Letting Your Cat Take the Lead

While most dogs like to be led, most cats do not. Cats, being solitary hunters, enjoy making their own choices and can sometimes dislike it when we try to force them to follow our rules. This can result in everything from hurt feelings to various forms of acting out. Contrary to popular opinion, a cat who’s acting out isn’t doing so out of a desire for revenge. They’re usually just trying to tell us that something’s wrong.

Cats speak to one another in a stunning array of subtle physical cues. In the wild, they rarely vocalize to one another, reserving their speaking voice for interactions between mothers and kittens. But with humans, they often learn that vocalizing is a good way to get our attention. Once they’ve gone so far as to say it out loud, you can bet that they’ve tried multiple ways to communicate the same thing non-verbally first. Sometimes we know immediately what they want, as is the case at feeding time, but what about those other times? Usually, if your cat sits and stares at you, he or she is asking for something.

Over our 12+ years together, when Mina has stared at me like that or tapped me with her paw, I’ve responded by saying, “Show me.” She knows what the phrase means and she reacts with great pleasure. She usually leads me to something that is a concern for her. It could be a dirty litter box or an animal outside or maybe a bug that got into the house. Sometimes it’s a request for me to sit with her while she eats. Whatever it is, I always allow her to lead the way. I say, “Show me,” and stand up, ready to follow. She usually rubs against my legs and then takes off toward her goal. I follow, careful to stay behind her and remain patient. Usually, she pauses and looks back to make eye contact to be sure I’m still paying attention, then she continues on her way. It’s pretty clear that she’s reached her destination when she stops and settles. I thank her and pet her even if I don’t clearly understand what she wanted, encouraging her to continue initiating these interactions. On the times when I do understand, I do my best to give her what she’s asking for, be it a little snack or a few moments of playing fetch. These rewards also encourage her to continue to reach out and communicate.

Mina came up to me and tapped my leg a few times as I was writing this post, so I grabbed a camera and quickly shot this video. The quality’s not great but it gives you some idea of how this works. In this case, she just wanted some company while she ate, which is a standard request from her.

Whenever we speak to our feline friends, it helps to use words and phrases that sound unique. Since cats lack the verbal articulation of humans, they can sometimes confuse different words that sound similar to one another. “Show me” sounds unique enough that it’s not going to be confused with other words and phrases a cat already knows and it has the added benefit of soft phonemes that don’t sound like commands. Whenever you try to communicate with a cat, it’s best to be as consistent as possible with the sounds of your words. The way you say them is as important as the words themselves because cats can only associate meaning to sounds when those sounds are the same every time they hear them. Say the word “free”. Now sing the Star Spangled Banner line that ends “in the land of the freeeeeeeeeee!” Same word, different sounds, right?

“Show me” isn’t a phrase I invented. I originally read a post suggesting it on a cat care blog called the Way of Cats. It made sense to me then so I employed it in my interactions with Mina to great effect. Credit where credit is due.

I’ve found that my feline friends are happier knowing that I’m open to their attempts at communications. I wish I understood all the physical kitty small talk, but until I do, I watch, I listen, and I try to let them know that I’m here to help them.