I was writing to my mum when Swooner jumped up, headbutted my tablet out of the way, threw his paws around my neck and licked me on the nose. He was purring up a storm and his eyes were half-closed.
Cat communication is typically shrouded in mystery, riddled with subtle signs and shibboleths, but Swooner is an open communicator. He shouts a cheery meow when he’s happy, and screams abuse when he’s upset. Forget kitty dignity and aloofness; Swooner semaphores his feelings in easy-to-understand signals.
For Swooner, kisses are best given to the top of his head – smack between the ears. As I kiss him, he purrs loudly and, if I stop, he looks into my eyes and meows an inquiry. If I pretend I don’t know what he wants, he licks my nose and cheeks until I can’t help laughing and kiss him back.
Our kitten is definitely unusual in that he acts human rather than cat. We see it as pretty nifty cross-cultural (or cross-species?) communication, and we’re all for it. But Target and Guido look at Swooner and you can see they don’t get it.
Guido is not a touchy-feely cat. He loves to be patted and he purrs a lot but he’s not a lap cat. His idea of enjoyment is to headbutt your ankle, and to have his back and tail rubbed. He loves to have your hands run over his fur in long sweeps, Swedish massage style.
When he’s feeling super-mushy, he sits on a cushion, eyes shut, mouth half-open and roaring like a little lion as your fingers run over his chin and ears. If we do it right, we’re rewarded by his paws paddling the cushion, claws working the material in slow, strong in-and-out kneading motions.
Target, our senior cat, is the most conventional of the three boys and, to his friends who aren’t familiar with cat speak, the most mysterious. Very often, they miss the kisses altogether or mistake his friendly overtures for aggression.
Cats meow at humans because they know we are very verbal, but between themselves, they communicate mostly by body language. When one cat engages with another, body tension is massively important.
A cat who thinks his fellow cat may be a problem is on the alert. That means his spine is stiff, his tail half-up, his whiskers sticking out, and his ears slightly back. Also, he stares.
The cat stare is a powerful weapon. It says, “See you? I’m watching you, pal.” It’s a friendly warning, the sort a Mafiosi might give you.
If the other cat is friendly, he sits down and shows he’s not spoiling for a fight. Of course, being super-cool, he’s not going to go overboard like some sissy fluff. No, he’ll do something casual like wash a whisker or thoughtfully lick a claw.
When it’s established that everyone there is macho and that a fight isn’t on the cards, the tension evaporates. The spines relax, the tails go down and the whiskers twitch as the noses go into action, snuffing up scents. Also, the eyes blink happily as they examine each other in a friendly way.
At this point, the cats may decide to go their own way. After all, cats are busy all day long, checking their territory, stalking lizards and making sure that intruders are seen off the premises.
But if the cats decide they like each other, they will hang out. They will lie down with paws tucked up neatly, Mandarin style, or perhaps splayed about in relaxed abandon. Either pose is a huge tell because they signal the cats feels safe from attack.
They’ll look at each other but it won’t be the hard aggressive stare. Instead, they blink a lot. They will also let their eyes linger on whatever is going on about them. Because they’re in good company and can let their guard down.
If they’re truly relaxed, something really special happens. Their whiskers droop, their ears relax and they take a deep breath. Then, they gaze at each other, their eyes dropping in a super-slow blink.
That eye-meet is what we kitty lovers call the cat kiss. It’s super-subtle and you can easily miss it but if your cat is sitting there, giving you the slow blink, it means he sees you as a good friend, someone to be safe with. That is a true honour that can’t be bought or bribed. You have to earn that kind of trust.
Target is very much a classic communicator and so when he’s feeling happy, he sits down and looks my way. We know each other very well and so I can see straight away from his face how he’s feeling. If I say to him, “Hey, squeezley-bug. How are you?” it’s odds-on that he will paddle his paws and send a slow-blink cat kiss my way.
A stretched-out hand is all it takes to invite him over. Target is a cuddle bug and so he will climb on top of me, headbutting my hands and face.
Again, this isn’t aggression. Cats have scent glands all over their bodies and they use these to mark their property. So, when Target bumps and rubs his face against me, he’s leaving little markers to signal to the cat world that he and I are tight.
When he’s happy, Target stands on me, headbutting and purring, with his claws flexing – and occasionally sticking into me in his enthusiasm. It’s full-on physical that leaves me with a face full of stray fur and the odd claw mark but I’m all for it because the message is clear: he loves me.