Tag Archives: Kikiyo

Cat TV!

There has been a drama unfolding over the past few days on Cat TV at our house, and I thought it would be funny to film a bit of it.

In the video below, watch a tiny chipmunk (Chip) outsmart a grey squirrel who thinks he’s a tough guy, while Dean the Malfunctioning Red Squirrel makes outraged noises in the background! Stiles (center, grey and white), Kikiyo (right, Burmese-Abyssinian), and Kagetora (left, orange tabby) were fascinated! At the very end, if you’re observant, you’ll see Chip come back for another round. We’re not sure what to name the grey squirrel. Let us know if you have suggestions!

Update 20 October 2017: There’s another squirrel who has been showing up lately. She’s partially grey and partially brown. She looks like she’s been adventuring, so we named her Sandy (after the squirrel in Spongebob).

We still don’t have a name for this grey squirrel, but he gets outsmarted by Chip almost daily!

Q&A: Do cats have language?

Q: Why does my cat understand so many of the words that I say and I understand almost none of his vocalizations?

A: There are a lot of factors at play here, so if you want a TLDR answer, you’re out of luck.

First, some basics:

Some cats are smarter than other cats. And there is a lot we don’t know about animals and cognition. And because cats in particular can’t be bribed reliably with food or a toy, it’s often difficult to do some classical kinds of tests to study how they think, so the research we do have on cats is severely slanted toward cats who are empathetic (they understand that you want something from them, and they want to please you) and very smart (they understand that you want something from them, and that makes them curious about it). So there is a lot we just don’t know about how they think.

But there are several things we do know. I’m up with new research on cats and cognition, and it’s some amazing stuff.

So here are some basic factors that will change how much of your language your cat understands and how much of his language there is to understand.

Some cats are more vocal than others. Cats that were strays or feral for their formative years (before age 2), will likely never meow. Meowing is a holdover from kittenhood, when it was important for them to vocalize when they were hungry, in danger, etc. because they don’t have control over the classic ways cats communicate (body language and scent). Once older kittens realize that these vocalizations work on humans too, they have made the connection, and will likely meow at least a little when they want something.

There are generally three types of cats: talkers, non-talkers, and learned talkers.

Non-talkers are cats who either don’t vocalize at all or vocalize very little. A cat that doesn’t really vocalize much isn’t likely to be putting much thought into it other than the fact that you sometimes do a particular thing if he makes a noise.

Talkers, like Burmese, can vocalize a lot. I have an Abyssinian-Burmese, Kikiyo, who will carry on entire conversations with me, and she has actual words for several things. She has a large vocabulary. Kiki has words that are very like our words. For instance, I call my daughter “Bonna”, and Kiki calls her “Waah’Wah”, my daughter calls me “Mom” and Kiki therefore calls me “Waaw”, outside is “Aw-Why” and so on. So, since she is a very talkative cat, and listens to us, and understands hundreds of human words, she does often have words that are similar-sounding to ours. But some of her words sound nothing like our words. She has at least 10 words for different kinds of water. She has a word for water in a cup (Awak – the k is almost silent, it’s like a glottal stop), water in a glass bowl (Araah), water in a plastic bowl (Araaaaaya – she doesn’t like it in a plastic bowl, so this comes with a fussy tone), and the water in the fountains (Nawa – her favorite).

I’ve only been documenting her language for the past two years. Before I became disabled, I worked a lot, so I didn’t spend as much time at home. I knew she had some words and names, but it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated how much of an effort she makes to communicate.

There are talkers who only say a few things, but they are meaningful to the cat. Sometimes it’s not so much about words, but about the tone.

We talk to our cats a lot. That, I think, is a big factor in how much a cat predisposed to vocalize a lot builds an actual vocabulary. Our 8-year-old male was a stray for his formative years, and he just recently started meowing a bit.

Learned talkers, who are generally very smart, and were raised from kittenhood with a talker cat, learn the importance of verbal communication with humans. So it’s a learned behavior. They don’t talk as much, but they can learn what works on humans. So it’s mimicry. Our 2-year-old (his birthday was January 27th) mimic is a smarty pants. He’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known. And he does want to communicate, so he borrows words from the 11-year-old. So it’s part nature, part nurture.

So, to sum up and answer your question, if you talk to your cat a lot, and your cat makes all kinds of conversational sounds at you, it may be that he does have at least a rudimentary language. Try to keep notes if you aren’t sure.

Most cats usually understand several words we say, especially ones that are most important to them, like treat, food, walk (if you walk your cat). play, bed time, etc.

Some cats understand a whole lot more of our language than you might think. They are also able to process both the word you are saying and the way in which you are saying it, so simply saying in a light, chirpy voice that it’s bath time will still send your cat running to hide under the bed.

RCRS: Stiles, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, where I explained how we came to keep Stiles, and his relationships with our other cats…

Kiki loves elephants and whales, and especially loves watching them if David Attenborough is narrating. She taught Stiles this love of whales, elephants, and David Attenborough from an early age.

He’s particularly fond of baby elephants. He hops up on my desk to watch the You Tube videos (I made a playlist for him), and he has one favorite that is a minute long, and he makes this urgent fussy noise when it ends, and makes me start it over, and over, and over…

He plays fetch and catch, and has since he was big enough to fit a toy in his mouth. And he’s also learning to fly.

He loves all sorts of games, and his intelligence never fails to impress. But even more astounding is his capacity for empathy. Just like his mother seemed to know how to get along with each one of our cats, as well as how to win over humans, Stiles has shown those abilities and more.

If anyone in the house is upset, Stiles must investigate. Whether it’s a human-cat interaction, a cat-cat interaction, or someone is just upset, he wants to make it better.

Kagetora is terrified of men. If my brother is coming over, I try to remember to put Kagetora in my room so that he doesn’t get upset. It doesn’t matter that my brother is a cat lover, and wouldn’t even raise his voice to a cat. Kagetora’s fear was learned during those years he spent as a stray.

Once, I didn’t put Kagetora in my room before my bro stopped by. I went into the kitchen to get something and heard a hiss. I looked over, and Stiles was already there. Stiles saw that Kagetora was upset, but also understands that my brother is a good human, so he simply put himself between Kagetora and my brother so that Kagetora wouldn’t feel so threatened. It worked.

But he doesn’t just understand cat behavior and emotions, he has shown an amazing understanding of human emotion as well.

If I cry, he comes running, jumps in my lap, licks my face, and then, depending on if they are happy tears, sad tears, in pain tears, angry tears, frustrated tears, or fake tears, he will respond in different ways.

He’s the most amazing cat I’ve ever known. Here’s how he reacts depending on my mood:

  • Pain: He’ll start purring really loudly and lay on my abdomen (I have chronic pain due to abdominal adhesions, and the warmth and vibration of his purring is better at relieving my pain than any drug).
  • Sad: He’ll make these little consoling noises, and then he’ll cuddle up on my chest, purring. He’ll watch me very closely. As soon as I calm down, he’ll tuck his head under my chin and stay there for as long as I need him.
  • Frustrated: After licking my face, he’ll lean back and look at me, then he’ll hop down and go get one of his toys, then drag it into the room and place it at my feet so I will play with him. It really does make me forget about my frustrations.
  • Angry: He does the lean back, then he starts chattering at me, hops down, and starts acting like a total goofball, doing flips, jumping, and just being hilarious. It always works.
  • Fake: I have tried doing fake crying to see what he’ll do. Once he licks my face, he sighs, hops down, and goes back to whatever he was doing before.

All that had been going on since he was about 6 months old. When he was about 15 months old, I was binge watching one of my shows, and I got all emotional during a particularly poignant scene.  Next thing I know, Stiles had jumped in my lap, did the tear sniff, the face lick, but then he did something new.

Sitting in my lap, he tilted his head, raised a paw, pressed it against me just above my clavicle (collar bone) and slowly let it rub against me as it lowered about 3 inches, then he lifted his paw and pressed it against me just above the clavicle again, let it slide down, then he did it again. And again. He watched me very carefully as he did this. At first, I just smiled.

It took me a minute to figure out that he was petting me.

It was so amazing! I started laughing and telling him what a good boy he is. He has since worked the petting into his routine for when I’m sad or in pain. Every time he does it, I feel like I’ve just seen a dancing unicorn or had a conversation with a dragon.

He is so insanely smart and empathetic. He isn’t just highly empathetic with me. He’s like this with my daughter and our other cats as well. We’ll get into more specifics about feline empathy later. For now, just enjoy the AWW!

Here he is petting me:

That’s all for this week!

Q&A Does Catnip Have Health Benefits?

QDoes catnip do anything for a cats’ health or is it just a recreational drug for them?

A: It depends on the kitty. If your cat has the gene that makes it sensitive to catnip, it can have some health effects.

If your cat consumes it rather than just smelling and rolling in it, it can have a calming effect. Our little guy, Stiles, has feline insomnia. He gets enough REM sleep, but not enough NREM sleep. Kitties usually grow out of it by the age of 3, but he’s just about to turn 2. He licks it instead of rolling in it. It mellows him out, and it helps him catch up on sleep. So that’s a definite benefit.

Our 2 older kitties who have the gene, Kiki and Kagetora, tend to roll in it and sniff it, and it makes them playful, which is good, especially in the winter months when they nap a little more than usual. This helps them get some much needed exercise. Our oldest, Kagome (19 years old), doesn’t have the gene.

But we can’t give it to the 2 older cats and Stiles at the same time because they get a little aggressive, and he gets really chill, and will just let them bite him if we don’t direct that aggression toward play.

It can also be a powerful training aid. If your cat is scratching the furniture, carpet, or walls, then using catnip on scratching posts (try to get ones made of the materials they like to scratch). If you want them to use the new kitty bed you got them instead of your laundry basket, catnip can also help with that.

If you don’t have a plant, then try to buy it as fresh as possible, and store excess in the freezer. Also, don’t give it to them too often because they can lose their sensitivity to it.

Q&A How do cats see themselves and us?

Q: Do Cats Think They’re Humans?

A: I’m not exactly sure where you got this idea, but it’s a rather simple answer: No.

So why bring it up? Because there’s this ridiculous related notion that cats think that we are strange-looking cats. By that logic, they would have to think that their dog friends, bunny friends, and other animal friends are also strange-looking cats, but we know they don’t.

Cats are best at reading the body language and faces of other cats, so they recognize cats as being like themselves. They communicate using the same methods (scent and body language mostly) with other cats, but not with animals, including humans, that are not cats.

Cats generally only meow at humans, not at other cats. Meowing doesn’t mean anything to other cats, but we talk to them, so they are trying to communicate with us on our level, which is vocal. They soon learn what types of meows get them what they want. And some cats, like Burmese, “talk” more than others.

Kikiyo has several words for different things, and has names for the other cats, me, and my daughter. She loves to talk with us, and she has about 10 different words for different kinds of water (water in the fountain, water in a cup, water from the sink, cold water, water on the floor, etc.). She does not converse with the other cats.

Cats mostly see us as equals. They are small, and don’t have the ability to get their own treats, water, or food most of the time, so they let us know when they’re hungry, thirsty, bored (and want to play), they want petting or cuddles, or anything else.

And they thank us in so many ways. Whether it’s bringing gifts, comforting us when we are upset, hurt, or down, and so many other ways. Each cat is an individual, just like people. Some are smarter, some are more empathetic than others, some have issues with anxiety, and on and on. They know we are individuals as well.

Q&A: Why Doesn’t My Cat Want to Play?

Q: My cat is almost 6 years old, she used to love playing with toys like laser pointer and wand toys, but the past few weeks, she shows no interest. She doesn’t look sick. What could be the cause?

A: The drive to hunt doesn’t end in a healthy cat, and thus the drive to play should not end in a healthy cat. Sure, mature cats don’t play as much as kittens, but that’s because kittens have a very short span in which they must learn to hunt and fend for themselves. Seniors and elderly cats slow down a little more, but that is a way off for your fur baby. Adult cats should play for at least 15 minutes twice a day. If your cat isn’t playing, even though you are providing it the opportunity, it should see the vet first.

They can get bored with the same toys and games, which is why it’s important to keep providing new enrichment. You should also rotate toys. And keep in mind that not all cats like the same toys. One of our cats, Kikiyo, has never shown much interest in the wand-type toys. She’s far more interested in mystery. If I put a toy inside her crinkle sack and let it peek out, then retreat back into the bag (I use a string), she’s interested. Sometimes I have to move it around a bit inside the sack so it makes a little more noise, but she’s very fond of that game.

She also likes it when she’s on the other side of a door, and I peek toys out, then have them retreat, then slooowly poke them out again.

You might also consider harness training your cat. Being able to explore all the sights and smells outside may reinvigorate her interest in hunting behavior, which is what playing is.

You can also try keeping some toys in a plastic bag with some catnip (if she likes catnip). Just make sure not to expose her to catnip too often. Once every 4–7 days max. Cats can lose their sensitivity to catnip if they are around it too much.

Q&A: Why does my cat want me to watch her eat?

Q: My cat won’t eat unless I sit there with her and watch her eat. Why does she do this?

A: Eating is a time when cats are vulnerable. They are focused on eating, so they are less aware of their surroundings. Skittish cats are particularly prone to wanting their human to be near when they are in this vulnerable position. Kitty trusts you to have their back.

This is why those idiotic cucumber videos make me so angry. The cat is eating, totally focused on their food while a human (who is supposed to be a trusted ally) places a large green cucumber behind them. When the cat looks back, it is startled. This may look amusing, but it is among the cruelest things you can do without physically hurting the cat.

Cats don’t get practical jokes. The cat isn’t going to yuck it up with you later. The cat will be terrified in a place that it thought it was safe, and this can cause all kinds of psychological problems, and may lead to things like spraying the house with pee and other territorial issues.

Sorry about my tangent, but it does illustrate just how much trust cats put in us.

Stiles always has to have a person or one of the other cats next to him to eat more than a bite. He’s been this way since he was a tiny little guy, drinking kitten formula out of a saucer. He especially loves eating with Kiki near, partly because she won’t eat his wet food like Kagetora, but I think it’s also because she would often lay in my lap while I was syringe feeding him. I’d set him next to her in my lap, and that always got him to eat, even when he was feeling bad and didn’t want to.

He isn’t skittish at all. I think he just built a connection between eating and being with the people and cats he trusts and loves.

Kagetora’s Story: Male Cats Aren’t Always Dangerous to Kittens

Of all the myths spread about cats, one of the most tragic is that most people believe that all male cats will kill kittens if given an opportunity. This is absolutely untrue.

Cats are very social, empathetic creatures. Males often help with the kittens in feral populations, as well as when the male lives in the same house with the female and kittens. The reason we don’t see it a lot when our own cats have kittens is because the male isn’t able to get near them if he is a feral, stray, or lives in another home.

In fact, the male doesn’t even need to be related to the kitten(s) in order to want to protect and nurture it.

This isn’t conjecture or wishful thinking or anthropomorphism. The literature is full of studies and observational data that back this up. I have seen it many times.

In fact, I have seen many males, both feral and house cats, help to take care of kittens. I’m not saying all male cats are completely safe, and that there’s no need to worry. What I’m saying is that it’s not set in stone, and you also need to be aware that mother cats sometimes kill their own kittens, and at a higher rate than males. This remains true even when you factor in access.

Several years ago, there was a cat I saw quite a bit while I was in a rural town in Oklahoma. He was very friendly, so we were able to get him neutered, and then released him. We called him Kagetora (shadow tiger; because he followed my daughter around all the time).

He was about 7 months old when he first started following my daughter around. Back then, in 2008, we had a Samoyed-Chow Chow mix named Alaska, and Kagetora loved her. When my daughter took her outside, Kagetora would rub against her, trotting between her legs as she walked, and he would cuddle up close to her when she would nap on the lawn.

LCD Alaska and Kagetora, January 1, 2009
Alaska and Kagetora January 1, 2009

When he wasn’t following my daughter and Alaska around, his favorite napping spot was the place where the feral females would have their litters, and he loved helping with the kittens. He’d protect them while mom was away, groom them, play with them, and even share his food.

This is altruism in action. For a very long time, we didn’t believe that animals could behave altruistically. But anyone who studies animals will see it. The smarter the species, the more often we see altruism. I’ll discuss the topic of altruism—both within a species and interspecies altruism—more in the future.

Kagetora got attacked by a coyote one night while protecting the kittens. He managed to scare off the coyote, but he was in bad shape. We nursed him back to health, got the kittens to the Humane Society, and trapped the females and got them spayed. I decided it was time for him to retire, and we adopted him.

Fast-forward to November of 2014. We were fostering a young cat, Freya (AKA Bunny), who was pregnant. (See her story here.) She was only 6 months old when she got pregnant (before we took her in), and she had 6 kittens, so it was a bit much. Kagetora and our then 10-year-old female cat, Kiki (who had kittens before), loved taking care of the kittens. Our older female, who was 17, had never had kittens, and wanted nothing to do with them.

The wonderful thing about Bunny was that she established close and trusting relationships with our 3 cats while she was pregnant, so she not only had help with the kittens, but she had a lot of moral support for herself as well.

LCD: Kiki bathes Bunny while Bunny bathes Kiri
Kiki bathes Bunny while Bunny bathes Kiri

One of the kittens, Stiles, got really sick, and we had to bottle feed him and carry him around with us to keep him warm. My daughter and I slept opposite each other so someone was always awake with him. During this time, Kagetora and Kiki bonded with Stiles very strongly. By the time he was old enough to be adopted, they were convinced he was theirs, and I couldn’t take him away from them.

Here’s Kagetora with his baby (he was SO happy to have his own kitten):

Kagetora and Stiles

And here are Kagetora and Kiki with their baby, Stiles:

Kikiyo, Kagetora, and Stiles

The Tale of the Tail

Have you ever stepped on a cat’s tail? Even when you barely touch it (like when you realize, right before you put your weight on the foot, that the cat is there), they will scream like it is the worst agony imaginable. They also scream if their tail gets caught in a door, and any other situation that they perceive as RED ALERT! TAIL THREAT DETECTED! DEFCON 1! DEFCON 1!!!!

Why do they react this way?

A cat’s tail has 19 to 23 vertebrae (about 10% of all the bones in a cat’s body are in the tail), a vast network of nerves, several groups of muscles, ligaments, and tendons that give it the ability to move and sway. It can help them balance (acting as a rudder), and it is an integral and important aspect of their body language. Some cats have far more sensitivity in their tails than others.

It’s an important instinct to protect their tails that causes the reaction that might seem a little overly dramatic to us. There really isn’t a human body part to compare it to. So it’s important to take the cat’s reaction to touching its tail very seriously. If they don’t want you to touch it, hands off.

Most cats don’t mind if you touch their tail briefly while you’re petting them, but any grabbing of the tail, or touching it when they aren’t expecting it can be upsetting to the cat because their tails are important, sensitive, and they are vulnerable.

Stiles has quite a long tail (30 cm, or 12 inches, which is roughly 2/3 of his body length), and he’s very sensitive about it when he’s walking around, the tip curled to make a question mark as it slowly sways. Yet he’s fine with us touching it as we pet him when he’s in our laps in cuddle mode. Kagome is very protective of her tail, and will bop you with a large furry paw if you get too close to it. Kiki and Kagetora don’t seem to mind at all.

Stiles’s fabulously long tail is evident in most photos. This one is my favorite:

Stiles

Q&A: Can Cats Recognize Their Owners in Photos or Videos?

Cats rely a great deal on smell to identify individuals. That’s not the only factor, but it’s a main one. Many photos are also too small, and the idea of having a small, flat piece of paper being a representation of the real 3D world is not a natural assumption.

Cats do recognize faces. In a study published in Journal of Vision, it was shown that cats, but not dogs, can recognize the faces of their owners. They are better at recognizing the faces of other cats, but they can pick out their owner’s face from a line-up of life-sized head shots 54% of the time. That’s pretty good.

Cats also rely on body language, the way a person moves, and other things to recognize individuals. But most of them do recognize their owner’s voice.

A 2013 study published in Animal Cognition showed that cats also recognize their owners’ voices, and can tell them apart from stranger’s voices. Their hearing is much much better than a dogs’ or humans’ hearing (PDF), so they aren’t usually fooled into thinking the sounds from TV, computers, radios, etc. are real when they are adults. But they can still recognize the sound of their owner’s voice, or things like their mother cat’s call.

I had a video of a cat we fostered. Her name was Freya, but we called her Bunny. She was 6 months old when we began fostering her, and it turned out that she was already pregnant. (More on that later.) She was Stiles’s mother. The video had audio of Bunny calling her babies, and also a bit of Stiles’s sister, Cleo. When Stiles heard the video, he ran in, and started pawing at the speakers, and was in great distress because he couldn’t find them. I put him on my desk, and he watched that video 3 times, but I decided it might be doing more harm than good, so I took him in the other room and played with him until he was sleepy.

The video: https://youtu.be/5NwINsxG13c

Our oldest cat, who is 18, is strongly bonded with my daughter. She spends most of her time in my daughter’s room. My daughter went out of town with my sister a few weeks ago, and Kagome wasn’t doing well. So my daughter recorded some videos, and I put on one of her unlaundered shirts, then played the video. Kagome listened very carefully. I played it again, and she started purring immediately.

And finally, two of my cats, Kikiyo and Stiles, will come running every time they hear elephants, whales, or David Attenborough.
kiki-stiles-tv