When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite books was “A Cat Called Room 8,” the story of a cat adopted by an elementary school in Los Angeles (it might be more accurate to say “the story of a cat who adopted an elementary school in Los Angeles”). Room 8 hung out at the school for 15 years, and was given quite a splendid burial when he died in (I’m dating myself here) 1968. I’m pleased to say that Room 8 not only had his own book,

but that today, owing to his enduring fame, he has his own web site.

I bring this up here not because of the charming story the Room 8 children wrote about the cat, his care, his schedule, and his life, but because of something I remember being in the book (though, given the vagaries of time and my little gray cells, I may well have made this up).

I have a vivid memory of the book containing a glossary of Room 8’s vocabulary. The children realized that he signaled his mood and needs through his body language. If his tail was high, he was happy. If his tail swished, he was irritated. And so on.

I was enchanted. A cat lover even then, I was thrilled to have this guide, a veritable Rosetta stone to help the felinophiles among us to communicate with the objects of our adoration. Why, once I’d read this miraculous lexicon, Dr. Doolittle himself had nothing on me. The language of cats had been revealed to my 9 year old self, and I’ve been comfortable with them (and, mostly, they with me) ever since. My cat Nemo, for instance, flings herself to the ground and rolls on her back when I enter the room–she purrs and cavorts and, when I bend to pet her, rubs her face against my hand. Who could fail to understand that, in her language, she’s telling me she’s comfortable, she’s glad to see me, she trusts me–and, oh yeah–she has marked me as her own.

Then there are the dogs. When I pet them and rub their noses, they scrinch up their upper lips and show their teeth. Dinah makes the most amazing sound–but is she singing? Protesting? Begging for more? Or is she about to snap my hand off?

After six years with her, I know the answer (and I’ll post a video soon of the whole performance so you can see where I might have been confused), but, honestly–cats and dogs clearly speak different languages. Neither is better than the other, but to those of us conditioned and tutored in the language of cats, it can really be confusing.

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