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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 30 July 2003 Issue

Feline Behavior
Common Communication Breakdowns
Pam Johnson-Bennett
Feline Behaviorist and author of "THINK LIKE A CAT"

Why  do so many cats end up being relinquished to shelters? The answer: behavior problems. Many of these problems are due to a communication breakdown between the cat and the guardian. So many behavior problems could be corrected or avoided altogether if we understood a little more about how cats communicate.


There are three forms of communication used by cats: vocalization, body language and scent. Most of us understand the vocalization part just fine. We know exactly what our cats mean based on each particular meow. Is there a human out there who doesn't instantly recognize the "feed me" meow?

Body language becomes more complex but most of us soon learn to understand the various postures our cats assume to communicate whether they're scared, happy, content or defensive. They use every part of their body to display their emotion - from the position of the ears; the size of the pupils; the fanning out of whiskers; to the movement of the tail. Cats really have mastered the art of body language.

Then we come to scent communication and this is where most of us either throw in the towel in defeat (and also to clean up the cat urine on the carpet) or we prepare ourselves for a heartbreaking battle of wills against our feline companions.

How Do Cats Use Scent Communication

Cats are equipped with scent glands on their paw pads; on their cheeks; on the top of the head; and of course, the area that causes guardians the most concern: urine. There are also two little anal glands on either side of the rectum that release a liquid to mark the cat's stool with a specific identifying scent. So from head to toe, scent is a very important form of communication.

Scent glands release pheromones. These are chemicals that provide information about the cat. In the wild, scent is a crucial form of communication because it reveals information about one cat to another without having an actual confrontation. In the wild, it's an extremely important survival tactic. Scent is used to identify members of the same colony, define territory, announce sexual readiness, learn more about unfamiliar cats in the area, or as a form of covert aggression. In terms of covert aggression, a cat may choose to spray to see whether her opponent will back down or whether she'll have to actually engage in a physical confrontation. With an indoor cat, scent plays just as vital a role.

Friendly VS Not-So-Friendly Pheromones

When thinking about scent communication, draw an imaginary line that divides your cat in half. The scent glands on the front half could be labeled as the "friendly" pheromones. These are used when a cat is marking familiar territory that she considers the heart of her nest. These pheromones have a calming effect. You probably have seen this many times when your cat rubs her cheek along the kitchen cabinet, the doorway to the bedroom, the leg of a chair, or even on YOU. This form of marking is very reassuring and calming behavior that reflects the cat's sense of security.

Then we come to those pheromones at the back end. Oh boy! Pheromones released during spraying are related to stress and excitement. There's nothing calm about those pheromones. When a cat sprays it's done under stressful circumstances.

_ source: Pam Johnson-Bennett

Return to Animals in Print 30 July 2003 Issue

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