unleash them when people are around, he said. Meows can be their way of saying feed me, pet me or let me out, and hardly ever get exchanged between cats.
That’s because cats learn they can get something desirable from people if they meow, said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She wrote the textbook “Feline Behavior.”
The meaning of a scratch or a hiss is clear, but cats can talk in more subtle ways: with their eyes and tails. A slow blink from a feline, for example, is like a wink between friends, Weitzman said.
“Blinking is like a kitty kiss,” he said.
And extending their tails straight up equates to a human handshake, he said. A cat perks up that appendage as it approaches to show it’s happy to see you.
Susan McMinn, 55, of Tryon, N.C., was eager to try the slow-blinking exercise with her Siamese cat, Jade, after reading the book.
“I sat and blinked slowly at my cat, and she blinked right back. I know she loves me, of course, but now I feel I understand her communication even more,” said McMinn, who has owned Jade for 10 years.
Even ear and whisker movements are something worth listening to. If a cat’s ears are flat, don’t get close because it’s scared or facing a fight, Weitzman said.
A kitty is happy, calm or friendly when its whiskers are naturally out to the side. Twice as thick as a human hair and rooted three times as deep, the whiskers guide them, help them with prey and show how they are feeling.
Learning to communicate with cats becomes even important for those who adopt a pet based only on the color or breed they want versus a connection with the animal.
Melissa Cox, director of communications and development at Happy Cats Sanctuary in Medford, New York, tells potential owners not to go by looks alone because the true indicator of compatibility is spending time with a cat and getting to know it.