Non-Verbal Communication

Emmalina in the Victory Zone (photo by Kate St. John)
Emmalina uses non-verbal communication to teach her humans a trick (photo by Kate St. John)

Today’s blog post is about animal behavior, though not about a wild animal.

I am always fascinated by birds’ and mammals’ ability to communicate without complicated language.  Gestures and eye contact are often so effective that the one who sees the look or gesture knows exactly what to do.  I’ve noticed this on the webcams among nesting peregrines and eagles who don’t have language but certainly get the point across — often with just a pointed look in the youngster’s direction.

Can gestures and eye contact achieve communication between species?  I think so.

Shown above is the animal I watch most closely.  Her name is Emmalina (or Emmy).  Though domesticated her heart is wild.

Emmalina makes a few sounds I understand but the rule in our house (my rule) is that meowing doesn’t get you anywhere.  If you want a treat, “sit pretty” and silently in the Treat Zone (where she’s sitting right now) and you’ll get one.  If I don’t notice her sitting there she makes a very faint “mewp” to get my attention and then sits silently.  I congratulate myself that I’ve trained her to do this.

We’ve always fed our cats in the basement, just down the kitchen stairs.  Emmalina is 8 years old and she knows the routine.  She usually runs downstairs ahead of me to be in place when her dish arrives, but last week she started to run away when I went downstairs.  She wouldn’t come down and she wouldn’t eat anything in the basement — not her canned food, not the dry food.  I began to wonder if she was ill.  (Nope! I could tell she was hungry.)   Would I have to call the Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic to figure out what was going on?

Last Friday the problem was solved in such an amazing way that it generated this open letter from Emmalina to Cornell.

Dear Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic:

The training program was successful at last.  After two weeks of non-verbal instruction the humans have figured out that I want to eat upstairs.  It was worth refusing a week’s worth of dinners in the basement.

Relieved and vindicated,

Emmalina St. John

Notice her dish in the Treat Zone now!  She says the basement floor is too cold in winter.

Non-verbal communication does work … eventually.

(photo by Kate St. John)

p.s.  Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic is a great resource.  As part of the Veterinary College they have extensive experience with companion animals and can tell you exactly what the behavior means and how to address it.  Don’t hesitate to look them up if you have a behavior problem with a dog or cat.

13 thoughts on “Non-Verbal Communication

  1. Our cats know that sitting pretty, and silent, but staring at us with steady eye, always communicates “If you do not feed us now, we will eat you.”

    Emmy is beautiful, and a smart kitty 🙂

  2. My cats and I communicate all the time. I’ve often thought about how interesting it is that they know to look us in the eyes; this, alone, suggests to me some genetic coding to the matter of communication. Very importantly, though, is something that you say at the very beginning of this piece; namely, that YOU closely watch Emmy. How could there be any communication otherwise?! I think animals give us cues all the time. Most people just aren’t paying attention. Well done, human. Well done.

  3. Sweet Emmalina!! How old is she, Kate? I know the cold bothers my “old bones”. She is one smart Kitty Cat!!

  4. My first cat ever was one of those cats that becomes like one of your children. We found her when she was 3 weeks old and I bottle fed her and took care of her, so I was “her human”. If I was sitting in a chair or on the bed and she walked over, all I had to do was raise my eyebrows and she would jump into my lap. It might have been because I did this normally anyway when I talked to her and it was part of my expression that she recognized, but I figured out one time accidentally that she would do this. Definitely non-verbal communication.

  5. Seriously? The lowly humans, i.e. the servants, get to eat in a warm cozy kitchen, while the superior feline is banished to the cold basement? You are lucky she put up with it this long, but enough is enough. But, then I totally admit to being owned by my cats. As for non verbal communication, you should see the glares we get on our rare rainy days, when these California-born cats (I’m on my 3rd), can’t find their sunny spots. Come on, humans, turn the warm thing back on!!!

  6. Oh yes training me was good. I adopted 2 cats(litter mates) age 9 so now they will be 12 this year. when I got them the fam. req. they be adopted together bec. they had to move with 4 children & took 4 pets with them. So these 2 with food, litter box & their bodies lived under my bed for 3 weeks. I went under with them 3 times a day, talking, singing, brushing. When theycame out, looked around, said they would stay & I could also. They are pure white, Arthur is 19 lb. Martha is 8. But I moved furn. around yesterday & Arthur slept in a cupboard all day on a blanket but this AM he seems to have adjusted. They let you know when they are dismayed. I had heard they do not like change it was obvious. So glad I have them. They do not like the grey days either. Thanks so much for sharing your story. Faith.

  7. Emmalina is just gorgeous! And clearly way above human intelligence. Thanks for sharing her story and picture!!!

  8. All comments are about CATS! Equal time for dogs, I say. Our Liffey was adopted from ARL at about 6 months. She had us trained inside of 2 weeks! (It would have been faster, but we’re both kind of slow!) We learned later, from DNA testing, that she’s 1/2 Jack Russell and the other 1/2 Australian cattle dog–each among the smartest breeds. She knows the names of all her toys, and brings the one you ask for. Now she’s studying quantum physics.

    1. Anne, I’ll bet Liffey will soon be speaking 3 languages — a master at *verbal* communication.

  9. Just now reading this and I must say, so cute. So many people refuse to believe cats are intelligent and having had a cat all of my pretty much 56 years, I’m here to tell you that cats are very intelligent. Just ask the dogs! Thanks for sharing and glad to hear all is worked out. 🙂

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