If the famous Dr Johnson provided his pet cat Hodge with a regular supply of oysters as he is reported to have done, it is probably because Hodge had a means of communicating his preferences through subtle and insidious application of cat language and communication. Committed cat owners know very well the nuances of meaning which can be insinuated into the throat noises that a cat can make. In fact, many homes are said, like that of the famous cat lover and writer Beverley Nichols, to vibrate to the quiet domestic rhythm of the cats in residence. Although there is certainly a degree of selfishness in this, in times of trouble cats have a remarkable instinct to provide sympathy and comfort by placing soft paws on the cheek or even round the neck in certain cats whose human understanding might justify classifying them separately as Telis hominis’.
All animals communicate with each other even if, as in the case of fish perhaps, the messages are essentially confined to reproductive tasks. It may be said, justifiably, that cats have a more extensive range of voice, facial and body signals than most other mammals.
Perhaps the most effective way to observe communication in the cat is to watch a queen, or mother cat, with her kittens. A great deal of the disciplining necessary to keep an active and inquisitive litter of kittens in order is done by sound. When new-born kittens are suckling, she will purr with pleasure and motherly concern. She may turn and lick the kitten nearest to her and nudge those who have been less successful in finding the source of the milk. In the first week or two when the kittens’ eyes are still closed, she will guide them with nudges and little chirping sounds and return any which ‘fall out of the box or crawl away in the wrong direction by taking the loose skin at the back of the neck gently in her mouth and carrying the kitten back to where it should be and gently putting it in its place.
The kittens soon come to know the different noises their mother makes and respond to them. As they get older and more adventurous she may use the slightly imperative sound which could roughly be interpreted as ‘return at once, you are in danger’.
While kittens rarely have the problem of distinguishing one mother’s call from another, thev certainly react to the different meanings of the calls very soon after birth. There is a call of danger and a call of anger, both of which tend to produce a state of total immobility in the kittens, who stare wide-eyed at their mother waiting to see what will happen next.
Similarly the kitten learns to communicate, starting perhaps when it is suckling its mother and kneading the soft underbelly with its tiny paws. This kneading motion is partly to express its own pleasure but also has a stimulating effect upon the flow of milk and therefore increases the quantity available. The actual muscular process extends and opens the paws and exposes the claws. In very young kittens these claws are soft and harmless but as the kittens get older kneading the mother’s stomach with the claws out becomes irritating to her and is part of the general process of separation that leads finally to total weaning. Cats retain the habit of kneading when they are particularly pleased; as it includes exposing the claws, kneading can be painful for handlers and extremely damaging to clothing or furniture.
If kittens learn to express pleasure when suckling, they equally learn to express anger and competitiveness when given their first portions of solid food. Readers who have seen kittens growing up with their mother will certainly have experienced this phenomenon. Kittens hardly big enough to get out of the maternity box will turn into tiny fluffed-out balls of growling spitfire if given a little raw meat or even a small hard raw bone to chew at.
The larger kittens are often the first-born which are formed in the broad area of the uterus of the mother, while the last-born, which develop in the upper end of the horn of the uterus and therefore start with a physical disadvantage before birth, are often smaller. Sibling rivalry between kittens in the litter is the same as in any group of young animals, including humans. To begin with dominance is entirely physical but it will ultimately be influenced by the mental make up of the animal, particularly its level of aggression or tolerance. It is not necessarily the case that the largest kitten will always get the mother’s nipple which by trial and error has been found to produce the most milk. A small aggressive kitten can sometimes push its bigger litter-mate out even in the first few days of life. This should be interpreted as the natural way to ensure that the most likely to survive, because they are physically or mentally dominant, are given the best start in life multiplying their chances at the expense of their weaker litter-mates. In this way one may say that nature ensures the perpetuation of the species by encouraging the healthiest specimens. It is all part of the animal’s adaptation to its environment, its ability to survive by finding food and reproducing itself. It may equally of course be said that had this ability of the animal to survive not been present it would long ago have died out with the Dodo and the Pterodactyl.
The growling kitten, therefore, is merely expressing its desire to survive and play its part in perpetuating the species. Some mother cats recognize this dominance and may encourage the weaker kittens to suckle her when the bigger kitten is exploring the world about it, thus encouraging them to catch up. At the same time, cats, like many other mothers with multiple offspring at each birth, will quickly recognize a fading offspring and happily ignore it. What usually happens is that the weak kitten is unable to move in response to changes in the position of other kittens or the mother cat and is frequently smothered.
As the kittens grow up the mother’s discipline will become more evident. She will teach them to walk by moving away from the box and chirping at her kittens to encourage them to follow her. If they continue to play and ignore the lesson she is giving them her chirp will become more strident and more dominant. This usually brings them smartly to attention and they follow her in a short exploration of the furniture around the box. If there are signs of clanger, such as the arrival of an unfamiliar cat or dog, loud unfamiliar noises or the rush of children’s feet, she will issue a warning cry which, depending upon the note, may be interpreted as ‘stand perfectly still’ or ‘return to base immediately’.
At about this time the kittens will begin to play and their mother’s tail is often a target for their early stalking training. Some queens will accept this phlegmatically as part of the penalty of motherhood, others will find it totally unacceptable and grunt and growl with displeasure, even miaowing and spitting if it persists. As a last resort they will box the kittens’ ears with sheathed nails.
Apart from the usual vocal signals, there are other ways in which cats and kittens can express pleasure or anger. The common instrument for this is the tail. When a cat moves along on its toes, head up and ears pricked, expressing If young kittens stray too far, the mother cat will carry them back to safety in her mouth.
When a tail is waving slightly this indicates alertness, well-being and pleasure. The gently waving tail of a cat stretched out in the sun accompanied by rhythmic purring is an indication of the total satisfaction of the sybarite indulging its physical comfort in a manner particularly characteristic of the cat.
A mother cat, after three or four weeks of full maternalism, will gradually find the attention of the kittens both at suckling and at play tedious and even irritating. The tail will often be the first sign of this. When the kittens are suckling it will begin to wave rather rapidly and this probably indicates that the claws are beginning to hurt as they dig into her skin while the kneading process takes place and even that teeth are beginning to hurt the nipple being sucked. When irritation reaches an unbearable degree, she will often miaow loudly, box at the kittens and push them away. If this fails, she will rise rapidly to her feet and walk away.
This behaviour will continue until, at about five weeks, the mother cat is with her kittens only for short periods during the day and even then she is encouraging them to take an interest in solid food offered to her or to the kittens by the breeder. Kittens will always show an interest in trying to suckle their mother, however, and it is really up to her to break them of this. By seven weeks, suckling is probably totally unnecessary in terms of nutrition and the provision of antibodies from the milk will all have taken place in the first few days or weeks of life.
During the learning period, the mother will also, by example, encourage the kittens to use a litter tray and to wash their faces and coats. It can be extremely amusing to watch kittens trying to copy their mother’s cleaning postures by lifting their paws and bending their heads over their backs. In kittens whose balance mechanisms in the inner ear have not completely developed this usually results in them falling over in all sorts of ways.