Chew this Journal author Sassafras Lowrey has written a new article for Apartment Therapy on how to understand your cat better- read the article here.
Living with a cat is a little bit like living with a (very cute) alien. Cats are amazing companions with big personalities, but it’s not always easy to know what your cat wants or is trying to communicate. Add in the fact that in 2020, many people have been spending a lot of time at home, which has allowed for more time to try and understand what cats want throughout the day.
Do you notice that your cat is following you around the apartment crying? Or waking you up in the middle of the night? While sometimes annoying, this behavior is actually your cat making an effort to communicate with you. We spoke with Dr. Seth Bishop, a staff veterinarian at Small Door Veterinary in New York City, to decipher the most common kitty signals for you and your feline friend alike.
The cats are talking—are you listening?
While we might find ourselves confused about what our cats want, they are actually working really hard to communicate with us. “When cats live in groups, they have little vocalization with one another. When they are with humans, however, they have learned to vocalize as their mode of communication with us,” Dr. Bishop tells Apartment Therapy.
Essentially cats have changed their behavior in order to better communicate with humans. “The longer you have your cat, you will learn that certain meows mean different things. ‘I want food,’ or ‘I want attention,’ or ‘Stop bothering me or I will attack!’ may all have different sounds,” Dr. Bishop says. Try to pay attention to the tone of your cat’s vocalizations and see if you can start to identify trends.
It’s common for cats to try to communicate with you when you’re in the kitchen, in large part because they’re both smart and opportunistic. “Your cat may associate this place with food, or with you being busy while cooking and not paying enough attention to them,” advises Dr. Bishop. In other words, your cat might be telling you to hurry up and finish cooking so you can get back to cuddling, or might want to share your snack!
Cats might have a reputation as being “easy,” but as anyone who lives with cats can attest, they tend to have very clear ideas about what they want and when they want it. Unlike dogs, cats generally aren’t that interested in pleasing you, and instead want to make sure you know exactly what you can do for them. “When I get ready for bed at night, my cat knows the routine,” Dr. Bishop notes. “He starts to get rambunctious and will start to meow more. He knows that I won’t be up to give him the attention he wants for quite some time, so he is likely trying to prevent my going to bed.
”The good news, according to Dr. Bishop, is that “cats are relatively simple beings—they are either looking for attention or food (or both!).” Communicating with your cat and understanding what he wants will take a little bit of experimentation. “If you are in the kitchen cooking and your cat keeps bothering you, go sit down in the living room. If your cat curls up next to you and stops meowing, then they likely wanted your attention.” When in doubt try offering food, treats, and/or your undivided attention.
Is your cat waking you up in middle of the night?
A common challenge and complaint from cat guardians is their cats waking them up in the middle of the night to have a conversation. As frustrating as it might be, your cat isn’t actually trying to ruin your night and destroy tomorrow’s productivity. They’re trying to connect with you, and don’t realize their timing is less than ideal.
“Cats are actually nocturnal by nature,” Dr. Bishop notes, and they especially like to interact and hunt at night. “The longer our indoor cats live with us, the more they adapt to our schedules over time. While they often adapt and this becomes less of an issue, it is rarely something that completely disappears.” A cat’s sense of time is controlled by a circadian rhythm and daylight can have a big impact on how they interpret time. “At daylight savings when we turned the clocks back, my cat would be waking me up an hour earlier each day for a few weeks until he got adjusted to the new schedule,” Dr. Bishop says. “Little things can make a significant difference to a cat’s routine, but they do have the ability to swiftly adjust in a good home.”
If you and your feline friend are really struggling to get on the same sleeping schedule, your cat might be trying to communicate that they need more activity and enrichment during the day when you are awake. Dr. Bishop recommends making sure your cat has plenty of scratching posts, puzzle toys, boxes, and other ways of engagement at their disposal throughout the day.
Is your cat’s litter box a way of communicating?
An important exception to the cats just wanting food or attention is “if your cat is excessively vocalizing upon coming in and out of the litter box, or if the vocalizing is a brand new out-of-the-ordinary event,” Dr. Bishop says. “This could indicate a more serious medical issue, such as urinary blockage, and seeking immediate veterinary care is recommended.”
The least pleasant form of communication that some cats utilize is with their litter box. “Inappropriate elimination (having accidents outside of the box) could be due to either behavioral or medical reasons,” notes Dr. Bishop. If your cat suddenly begins inappropriately doing their business, he says “It is best to contact your veterinarian and have your cat evaluated. Your vet will want to rule out urinary or gastrointestinal abnormalities. If all is clear by your vet, then you may be dealing with a behavioral issue.”
If your cat is healthy, they may be trying to express their frustration or displeasure about something in the home. In this case, Dr. Bishop advises that something as simple as switching up the type of litter or the litter box could help the problem. “It may take some time to find the right litter and litter box, and find methods to reduce stress in the environment,” advises Dr. Bishop.
In addition, any changes or stress in the house can contribute to litter box “accidents.” A change in your work schedule or moving to a new home can be an emotional challenge for your cat. Just like a shift in schedule can be hard for us, a lifestyle shift may increase your cat’s attempts at communicating with you. “They will have an adjustment period, too,” Dr. Bishop notes. “Be patient and practice positive reinforcement with your cats, rewarding good behaviors with treats and play time. A little patience and creativity will go a long way towards figuring out what your cat wants!
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