Originally published 5-5-10
One evening I strolled into the living room just in time to hear the vice president’s name mentioned on the news. Although no one else was in the room, in a silly voice I said, “do you want Dick Cheney?”
To my surprise a thundering mass of tails and legs came barreling in from the other side of our home as if I had just offered the most delectable people food in the history of gourmet cooking. Several sets of shining eyes beamed at me expectantly as they awaited their sample of this unprecedented fat-laden delicacy.
This hilarious incident reminded me just how much cats and dogs pay attention to our speech and actions. They learn from us, they mimic us, and they absorb our quirks and colloquialisms. Cats are said to get their vocal inflections from humans, which is why we hear cats phrase certain vocalizations as questions. For example, when your cat wants to know if you’re awake, they often say “mrrow?” instead of a flat “mow”.
Dogs don’t seem to pattern their everyday sounds on human speech nearly as much as cats, but my dog tries desperately to speak English when he reaaallly wants something. “RrrowoeerowHOWWwah” is a valiant attempt at “hey, I’ve been trying to tell you I need to go outside for the last 20 minutes.” He often resorts to the Tim Allen-like “hmm” though, a favorite when I am trying to nap. If I crash on the couch, it is inevitable that at some point I will be startled awake by a nose-to-nose baritone “hoomm?” as if he’s checking to see if I’m still breathing.
When my big fluffy cat was a kitten, he scared the daylights out of me one day when I was engrossed in some paperwork. I thought I was home alone but a strange man walked down the hall and said, “HELLOOO!” It was a “DAH!” moment in which I froze as I almost fell off of the couch. Looking around to see where the intruder was, I realized that no one else was there but my kitten. He sauntered towards me as if nothing had happened. I think he was going for shock value.
His Fluffiness also decided to say “MAHMAH”. At first I was flattered, but soon realized “mahmah!” was a request to open cupboards or closet doors. “Mahmah!” is also his exclamation for when he can’t get those hinged barricades to exploration open himself. He and I have a constant tug of war going in the dining room where he insists that certain cabinets remain open. If I close them, I’ll hear him grunting and yelling until he forces them open again.
I’m tempted to disassemble those storage areas to see if he’s trying to show me that there’s a leprechaun giving away gold nuggets in there. Since cats choose not to speak English fluently, they have to find other ways of telling us what’s going on. Like humans, they will be persistent until they feel understood.
Here’s a good reason to listen to your pets. They can save your life. One day I was off work and decided to sleep in before leaving on a trip. I hadn’t set the alarm. I was having a strange dream about a bathroom when my cat came up to the side of the bed, got in my face, and meowed loudly until I woke up. His meow was so unusual that I immediately asked, “what’s up, buddy?”
I plodded into the bathroom and thought my mind was playing tricks on me when I smelled rotten eggs. “No, really?” I thought, and started to investigate. Within seconds I realized that the house was filling up with natural gas. Later I would find out that the gas line to the hot water tank had ruptured where solder had dripped on it during a recent repair. My cat had alerted me right when the leak started, and had he not jolted me out of my slumber, it was unlikely that any of us would have woken up again.
That was just his opening act. About a year later I’d dozed off late at night and found my cat trying to wake me up again. He was pressing against my head and acting strangely. No sooner was I awake than I heard someone trying windows and doors to break into the house. This drugged-out stranger was even telling me to let him in. Thanks to my cat’s quick thinking, the situation was resolved swiftly before this jerk was able to come inside. He probably saved that guy’s life.
I don’t think a lot of people give animals credit for just how intelligent and intuitive they really are. My experiences with pets have shown me that they’re like kids; in many ways, they are what you make of them. If you involve them in your everyday life and find out what they like to do, you will be rewarded with companions that are more loyal and fun-loving than a lot of people. If you talk to them and don’t just treat them like dumb beasts, they will develop and learn just like we do. They are very sensitive to emotions and tone of voice as well.
My younger cat, an accomplished, agile ninja who can glide out of nowhere at a 45 degree angle, has a wide range of “words”. She has a particular phrase for when I sneeze, which I think is her version of “bless you”. She has recently perfected the feline ninja art of origami tentmaking, the meticulous arrangement of blankets and sleeping pads that results in a burrito-like invisibility cloak. She has always paid close attention to what I’m doing, and has proven to me that my older cat’s genius is no fluke.
Like my other pets, my talented ninja knows words in three different languages. I started experimenting with basic Russian and Spanish phrases years ago, and found that pets not only accept the word you give them, but they can accept words in two different languages for the same thing. Then I realized that cats and dogs even take this even farther by assimilating words in the silly nonsense languages that pet owners invent. As if their ability to associate words with things isn’t enough, dogs can learn sign language and cats use rudimentary “paw signals” to get what they want.
This year one of my cats has developed a YouTube obsession. Cats’ vision is supposed to be blurry within 18 inches of their face because their eyes are designed for distance and night vision. But almost every night around a certain time, he parks in front of the computer screen and touches it to let me know he’d like to watch his videos. His favorite is a video of someone’s fish tank, but he’s expanded to music videos, Finding Nemo, college graduations, and watched most of a Mickey Mouse cartoon the other night.
The computer is interesting to both cats because of the spastic, unpredictable mouse arrow. This lends credence to my theory that when no one’s looking, my ninja kitty gets on the Internet and contacts other cat operatives to coordinate their next mission. When she teleports home from her latest brief yet inexplicable absence (seriously, I’ve turned the house upside down trying to find her), I ask, “were you on a mission?” The look of satisfaction on her face tells me that’s classified, but it was successful.
If you don’t believe that pets can be this responsive and care this much about your behavior and communication, stop by the rescue kitties’ cages next time you’re in the pet store. Make eye contact with a cat and give them a long, slow blink. One expert is convinced this is the cat version of “I love you.” Say, “Well, HELLO! Aren’t you gorgeous! Look at your beautiful furry coat! Wow, what is YOUR name?” The purr machine will start and soon the cat will be wondering why on earth you would even consider walking away when you’re lavishing such positive vibes upon them. It does wonders for their self-esteem.
My brother believes that if pets could talk, dogs would have a Southern accent and cats would speak French. There’s some truth to that given the ways that felines and canines respond to human speech. Cats, I’ve noticed, love words with t, p, f, and s sounds in them. They appreciate smooth, flowing conversation and absolutely love when you sing to them. You think I’m nuts? Try singing to a cat, and include their name and compliments in the lyrics. They will be electrified, and you’ll feel more relaxed too.
Dogs aren’t such romantics, but prefer forthright talk punctuated by attention-grabbing words like “cookie” and “ride”. Three-syllable words are also a favorite: “do you want a gorilla with a banana in a Ferrari?” The look on a dog’s face when you use three-syllable words is priceless; it is clear that they are thinking, “Egad, the humans are finally starting to understand what we want.”
I have to exercise great caution when using the word “grandma”, because “grandma” to my hound means a magical place where the giant white box dispenses baggies of frozen venison. “Grandma” can set off a flurry of mayhem in which area rugs soar and cats run for cover. The inside of one of my car doors has claw marks in it because when we get to Grandma’s house, any delay in getting out of the car is unacceptable. Tantalizing smells await.
“Squirrel” is perhaps the biggest trigger word in our household. The mention of squirrel means everyone with four legs mans a window and formulates a plan to ambush the chubby fast-moving birdseed inhalers. The squirrels taunt the furry ones by coming up to the window like it’s McDonald’s and a little hatch is going to open up and dispense peanuts. Hey– want some McMillet with that?
People food is another dangerous subject. For years my dog has known exactly what “go out of the kitchen” means. But the second I turn my back, I find myself tripping over him because he has snuck back in via an alternate route. He is my self-appointed sous chef and cup bearer. Because two of my pets are wheat allergic, they are all fed high quality, nutritious food and get supplements like flax or salmon oil. If I do not feed dog at the same time every night, he will remind me, to the minute.
He still believes, in spite of his special, precise diet, however, that he is starving, and he has no concern for his triglycerides levels. He is so intent on scoring human being cuisine that we call his unnerving ability to make me drop edibles on the floor “hypnotizing” my food. He even does this when I’m eating. He will sit nearby, fixating on my plate with disturbingly beady eyes and a line of drool slowly oozing from his mouth. The moment I tell him to knock it off is inevitably the moment that a purple fingerling potato leaps to its demise.
I have to be very careful with words like treats, chicken, dinnertime, jerky, and so on because my pets know exactly what they mean. One of my cats is known as the “meat hound” because he has stealthy ways of obtaining surf and turf. He has been as obvious as simply walking up to my dinner plate and swiping a chicken breast off of it, but prefers to chug spicy taco meat from the pan on the stove when I have my back turned. He will sit in a chair at the table like a gentleman if I give him favorite foods like crab and corn, but will resort to covert meat-snatching if denied. Thankfully my ninja is more health-conscious and only wants salmon.
Pets are not people. Please, please, please do not embarrass your pets by making them wear people clothes, sport stupid holiday getups, or forcing them to ride around in your handbag. But pets are amazing creatures with what seems to me like an unlimited capacity for learning and interaction. They come with certain instinctive behaviors like attacking toy mice or chasing balls, yet each comes with their own set of abilities and interests.
I challenge pet owners to find what pleases their pet, whether that’s playing hide and seek, riding in the laundry basket, pushing boats around in the sink, zooming around smooth floors on a bath towel bobsled, socializing with other people food stalkers, hikes in the woods, or contemplating quantum physics. The rewards of pet ownership are amazing. When we bond with our pets we find life a healthier, more relaxed, hilarious place.
The bottom line is—it’s worth finding out–what is your pet’s “Dick Cheney”?
It’s funny how dogs and cats know the inside of folks better than other folks do, isn’t it? -Eleanor H. Porter
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4 thoughts on “Do You Want Dick Cheney?”
I really love this post. It has so much to say. I imagine how frustrating it must be to WANT to speak the words they understand but just dont have the facility in their bone and muscle structures to make it work.
I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the squirrel.
and speaking of sneaky pets, The last dog I owned, Timber had the run of the house except for my sewing/craft room he knew was off limits. One day we had visitors over and the 4 of us sat on the floor in this room talking in a happy manner deep in discussion. Timber watched sadly at the thresh hold of the door.
Then ever so slowly he put just the tippy toe of one paw over the thresh hold. …time passes…all the while I am petting Timber on the head as I talk, and never even noticed his sneakyness till he tried to put his chin on my knee. Then I said, “Hey, what are you doing in this room?!”
Thanks. And I’m laughing so hard about what Timber did. That’s what my dog does, but in the kitchen. Or he’ll be so cute that I’ll forget I told him to go out of the kitchen. The doe eyes area powerful force.
The boys will look at me with disdain if I say “c’mere” with the expectation that they will actually come here. However, they will “venga aqui. Aqui, por favor.”
We ARE from Wyoming, but I don’t think Kitten Thunder would rush to join Dick Cheney in the living room if he decided to visit.
They’ll listen to Spanish? Well, that does support the theory about cats liking more exotic-sounding languages.
I know others in Wyoming who may agree with Kitten Thunder’s assessment…