Originally Published: June 10, 2015 6 a.m.
If you're a "dog person" you may have made your allegiance to that special species because you think of cats as aloof and incapable of expressing affection like dogs.
However, a growing body of scientific research suggests felines are just as expressive as canine companions. It's just that we humans often misunderstand what our cats are trying to communicate.
Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, says in New York Magazine's blog "Science of Us" that there are many cat behaviors that even cat lovers misinterpret.
"The problem arises when people take their knowledge of dogs and apply it to cats", says Karen Sueda, Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, not understanding "feline body language is more nuanced than that of dogs."
Here are some of the most commonly mistaken cat communications:
Purring: Most humans think purring means a cat is content but that is not an accurate translation, says Cromwell-Davis. It's more likely a message of insecurity. Cats don't have a "way to ask for help so they do the next best thing, they purr," said John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and author of "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet."
Rubbing your leg: When feral cats "return from hunting they spend several minutes rubbing up and down against each other," says Cromwell-Davis. "They also wrap their tails over each other's backs - it's like a human hug."
This symbol for reuniting after a period of separation is applied by pet cats when they interact with their owners. "When you've been at work or school all day, and your cat comes up and rubs back and forth against you, and wraps his tail across your calves - he is taking a friendly greeting behavior that normally functions within their species and moves it to relating with the human species," she said.
Slow blinking: In the feline world, closing one's eyes in the presence of another is the ultimate sign of trust. Slow, languid blinks are a sign of a cat's affection.
In "Science of Us," Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and author of "How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language" explains "The slow blink is an acceptance gesture. They do that when they're absolutely comfortable with you." He adds that slow blinking is caused by a cat's levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) reducing.
The blank-face: While many think cats don't have facial expressions, Crowell-Davis doesn't believe that's true. Based on her work with cats with behavior problems, she says if you look close enough "you'll see when they're stressed or pained the facial muscles are tense, and when they're happy or relaxed, their facial muscles are relaxed".
Meow: Surprisingly, cats don't meow to other cats. In fact, observations have shown feral cats meow about once every hundred hours; they're generally very silent. But domesticated cats have learned to meow to get our attention. "It's really something they've adopted as a way of communicating specifically with humans," says Bradshaw.
What's even more fascinating is that a secret code of meows is often developed between a cat and its owner that outsiders can't understand. In a 2003 study, documented in Bradshaw's book (Cat Sense referenced above), researchers recorded meows from 12 cats in everyday scenarios.
When they played the recordings only each cat's owner was able to correctly decipher which of their cat's meow occurred in specific situations.
So, you see, cats are not so aloof after all, they just require a little more patient "listening" to understand them.
Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 928-445-2666, ext. 101.