Book Review: THE HIDDEN LANGUAGE OF CATS by Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown’s The Hidden Language of Cats shares with readers the many varieties of cat communication, from vocalization to tail signals to gazes, and what studies have revealed cats are trying to say to us humans. Unlike dogs, who descended from wolves—a very social species—domestic cats descended from North African wildcats, who are quite solitary. So, says Brown, domestic cats had to learn to talk with one another and with us humans. 

Brown has studied cats for more than thirty years, which “presents a delicate and sometimes challenging balance between rigorous science and unbridled delight at your subjects.” As a doctoral student, Brown began studying colonies of feral cats, “to watch them doing what cats do around other cats.” In the U.S. there are 45 million households with at least one cat—and millions more live unhoused in colonies. 

The book’s first chapter covers the history and domestication of cats (and why many of the African wildcats never became domesticated, even if individuals could be tamed), the reverence toward cats in Egypt (where killing a cat was publishable by death), and how domestic felines ended up scattered around the world. Life wasn’t always good for cats—while respected for being good mousers, cats also became associated with witchcraft and anything deemed a threat to Christianity. In Spain in the 1500s, cats were eaten; in 1665, they were blamed (along with dogs) for the London plague. 

Subsequent chapters relay myriad other details about cats, from vocalizing to physical behavior to their anatomy and personalities, including the myths and origins of pairing color with personality (as with torties, calicos, and orange cats). Fun fact: one study showed that cats have such traits as Friendliness and Skittishness but not Conscientiousness or Openness. And, interestingly, “some aspects of owners’ personalities are significantly related to the personalities of their cats … in humans, Neuroticism has a high social effect … cat owners who score high in this dimension typically display more needy and intense relationships with their cats, worrying about them a lot … the intensity of this relationship tends to produce cats that, like their owners, are more anxious and tense.” In short, it seems that our cats may reflect who we are. 

The book is filled with myriad feline facts, such as: kittens will nurse from another mom cat but will prefer the teat in the same position she’s used to; even after a year, kittens remember their mother’s scent; cats scratch not only to care for their nails but to leave a scent; kittens don’t respond to catnip until they are three to six months old, and even then only two-thirds of cats react to it at all; mother cats can tell the difference between kittens’ vocalizations and respond more quickly to an urgent call; the big-cat species that purr (like the cheetah) can’t roar, and those who roar (like the lion) can’t purr; cats see colors in blue and yellow-green and see best between 10 inches and 20 feet away; a litter of kittens can have up to five fathers. 

While much of the material covered here is familiar to those who share their lives with cats, The Hidden Language of Cats is a useful guide for anyone interested in learning more about cats or considering working with them, and for those who are considering adopting felines. 

And while not a behavioral book (for stellar advice on cat behavior issues, seek out The Cat Whisperer: Why Cats Do What They Do—and How to Get Them to Do What You Want by Mieshelle Nagelschneider), many of the studies and stories here may be useful to those who are owned by cats. For example, for anyone who has a sprayer in the house, Brown notes that “many cleaning products contain ammonia, as does cat urine … This unfortunately results in them having an overwhelming urge to mark over the offending smell with their own urine once more.” When it comes to spraying, Brown wisely advises figuring out what is bothering the cat rather than simply trying to undo the damage. 

Brown also notes, “Despite being impressively adaptable and managing to live in almost any environment, many cats find day-to-day life with humans and other cats enormously stressful.” This is invaluable information for anyone with cats to keep in mind; Brown provides a few helpful tips, such as providing plenty of resources in a home with multiple cats, and—along with The Cat Whisperer, referenced above—The Hidden Language of Cats is an excellent guide for humans to who are cat-curious and who want to make domestic cats’ lives as content as possible. 

For more on this book and author, check out Marc Bekoff’s interview with Sarah Brown in Psychology Today.

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