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About the Author
Claire Bessant is the Chief Executive of the Feline Advisory Bureau, a charity that provides information on a wide range of cat topics and funds vets to specialize in feline medicine. She also writes for various cat magazines and is commissioning editor of a veterinary publication. She has authored or co-authored a number of books, including the bestselling What Cats Want, The Ultrafit Older Cat, and How to Give your Dog a Longer and Healthier Life.
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The Cat Whisperer
The Secret of How to Talk Your Cat
By Claire Bessant
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2004 Claire Bessant
All rights reserved.
A Different World
Imagine trying to communicate with an Eskimo from the frozen world of the Arctic if you have only ever lived in the African jungle. Not only are there language differences, but many of the common references of everyday life such as landscape, vegetation, wildlife, dress – or lack of it – and daily hazards and routines are extremely varied. Although the aims of having a shelter and keeping the body fed and at a comfortable temperature are similar, how each is achieved and their relative importance to survival are not.
When trying to understand how and why members of a completely different species act as they do, an insight into how they see their world and an examination of some of the problems they have to overcome can be very enlightening.
We tend to assume everything revolves around how we tall, rather stiffly upright and slow humans move through our world with good eyesight (so long as there is daylight), hearing adequate to receive the sounds of other humans and a relatively poor sense of smell. Although it lives in the same physical environment as we do, the cat may see things in a very different way and, by using its heightened senses of hearing, smell and touch, be influenced by factors of which we are only vaguely aware. Built as a perfect hunter, its senses attuned for tasks which we are swift or silent enough to undertake only in our imagination, the cat may move in our world, but it is a world we would barely recognise – like an Eskimo who wakes up in the jungle!
Imagine yourself moving at shin level but having the ability to leap (from a standing start) to five times your height with seemingly little effort. Climbing a tree, leaping from a wardrobe or balancing and walking along the top of a very slim fence are not difficult tasks, even for a geriatric cat. With a lithe body and nimble feet which can convert instantly from silent padders to crampons or grasping tools, the cat is equal to most terrains and can survive in conditions from Arctic to desert.
The cat's sense of balance and its ability to fall on its feet have an almost supernatural reputation. Having evolved an automatic sequence of moves which come into play as it falls through the air, a safe landing is almost guaranteed. The cat levels its head, flips its top half round to face the ground and then flips its rear end round too. Using its tail, the cat counteracts any overbalance and can land on all four feet with its back arched to cushion the impact. Of course, this does not mean that cats are never killed or injured in falls – they often are. If they miscalculate and land badly, or fall from a very great height, the impact is likely at least to break their legs, so they are not that supernatural!
This special sense of balance, which is based in the inner ear, may be the reason that cats do not suffer from motion sickness, a feeling of nausea which afflicts both humans and dogs when the head has frequently to change its position relative to the body, such as when riding in a car or sailing in a boat. While cats may not enjoy travelling in the car, they are not usually sick, unlike puppies or young children who seem to be affected more than their adult counterparts.
Supple and rarely clumsy, the cat has a physique that enables it to perform feats way beyond those of even our best athletes. Add to that its lack of predators (apart from some of the human species), its amazing hunting talents and ability to adapt to life wherever it may be, with or without help from us, and you may be on the way to fathoming that inexplicable independence and confident air of the cat.
So how does the cat feel, see and hear and how is its perception of the world so different from that of man?
FEELING THE WORLD
If we draw a picture of a human with the parts of the body large or small, relative to how touch-sensitive those parts are, the distorted image (called a homunculus) has large hands, lips, tongue, genitalia and a relatively small back, legs, feet and arms. If you think about where you 'feel' and how you use your fingertips to, say, try to locate a tiny splinter which you know is in your thumb but you cannot see, you can immediately focus on your sense of touch. If you fail to find the splinter with your fingers, you automatically use that even more sensitive organ, the tip of your tongue. When you draw the same touch-sensitive representation of a cat (what could be called a felunculus), the creature also has a large head (especially the tongue and nose) and huge paws. Watch a cat investigating a new object, learning to play with prey or simply creeping up on something strange. It will first timidly touch the object once with a paw, then repeat the action a little more confidently, and then move in closer to investigate with its nose. The pads are very sensitive to touch and vibration – which is perhaps the reason many cats do not like their pads being stroked. Maybe it feels like 'tickled feet', one of the sensations some humans cannot bear either.
Funnily enough, although sensitive to touch, the pads are not very sensitive to hot or cold things. The nose and upper lip are the only parts of the cat's body which are very sensitive to temperature and it uses these to estimate the temperature of food and the environment. As a tiny kitten its sensitive nose homed in on the warmth of its mother like a little heat- seeking missile. Even at one day old a kitten can detect and move along a thermal gradient, avoiding cold hard surfaces, to reach the warmest, softest spot next to its mother.
While the nose and lips can be used to sense the temperature of the surroundings or of the cat's food, the rest of its body is relatively insensitive to high or low temperatures. This probably explains why so many owners are shocked when their cats leap on to a hot cooker hob with little care, or curl up in the embers of a fire which is not quite dead and singe their fur. Humans will move away from a temperature of 44°C because it feels uncomfortably hot. The cat can happily stay put at way beyond this temperature, up to about 52°C, which explains its ability to sit in front of a roaring fire or on a boiling-hot radiator and still enjoy it.
The cat is also covered with what have been called 'touch spots' (about 25 of them per square centimetre of skin), which are areas of skin rich in touch-sensitive nerves. Spraying a cat with a fine shower of water may make it quiver – its skin is reacting in sequence as the tiny droplets hit each sensitive spot in turn, and the skin literally 'ripples'.
THROUGH CAT'S EYES
Although the structure of the cat's eye is very similar to that of other mammals, it does have its own peculiarities and specialities. It is now thought that the cat does not see only in black and white, but that it can actually detect some colour. By turning down the colour control on the television so that the blues and greens just show, and imagining the dull reds as grey, you can go some way to visualising how the cat sees the world.
Because they hunt at twilight, when most of their rodent prey is on the move, cats do not really need to see colour. Twilight is a very strange type of light in which all colours soften and fade. While it may still seem quite 'light' to us, we are actually very bad at discerning what we are looking at. This explains the increased risk of road accidents at twilight and why we ask people to 'wear something white' in order to be noticed. However, this time of day is when the cat comes into its own.
Although cats may not be able to see the same fine detail as we can in daylight and cannot focus so well on nearby objects (they see best at about two to six metres), when it comes to following movements the cat does not miss a twitch. Special nerve cells in the cat's brain respond to the smallest movement – an obvious advantage to a hunter. The lightning-fast feline reflexes, combined with an ability to judge distance very accurately, allow the cat to home in on its prey with devastating speed. However, if the prey freezes – an action many 'prey' species learn as a defence strategy – the cat may lose sight of it. If the cat has already pinpointed the little creature though, it may perform that familiar little 'wiggle' of its bottom, which may slightly alter the stalker's view and stimulate its movement-sensitive eyes to reassess the prey's position before making a strike.
The cat has very large eyes in relation to the size of its head and part of its appeal is thought to be that it resembles a human baby in this respect. Kittens also, like babies, are born with blue eyes. However, the most amazing feature of the cat's eye must be its adult colour, splendid in whichever hue of yellow, green, blue, lavender or orange. This gleaming colour in the part of the eye called the iris has no function, but like the beautiful paint on a racing car, it merely covers a very special mechanism. The muscles in the iris alter the position of the pupil to allow the correct amount of light to enter the eye. It looks like a curtain across the pupil – when drawn fully across, little light can get through. In full sun you may only see a minute vertical dark strip of the pupil down the centre of the eye; this ensures that the sensitive layer of cells called the retina, at the back of the eye, is protected from over-exposure. When the light is low the iris changes position, allowing the pupil to dilate and more light to enter.
Sundown for the cat does not mean that everything disappears into darkness. Not only can the pupil open up to about one centimetre in diameter (making the whole eye look black), but a special layer of cells behind the retina reflects back any light which has not been absorbed on its way through, so that the eye gets a second chance to intercept the image. This pigment layer of cells, called the tapetum, acts like a mirror and is responsible for the gold or green shine to the eyes which can be seen when a cat is caught in car headlights at night. One of the reasons the Egyptians regarded the cat as sacred was this glowing-eye phenomenon. The strange image we find on photographs taken by flash-light – eyes aglow in fluorescent green instead of their normal warm yellow or orange – is caused by the same reflecting layer. Interestingly the blue eyes of the Siamese cat glow a sort of blood-red colour in flashlight photos because they have a slightly different make-up from other cats in their reflecting layer of cells. Pictures are often taken to capture that very beauty of the eye's true colour, so it can be a frustrating business if one ends up with two glowing green embers. Photographing using natural light outside, in the garden for example, should show the colour of the eye in all its splendour, so long as the cat can be persuaded to remain still.
So not only can the pupil open very wide and get two chances to absorb the light, the eye of the cat also has extra sensitive nerve cells in the retina which respond to the light hitting them. This gives the cat the ability to see in light about six times dimmer than we ourselves need. Cats are able to see in light so weak that many scientific instruments can hardly detect it, and probably twilight to them still seems like daylight does to us.
The eye is not only an amazingly sensitive instrument for the cat, it is also an indicator of mood. Eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, and pleasure, fear or excitement can make the pupil dilate ... but more of this later.
'SEEING' BY TOUCH
There is more to 'seeing' than simply looking through the eye – as any blind person could tell you. Other senses can also help animals to 'see'. Whiskers are extremely sensitive instruments and function in a type of see/feel way. Look at your cat sideways with the light behind it and not only will the dozen or so whiskers in rows on the upper lip be obvious, but you may also notice some above the eye and on the chin. Similar coarse hairs (actually called vibrissae) are also found on the elbows. These form a sort of 'force field' of sensitivity – they are turned on by movement, even a slight breeze, and can be put 'on alert' when required.
The whiskers sprout from a deeper layer of the skin than other hairs do and they act like levers, magnifying any slight movement while they bend. This stimulates nerve endings which can detect the speed and direction of movement and provide detailed information on the cat's surroundings – they are even thought to enable the cat to sense minute air disturbances which occur around obstacles so it can 'feel' their presence, even when it can't see them. These nerve impulses travel along the same path to the brain as does information from the eyes. The brain then uses the two systems to build up a three-dimensional picture of the environment.
A cat without whiskers may be very unsure when it's moving in the dark or through narrow spaces. In dim light, when the pupil is fully dilated to let in as much light as possible, the eye is less able to focus on close objects – so the cat uses its whiskers to detect the world immediately around it. A touch on the whisker will cause a reflex closing of the eye, ensuring that any twig or grass springing back will not cause injury; this is a vital protective measure for the hunter with its eyes firmly fixed on prey moving through hedges, grass, or around small holes. A cat with poor eyesight moves its head from side to side as it walks, using its whiskers as minesweepers or the equivalent of a blind person's white stick to help it negotiate gaps and obstacles. In the USA some blind dogs have been fitted with 'whiskers' – flexible plastic sticks fixed to the dog's collar on either side of its face. These dogs can now feel their way around their homes with great success, and they have learned both how to avoid obstacles in their path which touch the whiskers and to stop when the whiskers lose contact with the ground, so that they won't fall down a step. The fitting-out with 'whiskers' has given the dogs a new lease of independent life, for which they can thank their feline cousins.
The cat also uses its whiskers to feel its prey as it makes its final hunting pounce and grabs the animal with its teeth and claws. A hunt is a very exciting time for the cat and its body is kept 'primed' by the hormone adrenalin. Adrenalin also causes the pupils in the eye to dilate and makes it very difficult for the cat to focus on close-by objects, such as the shrew it has in its mouth. To feel its way to the correct position for the killing bite to the animal's neck, it uses its whiskers like that 'third hand' we would all find so useful.
Have you ever studied your cat's face and noticed, scattered among the rows of whiskers above the upper lip, lots of dark dots which look like rows of beauty spots? These have been studied in lions and researchers found that the positioning and patterns they form are different on each lion, as our fingerprints are unique to each of us. No one has yet studied the patterns in domestic cats (they would have a bit of difficulty with black-haired ones) and anyway we can tell our cats apart by much more obvious clues, but it is an interesting finding.
The dog has always been thought of as the keen-eared pet, which belief resulted in a craze for ultrasonic whistles that were blown silently, trusting that at least the dog could hear. The fact that most people reverted to the well-tried methods of shouting or whistling through their teeth probably illustrates our lack of faith in things we cannot actually see or hear, rather than making us admit that our dogs are just badly trained. In fact, when it comes to sound-sensitivity the cat can hear sounds of even higher frequency than the dog can – up to about 60 kHz. Man is sensitive up to only about 20 kHz, which means that we miss many of the high sounds made by small rodents, the primary prey of the cat.
Excerpted from The Cat Whisperer by Claire Bessant. Copyright © 2004 Claire Bessant. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A Different World,
2. Cat Talk,
3. Living with Your Cat,
4. Exploring the Relationship,
5. Cat Characters,
6. Intelligence and Training,
7. A to Z of Problems and Solutions,