As George Carlin famously observed, cats don’t accept blame — but that doesn’t mean they don’t apologize sometimes.
Let me preface this by saying I neither expect nor demand apologies for the standard methods of Buddesian destruction. If Bud swipes my phone off the table and it cracks, that’s my fault for leaving it where he’s known to conduct his ongoing gravity experiments. Likewise, there’s no sense getting upset with him when he paw-slaps a set of keys four feet across the room, or when I return from the kitchen to find the remote controls on the floor.
That’s Buddy being a cat. Getting angry at him for it would be pointless, and expressing that anger would only make him fearful and stressed.
There are times, however, when even Bud realizes an apology is in order. As I’ve documented before, the little guy sometimes redirects his fear or aggression to the nearest person, which is invariably me, and almost mindlessly lashes out with claws and/or teeth. After working on it together, he’s improved dramatically and knows how to handle his fear and frustration peacefully. Still, every once in a while he gets really freaked out or overstimulated beyond what he can handle, and he’ll clamp onto a foot or forearm, drawing blood.
That’s when I react. I don’t yell at him beyond telling him to stop, but he can see from my reaction that he’s gone way overboard and done something he shouldn’t do.
He starts the apology phase by running off to the next room or running around the one we’re in, making uncertain “brrrrrrr brrrrrr” noises. (Precisely the same noises he’s made since the day I brought him home as a kitten, when he would poop in the corner of my bedroom underneath my bed. That’s always been the sound he makes when he’s unsure and maybe a little worried.) If I go to wash and dab antibiotic ointment on the cuts, he’ll sit there quietly watching me. He’ll watch until I say “Hey, Bud!” and then approach slowly until he sees me holding out my hand and starts nuzzling against it and purring.
I’ll usually say something like “It’s okay, but you shouldn’t do that,” kindly but firmly. He probably doesn’t grasp my words, but he understands my tone of voice and meaning.
We can only guess exactly what our pets are thinking, but I believe Bud’s telling me he regrets hurting me, didn’t mean to, and he wants to make sure we’re still okay.
As for cats reading us, the video below does a good job of explaining what cats pick up in our tones of voice, body language, facial expressions and even pheromones. Cats may not have been living with humans since the hunter-gatherer days like dogs have, but they still trace their domesticated lineage back 10,000 years, and just like dogs they’re hyper-attuned to the moods and intentions of their closest humans. Partially it’s because they depend on us utterly as their providers of food and water, but when cats and humans share a bond, there’s a strong emotional side to that attunement as well.
Cats are more responsive when their humans use “baby talk” to address them, a new study claims.
A research team from Paris Nanterre University played a series of recordings for cats. One set of recordings featured a stranger addressing each cat, while another set featured the cat’s human servant calling to the cat.
Each set also had clips in two different tones of voice: one in which the humans spoke to the cats in a tone normally reserved for addressing fellow adults, and another in which they baby-talked their felines.
Not surprisingly the cats were mostly content to ignore the strangers calling them by name even when the strangers used higher-pitched tones, but “displayed a constellation of behaviors suggesting increased attentiveness” when they heard audio of their humans calling them.
The kitties were even more responsive when their humans used the “sing-songy” tone of voice many people reserve for pets, babies, young children and Texans. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself! I’m still salty over my Yankees getting swept by the Astros.)
The research team said the study, which was published today in the journal Animal Cognition, was yet another piece of evidence showing felines are not the ultra-stoic, emotionless animals they’ve been portrayed as for as long as anyone can remember.
“For a long time it has been thought that cats are very independent creatures, only interested in [humans for] eating and shelter, but the fact that they react specifically to their owner, and not just anybody addressing them, supports the idea that they are attached,” said Charlotte de Mouzon, the paper’s lead author. “It brings further evidence to encourage humans to consider cats as sensitive and communicative individuals.”
Although the study included just 16 cats — sample size is a recurring problem in feline-related studies, since researchers often have to travel to the homes of house cats to study their normal behavior — it’s just the latest bit of research on tone in human-cat communication.
As I wrote last year, I don’t use baby talk with Buddy, and I tend to think of him as, well, my little buddy instead of my “child,” as so many “pet parents” do. That’s not to say I think people who view their pets that way are doing it wrong, or that I don’t have parental feelings toward Bud. Of course I do.
But as I also wrote, Buddy does not tolerate baby talk. I joked that he’d paw-smack me if I spoke to him that way, and indeed he has nipped at me and dispensed warning slaps the handful of times I’ve come close to addressing him that way.
I think it’s because of the way I raised him. He’s not accustomed to it, and he finds it annoying. That makes sense, and it comports with the study authors’ suggestions that the one-on-one relationship between feline and human is an important factor in many facets of cat communication.
But maybe if I’m prepared to dodge a few angry paws I can use the threat of baby talk to nudge Buddy toward being more responsive during those times when he doesn’t feel like coming when called or stopping some important work he’s engrossed in, like chattering away at birds outside.
“Bud! Hey, Bud! Listen to me. I’m talking to you,” I might say. “Okay, have it your way. Who’s da little Buddy wuddy who isn’t wistening to me, huh? Who’s da widdle cwanky boy?”
I’m pretty sure he’ll launch himself at me with a derisive “Mrrrrppp!” and take a big swipe. Haha!
But maybe, just maybe, he’ll be more inclined to listen. Do you baby talk your cats?
I’ve been working on a story about a very odd, unexplained cat behavior — cats who appear to be “begging” or “praying.”
Aside from a handful of videos of cats engaging in the behavior, which seems to be very rare, there’s nothing on the web that really explains what it is or why cats engage in it.
I’ve reached out to cat behavior experts and veterinarians to get their take, and the story’s coming along, but in the meantime I wanted to share a very short video of Buddy “praying,” which I finally managed to get after many times being too slow on the trigger, not getting my phone out and recording in time to capture it. (I did manage to get some still shots some time ago in error, after I thought I’d pressed the video button. Another fail. 😂)
Unlike the kitties in the videos below, Buddy doesn’t “pray” or “beg” in any predictable way, and there’s nothing to indicate he’s going to do it. But finally, I caught him in time!
Here are some other videos in cats engaging in the behavior:
I’ve got no hard date for the story yet, as I’m trying to get as many perspectives as I can, but I do have my own theories on why cats “pray” and what the motion might signal. The Very. Rev. Buddy and I will keep you posted!
This is why we always say it’s better for cat servants to regulate themselves than allow the government to get involved.
A Karen in Australia issued a $280 fine to a homeowner for allegedly allowing his cats to roam — after she lured the kitties onto the street herself.
The entire bizarre spectacle was captured on security cameras at the home of Julie and Steven Stephens, a couple in Toowoomba, about 80 miles west of Brisbane. The uniformed Karen, who is employed by the Queensland council, totes a clipboard in one hand as she walks up the Stephens’ driveway in broad daylight.
As one of the curious cats approaches, Karen reaches for a pen in her pocket and starts scribbling on her clipboard, apparently eager to get started on the paperwork, before slowly backpeddling so the kitty will continue to follow her. When the cat reaches the sidewalk, the unnamed woman scoops it up and walks to her government-issued vehicle parked in front of the Stephens’ home.
Steven Stephens was watching the episode unfold via his camera system and bolted outside to stop the government employee from taking his cat, he told Yahoo News Australia.
The Karen wasn’t able to “impound” the cat, but she wrote Stephens a hefty fine for “allowing his cat to roam,” and promised she’d be back to inflict more misery.
“She said she would be back in two weeks with the police to take all but two of our dogs,” Mr Stephens said.
We’re unable to embed the video, but you can watch it at Yahoo News Australia.
Unbelievably, Toowoomba Regional Council “CEO” Brian Pidgeon doubled down and quoted the relevant section of law on pet roaming when a local newspaper asked him about the incident. Pidgeon did acknowledge his employee was accused of luring the Stephens’ cat, but said he couldn’t talk about that because he’s conducting an “internal investigation,” which is bureaucrat-speak for figuring a way to worm his way out of the situation. There is, after all, clear video showing the Karen luring the cat away. There is nothing ambiguous about what happened.
Stephens admitted he and his wife have “too many” dogs according to local law, which has set arbitrary limits on animal custodianship, but said there are good reasons for that. The dogs sooth his wife, he said.
“A few years ago she had a severe car accident, her partner at the time died, she has a metal plate in her head and now has severe depression and anxiety,” Stephens said. “The dogs help with her anxiety.”
The family has been so rattled by the incident, and apparently has so little faith in their local government to treat them fairly, that they told Yahoo News they’re looking to sell their home and move to “a larger parcel of land in the bush.”
That in itself is an extraordinary admission, indicating they don’t expect basic courtesy, honesty or professionalism from the local authorities.
Now imagine how this would have played out if the Stephens family did not have security cameras. The council worker would have said their cats wandered off the family’s property of their own accord, and that would have been it. The Stephens would be forced to pay the fines, have a legal battle on their hands to get their cats back, and would be fretting over the impending confiscation of their dogs.
I know I sound like a broken record with regard to how local governments, guided by bunk “research” studies, impose themselves on pet caretakers, especially those of us who have cats. That’s why it’s important not to give them any reason to interfere — and to make sure everything is recorded, as the Stephens family wisely did.
Who knows what the government Karen’s motivations were. Was she trying to meet a quota? Does she dislike animals? Does she enjoy flexing the little bit of power she has, or inflicting misery on others? By preempting legislation on cat ownership and roaming, we can avoid putting ourselves at the mercy of such people in the first place, which is in the best interest of cat caretakers, and most importantly cats themselves.
Feline fact fail
I’m sure Nigel Barber, PhD., is a nice guy. I don’t mean to give him any grief. But when you present yourself as an expert on a topic and you write an authoritative column on a trusted site that has millions of readers, you really should make sure you’re not spreading misinformation or providing a picture of a situation that is decades behind the current science.
In a column for Psychology Today titled “Does Your Cat Love You?“, Barber rattles off a list of cliches, half-truths and outright falsehoods about cats, the kind of thing you might have expected 20 or 30 years ago before a wealth of research helped us dispel incorrect assumptions about felis catus.
After mucking up the domestication timeline, Barber says cats are “fearful of people,” “tend to withdraw from strangers,” and paints an outdated picture of aloof animals who technically don’t need human care to thrive. He also says cats attack people, including their caretakers, without warning or provocation.
Then there’s this nugget:
“As essentially wild predators, cats can be quite unpredictable. Many owners who are devoted to their cats complain that the cat often scratches them unexpectedly. One acquaintance had the cat declawed and found that the pet reverted to using its teeth on her!”
Can you believe it?!?! A woman had her cat declawed, and the cat bit her!
It’s not just that we know cats give off plenty of nonverbal warnings when they’re uncomfortable, or that declawing makes a cat much more likely to bite. Organizations like the Humane Society, SPCA, The Paw Project and others have been saying that for years.
It goes well beyond that — studies, including the most comprehensive study to date on the effects of declawing, have proven without a doubt that cats are much more likely to bite when they’re subjected to the cruel and painful declawing procedure. (See “Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats,” a 2017 paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.)
That’s because declawing a cat not only inflicts a lifetime of physical pain and psychological trauma, it robs felines of their primary defense mechanism, making them feel much more vulnerable. Without claws with which to warn off unwanted handling, the poor declawed cats have only one defensive weapon available to them — their teeth.
An evolutionary psychologist should understand that, and should also understand that scratching is a natural and necessary behavior for cats. It’s not right or wrong, it’s cats being cats. Mutilating innocent animals to protect inanimate objects like furniture is objectively wrong and cruel. When you adopt a cat, scratching comes as part of the package along with all the positives like unconditional love, amusing antics and calming purring.
There are ways to dissuade and train your cats to mostly avoid scratching furniture, but no one should expect their cats will never put a claw on their couches. If you don’t want your furniture scratched, don’t get a cat. End of.
New York Times science writer Emily Anthes details her experience with MeowTalk in a new story, and has more or less come to the same conclusions I did when I wrote about the app last year — it recognizes the obvious, like purring, but adds to confusion over other vocalizations.
Back in January of 2021, in MeowTalk Says Buddy Is A Very Loving Cat, I wrote about using MeowTalk to analyze the vocalizations Bud makes when he wants a door opened. After all, that should be a pretty basic task for an app that exists to translate meows: Cats ask for things, or demand them, some would say.
But instead of “Open the door!”, “I want to be near you!”, “Human, I need something!” or even “Obey me, human!”, it told me Bud was serenading me as he pawed and tapped his claws on the door: “I’m looking for love!”, “My love, come find me!”, “I love you!”, “Love me!”, “I’m in love!”
According to MeowTalk, my cat was apparently the author of that scene in Say Anything when John Cusack held up a boombox outside of Ione Skye’s bedroom window.
Anthes had a similar experience:
“At times, I found MeowTalk’s grab bag of conversational translations disturbing. At one point, Momo sounded like a college acquaintance responding to a text: ‘Just chillin’!’ In another, he became a Victorian heroine: ‘My love, I’m here!’ (This encouraged my fiancé to start addressing the cat as ‘my love,’ which was also unsettling.) One afternoon, I picked Momo up off the ground, and when she meowed, I looked at my phone, ‘Hey honey, let’s go somewhere private.’ !”
On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, MeowTalk took Buddy’s conversation with me about a climbing spot for an argument that nearly came to blows.
“Something made me upset!” Buddy was saying, per MeowTalk. “I’m angry! Give me time to calm down! I am very upset! I am going to fight! It’s on now! Bring it!”
In reality the little dude wanted to jump on the TV stand. Because he’s a serial swiper who loves his gravity experiments, the TV stand is one of like three places he knows he shouldn’t go, which is exactly why he wants to go there. He’s got free rein literally everywhere else.
If MeowTalk had translated “But I really want to!” or something more vague, like “Come on!” or “Please?”, that would be a good indication it’s working as intended. The app should be able to distinguish between pleading, or even arguing, and the kind of freaked-out, hair-on-edge, arched-back kind of vocalizations a cat makes when it’s ready to throw down.
Still, I was optimistic. Here’s what I wrote about MeowTalk last January:
“In some respects it reminds me of Waze, the irreplaceable map and real-time route app famous for saving time and eliminating frustration. I was one of the first to download the app when it launched and found it useless, but when I tried it again a few months later, it steered me past traffic jams and got me to my destination with no fuss.
What was the difference? Few people were using it in those first few days, but as the user base expanded, so did its usefulness.
Like Waze, MeowTalk’s value is in its users, and the data it collects from us. The more cats it hears, the better it’ll become at translating them. If enough of us give it an honest shot, it just may turn out to be the feline equivalent of a universal translator.”
There are also indications we may be looking at things — or hearing them — the “wrong” way. Anthes spoke to Susanne Schötz, a phonetician at Lund University in Sweden, who pointed out the inflection of a feline vocalization carries nuances. In other words, it’s not just the particular sound a cat makes, it’s the way that sound varies tonally.
“They tend to use different kinds of melodies in their meows when they’re trying to point to different things,” said Schötz, who is co-author of an upcoming study on cat vocalizations.
After a few months in which I forgot about MeowTalk, I was dismayed to open the app to find ads wedged between translation attempts, and prompts that asked me to buy the full version to enable MeowTalk to translate certain things.
The developers need to generate revenue, so I don’t begrudge them that. But I think it’s counterproductive to put features behind paywalls when an application like this depends so heavily on people using it and feeding it data.
To use the Waze analogy again, would the app have become popular if it remained the way it was in those first few days after it launched? At the time, I was lucky to see indications that more than a handful of people were using it, even in the New York City area. The app told me nothing useful about real-time traffic conditions.
These days it’s astounding how much real-time traffic information the app receives and processes, routing drivers handily around traffic jams, construction sites and other conditions that might add minutes or even hours to some trips. You can be sure that when you hear a chime and Waze wants to redirect you, other Waze users are transmitting data about a crash or other traffic impediment in your path.
MeowTalk needs more data to be successful, especially since — unlike Waze — it depends on data-hungry machine learning algorithms to parse the sounds it records. Like people, machine learning algorithms have to “practice” to get better, and for a machine, “practice” means hearing hundreds of thousands or millions of meows, chirps, trills, yowls, hisses and purrs from as many cats as possible.
That’s why I’m still optimistic. Machine learning has produced algorithms that can identify human faces and even invent them. It’s produced software that can write prose, navigate roads, translate the text of dead languages and even rule out theories about enduring mysteries like the Voynich Manuscript.
In each of those cases there were innovators, but raw data was at the heart of what they accomplished. If MeowTalk or another company can find a way to feed its algorithms enough data, we may yet figure our furry little friends out — or at least know what they want for dinner.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.