And I've learned how to respond to him in ways that he understands. He's learned his name, and has matched his pitch roughly to the one I use when I talk to him. He also mimics the upward inflection we use when asking questions, though I'm not sure if he's connected that with demands or uses it cause he hears it a lot. He also understands "Okay" and "Go ahead", but probably because they're said in a friendly tone, not like "No" or "Get down", which he'll recognize of course but ignore.
Diane Duane, in her brilliant "Book of Night with Moon" series, holds forth that cat language is a lot more sophisticated than just meows. It also involves body language, posture, location relative to one another, and even eye contact or the lack thereof. And most cat owners will tell you that's certainly the case. (Everyone probably also has a story similar to this one here, so let's hear 'em, gang!)
Abbie's version of please, for example, is a gentle extending of the paw at whatever it is you're currently eating. It's almost a pathetic Oliver Twist gesture, but it also says "I could swipe that stuff outta your hand at any time, and don't you forget it." He also knows the best way to wake me up and get me to do something is swat at a plastic bag, because I will move heaven and earth to get him to Stop Doing That Dammit.
But he has an even more polite version of please: He just sits down next to me and gently headbutts my leg. That can mean either show me attention or take a look at the food dish when you can, you know, no big rush, I can wait for now. For now I said.
He stays gentle for the most part, because beyond the vacuum cleaner fear he's a very relaxed cat. Of course he is. He's an indoor cat who holds court in a purple papasan throne with a catnip plant growing directly above him. It dangles so tantalizingly close he could just reach up and nip a piece off if he wanted, the hedonistic little Caesar.
Today I was trying to shoo Abbie out of a room so I could head out for lunch. He was sacked out on a pillow and showed no interest in leaving. I started by petting him and doing the rump-patting thing, which usually gets a cat right up on their feet so you can gently send them on their way. Abbie, however, was having none of it.
He had a hind paw sticking out as he lay down, so I reached over to grab it and push it over, motivate him that way. Instead, as soon as I took his hind paw he quickly moved his head around and took my hand, very gently, in his mouth. It was not an aggressive move. He's not a regular biter. He did not clamp down, he didn't break the skin, he just grabbed my hand swiftly enough to say "No, man, that's not cool. Back off." I relented and backed off. He let go. Eventually I got him up and he went off to sulk for a bit due to the overall ignominy of it, but I gave him some treats before I left and we were friends again.
I've been watching him walk and he's not favoring the leg, so it wasn't an injury reaction. It was one of those defensive instincts that cats have (the belly is their most vulnerable spot and they'll protect it with their hind legs) but Abbie, at least, showed an admirable display of restraint, a rare feature in a cat who will beg for everything from avocado to bottled water. I guess we know each other well enough after fourteen years that he trusts me to respect a warning, and I trust he won't harm me intentionally.
He's a good fella.