Could you be a cat whisperer?

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17 March 2021
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Some people just have the knack of understanding cats, for others it’s a learning curve. Yvonne Martin reports on how you can find out if you naturally have this special skill — and how to improve your ability.

As I sit working at my desk upstairs, I hear the catflap flip open and the hasty padding of paws through the kitchen and up the stairs, accompanied by a throaty, chirruping series of meows.

I call out to my little companion Rita to let her know where I am, because it feels to me as though she’s calling me. OK, maybe I’ve been working from home too long, I don’t know, but it pleases me to feel that we can communicate with each other. But could I be a cat whisperer? Someone who genuinely does know how their cat is feeling and what they need, and can use that knowledge to build a bond.

Understanding the sounds your cat makes and, perhaps more importantly, what their facial expressions and overall posture mean is an important part of life with a cat, and perhaps one of its greatest pleasures. Many of us who share our homes with cats may fancy that we have that special level of insight.

RESEARCH REVEALS

The unsettling news from some interesting Canadian research, though, is that however much of a cat lover a person considers themselves to be, it seems to have no bearing on their ability to read and comprehend a variety of cats’ faces. I know! It’s a blow, isn’t it?

Even one of the academics who carried out the research happily admits to being a little miffed by this discovery. “I was interested in that too and slightly personally hurt,” said cat lover and professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, Dr Georgia Mason.

Georgia and the team carried out research into how accurately people could read cats’ facial expressions. They did not go into the details of subtle emotions; it was simply a question of whether the cat pictured was in a negative or positive state. They selected the images from YouTube videos and were careful to make sure any clues from the surroundings or the cats’ body posture were removed. As a result, it was a pretty tough test. But why didn’t the cat lovers do better?

“We think that it’s probably a couple of things going on,” says Georgia. “If you just know your own cat really well, you may not have that many close encounters with very many individual cats; maybe half a dozen in your life, and hopefully you only see them when they’re rather content.

“We didn’t test whether people who love their cats are better at reading their own cats. My hunch would be they are.”

The group that did do better at recognising the meaning of the cats’ facial expressions, however, were vets and vet technicians. There could be a number of reasons why they do so well and one of them is the sheer number of different cats they are likely to see compared to the average owner.

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“It’s an order of magnitude different from the rest of us,” said Georgia. “And they’re seeing cats in a whole range of states. They’re seeing them in some really dreadful states — intense nausea from poisoning or chemotherapy, really intense pain, really intense fear, and most of us don’t see that, so I think that gives them a broader range of experience.”

More than that, a vet’s motivation to understand what a cat’s facial expression means is much more than a casual interest.

“We couldn’t help wondering if it just matters more if you’re a vet or a vet tech because if you make the wrong decision, you could get bitten or an animal might get sicker. Whereas the stakes are lower for a pet owner,” said Georgia.

“There’s so much work we want to do now,” said Georgia. “We would love to know what is it that people are seeing. What is it that cats are doing?

We don’t actually know. We need somebody now to go through the videos and do quite mathematical labelling of aspects such as where is the corner of the mouth? Where are the two corners of each eye? What is the angle of the whiskers? to try and quantify what it is that people are detecting, and then once you’ve done that, you can make a training tool.”

If we could read cats better there would be a number of benefits. Firstly, it would help us meet their needs better, but it would also make our interactions with them more rewarding.

“People who don’t like cats find them aloof and cryptic, but actually they’re not aloof and cryptic, they’re just subtle and challenging. If we could make it easier for people to read cats, they might find them more rewarding as pets. People on the cusp might be tipped over into thinking ‘OK, there is some interesting stuff going on here’ if they could read it.” So, how can you develop this skill to communicate with cats?

To read the full feature, and find out if you have what it takes to be a cat whisperer, download the April 2021 issue of Your Cat Magazine here: www.pocketmags.com/your-cat-magazine