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Yawn may be way out of a sticky situation
Dear Dr. Spiegel, I share my life with a DSH feline named Bubba. He is very quiet, vocally. I have previously been lucky enough to cohabit with Siamese cats. They were very vocal. Is this quietness indigenous to domestic short hairs? Often Bubba will open his mouth as if to roar - a yawn, if you will, with nothing vocally expressed. Is this some sort of signal to me as to his dominance, or is it strictly a yawn? Also, is every vocal tirade by a Siamese cat an attempt to communicate, or merely an exercise in annoying their cohabitors? Sincerely, R.T. Wilmington
Dear R.T., Yes, most DSH, or domestic short haired cats (DSHA's....the mixed breeds of the cat world), are relatively quiet, and this is certainly the case when compared to Siamese cats. So to answer your question, "Is this quietness indigenous to domestic short hairs?" I would say, "From the perspective of the various populations of cats throughout the world, and the experiences of the people who have observed and interacted with them...," the question should probably be asked more like this, "Is the trait of highly vocal expressiveness that is apparent in most Siamese cats ever present, or is it mostly lacking, in domestic short hairs?" This trait of excessive vocalization in Siamese cats (although you and others may regard it with greater esteem) is not present in most DSHA's. Siamese use vocalizations in ways that other cats use body language and other actions to communicate. And much communication, the ability of one animal to receive information from another animal, is not dependent on whether or not the sender of the information realizes it's sending messages (i.e., the information available in the behaviors of animals is much greater than the information which the source of that information may have consciously intended to send). Siamese cats will vocalize to attract attention to themselves. This, whether conscious or not on the part of the cat, is an attention seeking device. Most other cats do stuff like knocking things off your dresser or racing around the house to outlet extra energy and get your attention. When they're trying to get your attention, it is usually because they want to interact with you, or have you feed them or let them outside, etc. As for yawns, they can have different meanings in different contexts. A yawn can just be a yawn, an expression of energy being released (that ritualized motion involves significantly coordinated muscle movement which burns off extra energy to help ease you into relaxation) at a time when an animal is tired. A yawn can in many species also be a conflict behavior. That is, when the animal is experiencing the conflict of 2 competing internal motivational states, let's say fear and hunger, then a yawn may appear. If there is a fresh piece of meat, and there's something guarding over that meat which the cat knows as a force to be reckoned with, then it may be confused under the stress of the situation. This is something that will often produce a yawn, or in some cats a grooming display (which is another type of conflict behavior in cats, also in certain contexts). Dogs do this too. I often see this when working with dominant-minded dogs who want the food or the toy in my hand but don't want to do what I've asked, to sit or down, before they can receive it. They are in conflict, because they want the reward, but don't want to assume a more submissive posture to get it..., and out pops a yawn. Putting on a display which is primarily understood as "that animal is sleepy," whether dog or cat or human, is actually a valuable evolutionary mechanism. It allows the animal to gracefully escape a problematic situation (or more subtly, to allow the internal energy produced by this state of conflict to be released from the body), without sending out the message that it is scared, or confused, or in conflict to others. Sleep is a well-studied means of escape from stress, confusion, and conflict for many people. And it can be for other animals as well.