Friendly cat greeting a humanCats live in a landscape of odors. Odors tell them about their world and its inhabitants. The signature odor or scent can play an important role when introducing a cat to something new – whether it is a another cat, dog, person or a piece of furniture.

Cats and signature scents


The signature scent is a collection of odors secreted by an individual animal. This signature scent is influenced by the individual’s hormones, diet, immune system and other animals that he hangs out with.  Using her superb sense of smell, a cat can learn a surprising amount of information from the signature scent of another animal.

  • gender
  • health status
  • sexual receptivity
  • fitness
  • are you part of my social group?

The signature scent gives the cat a way of identifying an individual animal. But, like the resume submitted by a job applicant, it is not the whole story. There is more to be learned by a physical encounter. A young cat may pick up the signature odor of an older cat with kidney disease and find this scent a little frightening – he has never met a cat that smelled like that before.  After he spends some time with this older cat, he learns that particular odor of disease is not going to hurt him.

Cats and signature scents: learning about other cats


Introducing cats to cats

Free-roaming cats live in colonies if there is enough food in the neighborhood. Each colony has its own signature scent. Members of the colony identify each other by this scent. This colony scent also marks the core territory of the colony, where the members feel safe, can eat, rest and play.

One of the first things we should do to introduce a cat to another cat is to swap scents. Each cat will pick up some of the other’s scent – it is the start to creating a sense of “colony”.

An easy way to do this is to exchange bedding between the two. Why choose bedding? We hope that the cats are relaxed and calm in their beds and so the scents and pheromones in the bedding should convey a message of calm and relaxation in addition to things mentioned above, such as gender and health status. On the other hand, bedding may not be the best choice if the cat is in pain and discomfort when in the bed. See below for other ways to collect your cat’s scent.

Exchange the scented items between the two cats before they have any visual contact. There may be some hissing and growling at the scented object but hopefully this will go away in a few days. You will need to renew the scented item every other day or so. If your cat ignores the item and just walks on by, then she is not disturbed by this new addition so far. You can proceed on to step 2 of Introducing Cats: “time sharing” the common areas and the newcomer’s room.

Collecting Your Cat’s Scent

In The Trainable Cat, Sara Ellis views scent collection as one of 9 key skills that form a foundation for training cats. She recommends getting your cat accustomed to the process.  The goal is to make scent collection part of a pleasurable experience.  There are several ways to collect your cat’s scent – use whichever way suits your kitty.

  • Use a clean, light-weight cotton glove while stroking the cat in front of the ears and under the chin and cheeks (behind the whiskers).
  • You can also collect hair from the brush you’ve used to groom your cat in these areas.
  • As mentioned above, you can place a small piece of cloth on your cat’s bed for him to lie on.

The more you touch/brush these areas or the longer your cat lies on the cloth, the stronger the scent.

from Bradshaw, John W. S. and Sarah L. H. Ellis. “The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat.” (2016).

Cats and signature scents: learning about dogs and humans


Scent swapping should be the first step in introducing cats to dogs and even humans.

  • A piece of the dog’s bedding is a way to start the cat-dog introduction. Follow the same steps used for introducing two cats.
  • Let’s say you have a pet sitter coming to care for your cat while you are away – you may feel awkward asking for a T-shirt prior to the pet sitter coming to your home but your cat may appreciate it!

Cats and signature scents: new items in the house


If you are able to collect your cat’s scent, applying it to a new piece of furniture just might keep your cat from scratching that new armchair ( Make sure to put a scratching post nearby!) Take something with your cat’s scent on it and wipe the new piece of furniture with it. Now, that chair or table smells familiar to your cat and its sudden appearance is not so scary.

Remember – Our homes are our cat’s territory; we are members of our cat’s colony. Our homes have the signature scent that makes our cats feel safe and secure. Please make sure to maintain the “colony scent”!

Want to keep up with the world of cats?  Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

Kittens a kndergarten session

It’s fun to watch a litter of kittens chasing and pouncing on each other. Are you thinking of  bringing some of that cuteness and energy to live at your house?

Kittens that have been handled in a positive way by a variety of people during their sensitive period (2-7 weeks) are tolerant of people and usually make good pets.  However, socialization continues past the 7 week mark.

Kittens older than 7 weeks in a wild cat colony would be spending time with their litter mates, mother, other female cats (babysitters) and maybe some indulgent males. They will be learning the body language of older cats and how to communicate with them.

When we adopt a kitten at 8-10 weeks, we interrupt the socialization process. There is some evidence that kittens who stay with their mothers and siblings until 12 weeks of age are more friendly with other cats and humans.

Rescue organizations already struggling to maintain facilities will incur more costs keeping kittens later. Is there a way to continue socializing kittens once they have joined their adopting household?

Resident Animals


Socializing kittens can continue if kittens join a household with well-socialized older cats and other pets, e.g. dogs. A word of caution here: It can be risky to introduce small kittens to adult cats and dogs.a kitten meets a well-behaved dog

Kittens practice fighting postures such as the arch and sidestep when they play with littermates.  As kittens reach 12 weeks or so, the arch and sidestep are seen less frequently – possibly the kittens are starting to identify these postures as aggressive, as part of a cat fight.  An older cat who has little experience with kittens, may interpret this activity as aggressive and react defensively, possibly injuring the kitten.

If you are in this situation, slow, gradual introduction is best until you know how the cats or dog are going to behave.

  • A barrier between the kitten(s) and older cat(s) or dog for the early visitations is a must. 
  • A helper is also essential.

Cats: You may want to consider using carriers or harness and leash when you reach supervised visitations (IF the cats are COMFORTABLE in their carriers and are COMFORTABLE with harness/leash).

Dogs: When you reach supervised visitations, make sure your dog has a comfortable harness to wear, is leash-trained, and is reliable with “down”, “stay”, “leave it” and a pay attention cue. If he gets too excited, you must be able to lead him out of the visitation area.

socializing kittens: making good memories


Kitten kindergarten is a program aimed at socializing kittens 8-12 weeks old. Kitten kindergarten tries to continue the socialization that began earlier during the sensitive period by offering exposure to a variety of humans and well-behaved adult cats and dogs. We hope to leave our kittens with some good memories that they can draw on later in life when confronted with human and animal visitors to their household.

Kitten kindergartens – Where? 

  • in the spring
  • veterinary clinics 
  • rescue organizations
  • typically runs weekly for 4 weeks

Who can come?

  • kittens 8-12 weeks of age
  • kittens older than 12 weeks may not be as accepting of interaction with other cats
  • the information and training still applies to older cats
  • if your cat is older, it may be worth seeing if you can attend virtually or without a cat.

Pre-Requisites for kindergarten

  • at least one FVRCP vaccine 5-7 days prior to the first class
  • dewormed
  • a negative FeLV/FIV test

The syllabus in kitten kindergarten can vary depending on who is offering the course, whether it is a veterinary clinic or rescue group. It typically will address cat handling, cat care (grooming, nail trims), and basic training, including harness and carrier training.

The goal of kitten kindergarten is not just socializing kittens – owner education is a big part of this program. Make sure to take advantage of the expertise of the class moderators and ask questions!

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe

 

Kittens at Kndergarten
Kittens at “kitten kindergarten” session

What makes A good pet cat?


We will soon be entering “kitten season” in Colorado. Although cats indoors can breed at any time of the year, the wild cat population typically mates in January and February. The kittens will be born about 2 months later, during warmer temperatures when prey is more abundant.

Many of these wild kittens will end up at the shelter; some may be adoptable.

How do I know if a cat will be a good pet cat?


Nature and nurture are parts of the puzzle that determine how a cat will behave towards people.

Nature:

Nurture:

The science of epigenetics studies modifications to our DNA that don’t change the DNA sequence. The epigenome refers to chemical compounds that are attached to your DNA. Exposure to pollutants, what you eat and stress are some things that can result in certain compounds attaching to your DNA and turning particular genes on or off. These changes can remain as cells divide and may pass from generation to generation.

Nurture : The “Sensitive Period” in kittens


Kittens learn most efficiently when they are 2-7 weeks old.  This time is called  the “sensitive period”, when rapid growth of neural cells makes learning easier. The learning that happens during the “sensitive period” prepares a kitten for the social and physical environment she is born into. A cat who will be a good pet cat needs to be exposed to humans and where humans live during her “sensitive period”.

Human contact


Kittens who are handled kindly and gently by a variety of humans during the “sensitive period” quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them. The positively socialized kitten  generalizes what he learns about individual people to people in general.

Rough, insensitive handling during the “sensitive period” can make a kitten aggressive and fearful of people for life.

Exposure to Human households


Kittens exposed to the environment in human homes during the “sensitive period” adapt quickly to electronic devices and appliances, other animals, and living indoors. For example, they learn that the noise of the vacuum cleaner, although unpleasant, is not life threatening.

Diet


Kittens are more willing to try new foods at this time, although they follow their mother’s lead (if she is there) in choosing what to eat. Good nutrition helps a kitten’s brain and body develop – malnutrition early in life has been linked to epigenetic changes.

 

the end of the “sensitive period”


At 7 weeks, this “golden time” of learning closes – the fear reaction becomes established in the kitten. She will become more cautious and careful from now on. Caution and wariness are crucial to her development in the wild as a solitary hunter. She will continue to learn and develop socially but will not be as open to new experiences.

socialization after the “sensitive period”


By the time the sensitive period ends, kittens have been weaned and are eating solid food. In a wild cat colony, they will continue to play with other kittens and interact with adults. The kitten will learn how hard he can bite when playing- his litter mates will bite back! This is when he will learn the body language of adult cats, how to approach other cats, and improve his hunting skills by observing other cats.

thinking of adopting a kitten?


  • Think about adopting 2 – they can keep each other occupied and cats that grow up together often form strong bonds and a social group.
  • If possible, adopt kittens who are at least 12 weeks of age. These kittens will have spent some time with their mothers and litter mates, learning how hard they can bite when playing. They should also recognize some basic social signals given by adult cats (important if you are bringing them into a multi-cat home).
  • Above all – try to adopt kittens that were handled gently and kindly by people during their “sensitive period”. They are familiar with humans and enjoy being with them. Ask the adoption center about the kittens’ experiences when they were 2-7 weeks old!

 

If you opt to introduce kittens to older cats, SUPERVISE AT ALL TIMES. Make sure your older cats are vaccinated for upper respiratory diseases and feline leukemia (if they go outdoors). Gradual introduction is still recommended. A pair of kittens may still be your best bet in this situation and give you time to introduce all the cats at their own pace.

 

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe

Invitation to play
artwork by Phyllis Meyer

It’s fun to watch cats play with each other – pouncing on each other, wrestling and chasing after one another. But some of these behaviors are similar to fighting – how do you know when cats are playing or fighting?

A group of cat behavior researchers posed this question recently. Previous research has focused on what the cat is playing with – an object, another cat? These researchers classify play according to the emotions and motivations of the cat.  They have coined the phrase “mutual social play” and have listed the behaviors that are characteristic of mutual social play between cats. This list will help us decide if our cats are playing or fighting.

“Play” has many different definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “play” as “engag[ing] in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”.

Cats at play – what are they playing with?


Object play


  • Chase a ball
  • Throw a catnip mouse into the air
  • Pounce and attack another cat’s tail – although the cat is playing with another cat, this play treats the other cat’s tail like an object.

Social Play


  • with other cats
  • with other animals (including humans)

Kittens practice hunting skills and improve their coordination through play.  Play helps adult cats explore their environment and engage in social relationships in a way that’s fun for them.

Let’s return to our original question – play between cats can look pretty rough. How do we tell whether cats are playing or fighting?

The body language of cat aggression


There is nothing as dramatic as a cat fight. Two cats face off, fur standing on end, yowling and spitting. Often, one cat may slowly move away, all the time presenting his side to the other cat (to look larger); his back may be arched. Depending on the motive for the standoff, the remaining cat may just stand his ground and allow the other to leave or he may pounce, and the two cats grapple each other, biting, clawing, kicking, and the “cat ball” rolls away until it stops and both cats take a breather.

Kittens practice these fighting postures when they play with littermates. You can see them arch their backs and sidestep. However, as kittens reach 12 weeks or so, the arch and sidestep are seen less frequently. This is most likely because the kittens are starting to identify these postures as aggressive, as part of a cat fight.

Although kittens will continue play together, they start to become more interested in playing with objects around 10-14 weeks of age. They begin to focus more on capturing prey and getting food for themselves.

Cats at Play – Mutual Social Play


Adults cats also play, although play becomes less frequent as cats grow older.

The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,” said Jaak Panksepp, a noted neurobiologist.

Mutual social play

  • Is reciprocal, that is the participants want to play with each other
  • The participants enjoy the interaction
  • The participants exercise social skills that can be used in other social interactions

Cats at Play: the body language of mutual social play


In mutual social play, there should not be much vocalization such growling or hissing; claws are generally sheathed and biting is gentle, without intent to injure. There are lots of pauses.

Invitation to play


Two cats face each other – one may roll over on his back showing his belly. The other cat can be standing close over the first cat – the tail is often up. One cat may reach out and tap the other cat with his paw.

Play


Cats chasing each other

The invitation is often followed by a pounce and the two cats may engage in bouts of wrestling and chasing. The cats will switch roles. They may repeat the “invitation” to continue the play session.

end of play


Play is overPlay usually ends with one cat standing facing the other cat, who may be on his/her side, or there is a chase sequence that just dies off, with the cats walking away from each other.

When cats at play begin to fight:


What starts as mutual social play can sometimes turn into a cat fight.

What to watch for:


  • There is no reciprocity – cats are no longer taking turns pouncing and chasing
  • Increase in vocalization – hissing, growling
  • You start to see “distance increasing postures”:  standing sideways, arching back, fur on end

 

what to do: separate the cats


  • Distraction – use a loud sharp, noise to disrupt the interaction
  • If hostilities are not too far advanced, try tossing treats in opposite directions
  • Use a towel or piece of cardboard to herd the cats away from each other
  • Give the cats a “cool-down” period in separate rooms

Above all, try to avoid handling the cats – cat bites and scratches can easily become infected and require medical attention

Play can be part of the “social glue” that keeps a social group of cats together. Keep an eye on interactions between the cats in your home – particularly ones between cats of different social groups. Make sure to not to confuse fighting with mutual social play!

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Cats greet other friendly cats by sniffing them first, before engaging in other social activities such as rubbing against each other or grooming each other’s heads. Scent is a way that members of a cat colony identify each other.

We are members of our cats’ social groups and they identify us by our  scent. They greet us by sniffing and rubbing against us. When leaving your cat at the vet or boarding facility, you may be asked to bring a blanket or t-shirt with your scent on it.  Does your scent comfort your cat when she is away from you?

Recently, researchers at Oregon State University tried to test whether such an object actually reduces a cat’s anxiety when her owner is gone. In this study, owners of 42 cats were asked to bring an unwashed object with their scent on it. Scent objects could include the owner’s shoe, sock, night shirt, or blanket.

The test started by evaluating the cat’s attachment to his/her owner – secure or insecure?
The owner would then leave: in some trials, the scent object was left behind; in others, the cat was alone.

The cat’s behavior was evaluated:

  • when he was with his owner
  • when he was alone with the scent object
  • when he was alone without the scent object
  • when his owner returned

Measuring attachment
Psychological attachment is measured using the Secure Base Test. The cat and owner are placed in a strange room for a few minutes; the owner then leaves for a few minutes and returns. The cat’s behavior is observed when the owner is present, when cat is alone, and when the owner returns.

Securely attached cats
willing to explore when Owner is present
continue to explore after Owner leaves
greets Owner on return but continues to explore and play

Insecurely attached cats
reluctant to explore even with Owner present
sit with Owner or hide in corner
do not explore when Owner leaves
may or may not solicit contact with Owner on return

Does your scent comfort your cat when you are not with her?


Researchers took videos of the sessions, recording how often cats vocalized, rubbed on their owners or the scent object, and how long they would stay close to the owner or scent object.

Researcher’s predictions


  • Cats would prefer their human caretaker over a scent stimulus alone.
  • Insecurely attached cats would interact with the scent object more than the securely attached cats.
  • Cats would be comforted by their owner’s scent.

what actually happened


  • Cats preferred their owners over the scent object – they vocalized less when owners were with them and rubbed on their owners
  • Insecure cats did spend more time close to the scent object than secure cats but only 4 of the 42 cats actually rubbed the object
  • The scent object did not seem to alleviate anxiety – cats vocalized just as much when alone with the scent object as they did when alone without the scent object.

Cats communicate in a large part by smell. They identify other cats and their owners by their scent and greet them by sniffing them and rubbing against them. To your cat, your t-shirt smells like you but does your scent comfort your cat the way your physical presence does? The answer is no according to this study.

Your t-shirt is not the same for your cat as a teddy bear that a young child clutches to face the world. The teddy bear is a “transitional object” that helps a human child become less dependent on his parents and learn to relate to other people.

Your cat is attached to you – not your t-shirt. It won’t hurt to leave the t-shirt at home when going to the vet or boarding facility.

Other Thoughts


 A cat’s territory where she feels safe is marked with her own scent. Providing your cat with a blanket from home with her scent might make her less anxious.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

Friendly cat greeting a human

 

You’re watching TV with your cat on your lap, absentmindedly stroking her. Suddenly, out of the blue, she swats you and jumps down. You rub your hand and wonder, “What was that all about?”

There are few practical guidelines for interacting with cats. A research team conducted a study at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in the UK to remedy this. The study tested a simple set of Human-Cat Interaction (HCI) guidelines that aim to make cats more  comfortable when they are interacting with us.

These practical guidelines for interacting with cats follow the acronym CAT (easy to remember). Here they are!

C is for Choice and Control
A is for Attention
T is for Touch

 

choice and control…


Our cats’ ancestors were solitary hunters. They had to look out for themselves – if they were injured, they could not hunt; no hunting meant no food.

Cats are accomplished hunters but they are also prey for larger predators, such as coyotes. Consequently, cats are “control freaks” – to survive, they need to be in control of their interactions with their environment.

Allow a cat to CHOOSE whether or not to interact with you.

  • If you can, get on the cat’s level, offer your hand, and allow him to approach you.
  • If the cat wants to be touched, she will rub against your hand. If she doesn’t lean into your hand, don’t pet her.
  • Allow the cat to move away from you if he chooses; don’t follow him if he leaves.
  • Allow the cat to control how much you stroke her. When stroking her, pause every 3–5 sec to see if she wants to continue – does she rub against you to ask for more? If not, let her take a break.

Attention….


Pay attention to the cat’s body language and behavior. The following signals indicate that the cat is done interacting with you.

  • She turns her head or moves away from you.
  • His ears become flattened or rotate backwards.
  • She shakes her head.
  • The fur on his back “ripples”.
  • She licks her nose.
  • He becomes still, and stops purring or rubbing against you.
  • She sharply turns her head to face you or your hand.
  • He suddenly starts grooming himself but only for a few seconds at a time.
  • Her tail starts switching back and forth rapidly; usually the tail is horizontal or on the ground.

touch…


Think about where you are touching the cat.

  • A friendly cat prefers to be touched at the base of his ears, around his cheeks, and under his chin.
  • AVOID the base of her tail and tummy.
  • If you touch the cat’s back, flank, legs, or tail–watch his body language (see above) to see if he is comfortable with this.

Trying out the practical guidelines for interacting with cats


In the Battersea study, testing was conducted in 2 sessions: a “control” session and a second session after the human participant watched a 5 minute video demonstrating the CAT guidelines.

In each session, both control and post-video, the human participant visited with 3 cats, spending 5 minutes with each cat.

In the control session, the participant was instructed to remain seated in the cat’s room and interact with the cat as he or she usually would. The session was recorded by video.

After watching the instructional video, the participant would visit with 3 more cats as before, except following the CAT guidelines.

A total of 535 observations were made.
For each observation, cat behavior and posture was assessed and rated; the human participants were scored on how closely they followed the CAT guidelines.

Did the practical guidelines for interacting with cats work?


Before CAT instruction:
Cats in the control visits displayed more instances of human-directed aggression and more behaviors associated with conflict than cats in the post-education visits.

After CAT instruction:
The human participants in the study started following the CAT guidelines and the cats displayed more friendly and positive behaviors than in the control visits.

So, back to the cat on your lap in front of the TV. She became tired of being petted and may have indicated this by flattening her ears and turning her head to give you a meaningful look but you were not paying attention!

  • Let her Control the stroking (“ask” if she wants to continue)
  • Pay Attention to her body language (rippling skin? twitching tail? “airplane” ears?)
  • Touch her where she is comfortable being touched; if in doubt, stick with the base of the ears, the cheeks, and under the chin.

postscript


If you need to handle your cat and she’s not having it, try to make it worthwhile for her. Offer her a treat or a toy to put her in a positive emotional state.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

The other day, a kitten came into the clinic for his 4 month exam and vaccines. He was a ball of energy and wanted to climb up me so I took out a toy from one of the cabinet drawers to play with him. This toy was a small wand with bells and feathers on it. I whisked the trailing feathers on the floor by him.

Poor fellow – the toy must have startled and scared him – he puffed up and hissed. I put the toy on the floor for him to examine – he approached tentatively, smelled the feathers and hissed again, so I put the toy away.

Later, when the doctor came into to do his examination, I pulled the toy out of the cabinet to show her; the kitten saw it and hissed again.

Why do cats hiss? What does it mean?


Domestic cats are capable of making at least 21 discrete vocalizations; our cats use these sounds to communicate with us – each cat has his/her own repertoire of sounds to tell us what he/she wants or feels.

How the hiss is made


The hiss is a long forceful exhalation made with the mouth open and the teeth bared. A hiss is a hiss – hisses among cats sound similar – it is a “voiceless” communication. The hiss can be made in a number of situations – we must look to the context and body language to interpret it.

When do cats hiss?


  • when they are afraid: Although we may associate hissing with anger and aggression, cats are more likely to hiss when they are afraid; it is usually the defensive cat who hisses in the cat fight. When accompanied by the fur standing on end, dilated pupils, and a cringing posture, the message is “I am afraid; leave me alone. I will defend myself if I have to.”
  • when they are startled – the “fight or flight” response is triggered; fur may be standing on end while the cat assesses the situation – is there danger?
  • when they are in pain – a hiss might mean don’t touch my “ouchy” spot – it hurts!
  • when they are frustrated/displeased – a cat may hiss when things are not going his way. My cat, Gus, will hiss when waiting for dinner (if service is slow!) or when another cat gets in his way. These hisses tend to be short and are not accompanied by fur on end, dilated pupils or change in posture.

Other thoughts on why cats hiss


  • Some experts think that cats hiss to mimic a snake and scare off attackers. Early mammals evolved in a landscape dominated by reptiles, which could be deadly. Evolutionarily, the hiss is coupled with fear for many mammals.  Perhaps, cats are taking advantage of this connection of the hiss with fear.
  • While we may hush a baby to soothe it or shush someone to keep them quiet, your cat may not interpret these sounds the same way. Instead, shhh and hush may sound like a hiss to her, perhaps triggering a fearful/anxious response.

Back to our kitten friend, his initial hiss with his fur puffed up was due to being startled, with the accompanying rush of adrenalin as he did not know if this toy was dangerous.

When the kitten smelled the toy, he hissed again but without fear (no puffy fur) – perhaps he could smell other cats on this toy and this made him a little anxious (are these other cats who played with this toy friendly?)

He hissed again on seeing the toy from across the exam room, letting us know he did NOT like that toy!

In the video below, Gus and Marley are waiting for treats. Gus swats Marley and then gives a long hiss. His body posture is not tense, although he turns to the side to look more threatening; his fur is not puffed up. He is warning Marley to keep his distance (“and don’t even think of going for my treats!”)

Humans may curse or swear when they are annoyed, startled, excited, or in pain – cats, on the other hand, hiss. The hiss tells us the cat is experiencing a negative emotion.  Before handling him, look to his body language to see if he is afraid, reacting to a painful stimulus or merely annoyed.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective.

 

Subscribe

 

Cat with half-closed eyes

You’re reading a book in bed, your cat curled up alongside you. You look over at him and he meets your gaze with several blinks, half-closing his eyes. The feline “slow blink” has been likened to a smile; the meme “i slow blink you so much” infers that the “slow blink” is a sign of affection, of positive feelings when cats slow blink.

Cats don’t “smile” in the way humans do. Humans are said to have up to 19 different smiles, due to our faces having 42 muscles to shape them. Does the feline “slow blink” fill the same role as the human smile?

the duchenne smile in humans


The so-called “Duchenne” smile, which some think indicates genuine happiness, can be accompanied by activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain, a part of the brain associated with enjoyment. The Duchenne smile is that smile that reaches the eyes, wrinkling the skin around the eyes into “crows feet”.

Does the “Duchenne” smile signal true happiness? Skeptics point out that it can be faked; the smile may just be  a way of sending a message to those we are interacting with that we are friendly, willing to work together or want to go out on a date. We may not be genuinely happy at the time.

Cats slow blink – a cat smile?


Tasmin Humphrey and her colleagues set out to learn more about the “slow blink”. They designed two sets of experiments to answer:

  • Do cats respond to humans that slow blink?
  • Are cats more likely to approach an unknown human after a slow blink interaction?

To answer the first question, cats were tested in a familiar room at home. The owner was instructed to sit in front of the cat and, once the cat made eye contact, do a series of “slow blinks”. Cameras were set up to record the cat’s face and the owner’s face. The slow blink trials were a paired with a “no interaction” trial, where the owner was in the room but did not sit in front of the cat or interact with the cat.

The second set of experiments involved an unfamiliar person in place of the owner. In this experiment, the control was a neutral face and no direct eye contact. The owner remained in the room during these trials but did not interact with the cat.

Humphrey and her colleagues found that:

  • Cats were more likely to “slow blink” back if their owners “slow-blinked” them
  • Cats were more likely to approach an unknown human who “slow blinked” them

The slow blink and the cat-human bond


Direct stares are hostile in the cat’s world – he needs to keep a steady, open eye on possibly dangerous people, animals and situations. When one cat fixes another with an unblinking stare, trouble is brewing – the passive aggressive stare can precede active aggression.

Breaking the stare with blinking, shows that the cat is relaxed and not on high alert. Cats not only “slow blink” humans, they have been seen to “slow blink” other cats. The “slow blink” may indicate a level of trust between human and cat or between cat and cat.

Like the Duchenne smile in humans, the “slow blink” may indicate that the cat is feeling relaxed, calm and happy or it might also just be a message, like the “solicitation purr”, asking for food, head rubs, or just more interaction.  But perhaps cats slow blink us because they trust us and share a bond with us.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

Why do cats purr? What does a purr mean? I would say that most of us think of a purring cat as contented. I wondered if there was more to the purr – my ex-street cat, Gus, does not seem to purr at all.

Contented Cat

How cats purr


Purring seems effortless. People who study purring say that the opening and closing of the vocal folds (vocal cords) in the cat’s larynx while he breathes in and out produces the sound we call “purring”.

Purring is different from other vocalizations such as meowing because it occurs not only when the cat breathes out, but also when he breathes in. Meowing, hissing, chirping, for example, occur only on expiration, when breathing out.

Purring is a low frequency sound (25-150 Hz) and does not vary much in frequency. Vocalizations like the meow are higher frequency sounds. They are generated by vibrations of the vocal folds in the larynx. Changes in the tension (length) of the vocal folds produce sounds with a range of several octaves at frequencies exceeding 100 Hz.

The cat can control the separation of his vocal folds independently of their length (or tension).  So the cat can purr while he is meowing!

the cats that roar and the cats that purr


Around 1916, Reginald Innes Pocock divided the cat family into the “cats that roar” (lion, tiger, jaguar, leopards) and the “cats that purr” (domestic cats, cheetahs). This classification was based on the anatomy of the hyoid bone, a u-shaped bone in the neck that supports the tongue. Currently, the hyoid bone is not thought to determine whether or not a cat can purr (indeed, snow leopards can purr).  The classification of cat species is now based on molecular characteristics, eg. DNA.

when cats purr


So, cats purr as they breathe in and out and their vocal folds open and close. When do they purr?

Feline guru John Bradshaw notes that cats may purr:

  • when being groomed by another cat
  • a cat may purr while grooming himself
  • kittens purr while nursing and often their mother joins in
  • some cats purr when they are just walking around
  • when greeting a friendly cat
  • when in contact with another cat

Purring is not particularly loud (when compared with a howl!) and is heard over short distances; it most likely originated as a sound made by kittens, to induce their mother to feed them. Purring kittens with mama cat is the ultimate picture of contentment!

the healing purr


Cats are know to purr when they are in pain or anxious, for example, at the veterinary clinic. The purr ranges in frequency from 25 – 150 Hz. The purr of domestic cats, servals, ocelots, and pumas produce strong frequencies at 25 Hz, 50 Hz and 100 Hz.

In human medicine, the application of low frequency vibrations (25-50 Hz) has been found to inhibit bone loss and initiate bone repair.  Frequencies around 100 Hz are used to treat pain, swelling, and wounds .

Are cats able to heal themselves by purring ? Is purring a “feel good” (self-soothing) behavior? (So why isn’t Gus purring?)

The “solicitation purr”


Earlier, we noted that a cat can vocalize and purr at the same time. Cats have taken advantage of this and have developed a “solicitation purr”,  one that has a meow embedded in the purr. Cats have discovered how to use this to alert their owners to their needs, like “I want food”.

Acoustical analysis of the “solicitation purr” shows a peak around 380 Hz in the purr spectra. This frequency is more typical of a cry or meow, not the low frequency purr and is close  to the frequency of a human infant’s cry (300–600Hz)

This cry gives the “solicitation purr” its urgency that drives us to attend to the cat, giving her head rubs, food or whatever else we think she needs. It taps into our inborn sensitivity to the cries of infants, making it hard to ignore.

The purr is a lot more than the sound of a contented cat. It can also be a greeting, a self-soothing behavior or healing mechanism, or a request for someone to do something for the cat. It is a quiet sound so make sure you don’t miss it!

And back to Gus, maybe that rumbly sound in his meows when he rubs against my legs are “solicitation purrs”.  I will keep listening!

Want to keep up with the world of cats?  Join The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe