What cats mean by miaow

In Japan – where they take their cats very seriously – they call Yuki Hattori the Cat Saviour. He is so popular that he saw 16,000 patients last year, and crowds regularly queue up to hear him talk about neko no kimochi (a cat’s feelings), while people from all over Japan make the pilgrimage to his practice. Sometimes clients turn up from further afield. “One flew in from Iraq for a personal consultation,” Hattori says, “without his cat, due to border quarantines.”
In Japan’s rarified world of cat doctors, the vet Hattori is very much a superstar – but now there is a chance for English-speaking feline fans to benefit from his wisdom thanks to What Cats Want, a translation of his 2017 Japanese best seller Neko no Kimochi Kaibo Zukan (The Encyclopaedia of Cat Feelings). The Japanese original is a breezy 162 pages of illustrations, diagrams and short observations that delve into cat behaviour and activity.

“All I want is for more people to realise what’s special about living with cats,” he tells me when I visit his office.

Get Educated. The first step to being an outstanding pet owner, according to Dr. Becker, is taking responsibility. “Nobody ever says ‘I was a lousy pet owner.’ It’s always the pet’s fault.” Learn the peculiarities of your pet’s breed such as how much exercise they need, how gregarious they are, how much maintenance their coat requires, how often they need to go outside, and about new technologies, products, and nutrition that might help you care for your pet. Knowing the basics about your pet’s upkeep ensures you won’t be caught off guard by troubling behavior.

Cat man: Yuki Hattori at the Tokyo Feline Medical Centre.

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Cat man: Yuki Hattori at the Tokyo Feline Medical Centre. Photograph: Shoko Takayasu/The Observer
Over two decades, Hattori has written 14 books about raising and treating house cats. His fans point to his uncanny ability to interpret feline body language. It is Hattori’s opinion that every tail swish, whisker twitch, ear flick and miaow is a subtle telegraphing of an animal’s desires.

Here’s one example: cats spend a lot of daytime hours asleep, he says, so don’t be alarmed by their frantic bursts of nocturnal activity.

And another: when a cat rubs up against your leg, it’s not necessarily scratching a hard-to-reach itch or showing affection. What you’re probably seeing is a form of territorial marking.

And: when cats rub up against each other, in that friendly seeming way they do, they’re establishing mutual trust.

If you think cats are hard to read, Hattori provides a useful chart of nine basic facial expressions (ranging from relaxed to aggressive) and 12 tail positions, each of which represents a mood (straight up for greetings, puffed to express anger, lowered for caution). He also advises not to confuse a long, plaintive miaow (help!) with a brief one (hello!). And if you have the urge to sweep up your cat in a tight embrace, you might want to reconsider. Most cats are averse to being unable to make a quick escape. His recommends taking things slowly so that gradually you will be rewarded.

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The book includes diagrams for optimum room layouts depending on a cat’s age, recommendations for how to safely evacuate with cats in the event of a natural disaster and warnings about potentially harmful or deadly substances, including aroma oils, Welsh onions, diet supplements and cold medicines.
Fur play: every little gesture is meaningful.

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Fur play: every little gesture is meaningful. Photograph: Life On White/Getty Images

“If you know what to look for, you can begin to understand what puts your cat at ease,” Hattori says. “The best way to tell a cat is content is when it has a big appetite and a willingness to relax completely.” In the book’s introduction, he writes: “The more you know about cats, the more you will be able to enjoy their company.”

Hattori grew up in Nagoya, without pets. His exposure to cats came through his father, a vet and well-known judge on the international cat-show circuit. Occasionally, Hattori tagged along to shows, but he was always more interested in the wilder species he could find at his local zoo: lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards, caracals and servals. He spent hours watching them. “I remember being fascinated by their beauty,” he says. He often went to the zoo alone, sometimes missing school. At that point, he had already made up his mind to become a vet. His first experience of living with a cat came during his university years. “I watched a mother cat as she moved her kittens, one by one, across a car park,” he recalls. She left one kitten behind, a female grey and black tabby that Hattori took in and named Unya, a play on the Japanese word for miaow. “I don’t know whether the mother cat forgot her or decided that she couldn’t take care of them all. Maybe the kitten was a runt.”

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Pets are a major source of support and increase the ability to cope, which contributes to keeping cholesterol and blood pressure down.

Unya ended up living with him for 15 years. The more time he spent with her, the more he felt he was able to unlock her mysteries – and the more knowledge he accrued, the more he could pass on to others. He keeps her photograph and ashes in a box on a shelf at home.
Practising for Cat Wimbledon: a British Shorthair kitten.

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Practising for Cat Wimbledon: a British Shorthair kitten. Photograph: Viorika/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Cats are growing in popularity all over the world. Aside from Japan, where they are the most popular domesticated animal with nearly 9.8m in the country, compared to 8.8m dogs, the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that a quarter of US households now owns a cat. During the UK lockdown, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home revealed a significant surge in pet adoption.
But with its cat cafés and islands overrun with felines that have become big tourist draws, it is Japan that is leading the world in cat appreciation. Architecture firms offer services to customise homes with special features for your pets. There are even dedicated smartphone apps that keep you cat’s medical records safe, in case you need access to them on the go.

The trend has done wonders for Hattori’s business. He isn’t the only vet in Japan to have a thriving secondary career as a pet guru. But few contemporaries can match his work ethic. His detractors say he spends too much time on evangelising and promoting products, and not enough on research that might improve the quality of his care. But Hattori makes no apologies for his high profile. “I’m not exactly getting rich doing this,” he says.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Nearly 80 million U.S. households have a pet, and 42 percent of those households have more than one, according to a 2015-2016 survey by the APPA. There are 77.8 million pet dogs in the U.S. and 85.8 million pet cats.

In the past, Hattori has compared taking care of a cat to unrequited love. One minute you think the cat dislikes you, and the next it’s hovering nearby. You try to hold it and it squirms away. It frightens easily and it constantly keeps you guessing. You never really know whether it feels your affection or is capable of loving you back. You might be the owner, but you’re not the master. “You respond to a cat’s needs,” he says, “not the other way around.”

What Cats Want: an Illustrated Guide to Truly Understanding Your Cat, by Dr Yuki Hattori, is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99