Kris Hill from the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) discusses the importance of recognising feline body language.
Sophie (Kris’s black cat)
Despite its pagan origins and adoption into the Christian calendar as All Hallow’s Eve (the evening before All Saints Day), Halloween is celebrated by most as a non-religious holiday.
Halloween can be a fun time for children (and adults) to dress up and over-indulge on the sweet things that dentists disapprove of! We hope everyone has a fun Halloween and does not get sick from too much candy (in the US) or sweets (in the UK).
Spiderwebs, bats, rats, and black cats are synonymous with Halloween, but how did these animals earn their nefarious reputations? One answer is that they are nocturnal and predatory, and their dark coats cloak their presence in the dark. This association is unfortunate as research has demonstrated that people who are more superstitious, or have difficulty reading the emotions of cats, exhibit higher degrees of bias against adopting black cats.
The Halloween Cat Posture
My nephew aged 7: ‘Look, look, she’s a Halloween cat! That’s so funny. Does she want to play?’
Me: ‘Actually she’s startled by the noise you’re making. If you quieten down, she might want to play later.’
The rounded ‘Halloween cat’ posture can sometimes signal playfulness, especially in young cats or kittens who will bounce in and out of the shape. However, the common association with the ‘Halloween cat’ as being ‘scary’ illustrates how cats are often misunderstood. The classical pose is more often a sign of fear or surprise than aggression, although when accompanied with hissing or growling the cat is best not approached. Check out Cats Protection for some handy guides on feline body language.
My cats were never socialised to children and remained terrified of little humans, a fear that got worse in old age (check out our SCAS-authored blog on the importance of socialising kittens). If trick-or-treaters knocked on our door, both my cats would run to the back room and hide. To my cats, the children themselves, rather than their costumes were terrifying. This was unfortunate when friends brought round children who loved cats!
When my young nephews first visited our new home, they were excited to meet my cats. The cats of course spent most of the time trying to hide from the loud squeals and grabbing hands. This was a learning experience for the boys. They had to learn that if they wanted to ‘make friends’ with the cats they needed to quieten down and respect their space and body language.
Don’t Scare the Cat!
Another example of the importance of respecting feline space and body language is when my cat was hiding under the sofa, one of the ‘safe spaces’ she would retreat to if there was a lot of activity going on. However, my nephew decided to put his head down on the ground and grin at the cat under the sofa. In response, my cat started hissing and my sister pulled him gently away and explained why he should not do that. It took him a while to understand that the cat was not ‘being mean’ when he was ‘only trying to be friendly.’
My main concern prior to the visit was that the cats could scratch or bite if they felt cornered and could not escape. And the above scenario highlights the importance of ensuring children are supervised around companion animals, especially those who are not used to children.
Beware of the Belly Traps
When cats expose their belly, it is a sign of trust. It is not necessarily an invitation to rub their belly and doing so may result in biting or scratching. This reaction is often because the cat is over stimulated and telling them off will damage their trust in you. Much better to touch the belly area with caution, if at all, and play close attention to how the cat is responding.
[Not so mad] Cat Scientists
Not all cats are stressed by children, and cats can be the perfect childhood companion. However, cat guardians and parents do need to be alert to signs of feline stress and educate children appropriately on how to interact with cats (or any animal).
Research into cat behaviour and cat-human relationships has a lot of catching up to do with the many more studies published on dog behaviour and dog-human relationships. Last year, world renowned cat behaviourist, Dr. Dennis Turner, reflected on the questions that remain unanswered. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in cats, but especially students considering making a career out of studying cats.
Perhaps ‘cat scientist’ could be a costume idea for next Halloween? Although we are not that scary – but then, neither are black cats!
SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion-animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion-animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk