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19th April 1998

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Everything you need to know about cats

Cats are favourite pets. Unlike dogs, they are happy to be left alone while their owners work, they imagedon't need walks, are cheaper to feed and usually cleaner.

They're also fascinating. Unlike dogs, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, cats are a mass of contradictions. They are playful, but can also be disdainful. They are independent, but can be cuddly and loving. They refuse to be trained, yet are intelligent enough to open door latches if they want to.

Domesticated cats have been living with us for at least 3,500 years.

Until the 19th century they earned their keep as pest controllers, then became pets. Since then, their grace and beauty have won them millions of fans. But they're far from perfect.

Behavioural problems range from sharpening claws on curtains to spraying hideous smells all over the house. Here animal behaviourist, Roger Tabor (pictured top right), has drawn from his book, Cat Behaviour (David & Charles, £15.99), to compile our guide to understanding your cat.

What your cat's behaviour means

* Purring

This is the sound of contentment, probably evolved as a way for kittens to communicate with their mother while suckling.

* Tail signals

When your cat's tail rises straight up, he is greeting you or another cat. A fluffed-up tail held upright is a sign of fear, but when it's stretched behind him he is aggressive. A twitching tail means he's undecided and a wagging tail means he is angry. When a tomcat raises his tail high and you see it quivering, beware: he's about to spray from the scent glands next to his anus. It smells horrible to us, but to another tom it is a signal to keep clear of his territory.

* Rubbing his head against you

Cats have large scent glands along their lips and chin, and by rubbing you they mark you as part of their group.

* Sitting on your lap

Your lap is cosy, and sitting with your hands forward signals that you welcome him. Cats seem to prefer the laps of people who are not cat fans because they are less likely to stroke them - most cats prefer not to be handled much.

* Paddling

Kneading your chest or lap with a slow, rhythmic opening and closing of his paws is the same movement a kitten makes to stimulate his mother's milk. Our size and warmth brings out the kitten in even the oldest cats.

* Bringing home mice and birds

It may seem a horrible habit, but the cat is actually bringing you a present. He thinks we humans are hopeless at catching our own prey, so he's anxious to share his kill with us.

* Flattening ears

This is a sign that a cat is defending his territory. He will also hiss, draw his head back and pupils of his eyes will widen. The aggressor also has his ears flat, but twisted so that the tips can be seen from the front.

Cat curiosities

How do cats land on their feet when they fall from a height?

A reflex action, developing from as early as three weeks old, enables them to rotate their bodies in midair. As he falls, the cat rotates his head until it is upright. Canals filled with fluid in his inner ear signal to his brain when his head is level. Then he rotates the rest of his body to match and lands safely on his feet.

How do cats judge whether they can fit through a hole?

A cat's whiskers play a vital role in helping him understand the world. The slightest touch on the end of each whisker tells him a great deal. To gauge whether his body will fit through a gap is simple: the whiskers are as wide as he is.

Do cats love us in the same way we love them?

Probably. There are huge similarities between our brain and the brains of all mammals in the parts that control emotions. So it seems possible we share similar emotional responses with cats.

Do cats have a sixth sense?

Yes. Cats have a sense called the Flehmen response which allows a very sophisticated analysis of smells. All cats have something called a Jacobson organ below the floor of the nasal cavity and opening into the mouth.

If you see a cat grimacing it may well be using the Flehmen response, closing off its normal breathing and allowing scented air to be trapped in the small sacs of the Jacobson organ. The smell is then checked in a way that combines the techniques of smell and taste. It is used to analyse urine smells, telling the cat whether the other cat is male or female, and whether a female cat is ready for mating.

Why do cats have such rough tongues?

A cat's tongue is made up of thousands of tiny mounds to give a much greater surface area, helping it pick up fluids, "chew" small pieces of meat and groom itself.

Can cats talk to each other?

Yes. It all sounds like one miaow to us, but studies have shown different sounds, with different meanings including mating patterns, aggression demands and complaints.

Why do cats play with their prey before killing it?

The cat is not playing but dazing its prey. The cat dare not risk being bitten or pecked, in case it picks up an infection. So before it pounces to kill, it makes sure its prey is exhausted.

Cat facts

Space Invaders

How far your cat roams when it pushes its way out of the house will depend on its sex, how many other cats are in the area (farm cats cover areas as much as 30 times larger than their town cousins) and the weather. Cats mark their territory by leaving scent messages, ranging from the spray of a male that has not been neutered, to subtle smells from the grease on the cat's coat.

Your Animal Passions

People who prefer cats talk about their self-reliance and independence. They may also think that dogs are silly, slobbery animals that toady around their owners. Dog people, on the other hand, talk about their pets as loyal, affectionate and reliable, while cats are, they say, stand-offish and selfish. In fact, whether you prefer cats or dogs actually says far more about you than it does about the animals. Cat people are tolerant, laid-back free spirits who are flexible, caring and tend to treat problems with tact. Dog people are more direct, orderly, strong characters who solve problems by dominating the argument to get their own way. Most people, of course, fall between the two, with only a slight preference for either dogs or cats.

My heart will go on

Celine Dion, singer of the 'Titanic' theme shares memories of her music-filled childhood and the large Canadian family who keep her feet firmly on the ground

This year's Acad- emy Awards cer- emony marked yet another high point in French-Canadian singer Celine Dion's glittering career - not only was she chosen to sing her best-selling My Heart Will Go On, the Titanic but she was also picked to sport the magnificent £2 million replica of the necklace Kate Winslet wore in Titanic. However, Celine's ownership of the 170-Carat sapphire, set in 103 diamonds, was only short-lived - it actually belongs to the winner of an auction held in Beverly Hills in aid of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and an AIDS charity.

Celine is a great supporter of charities herself - she became head of the Canadian branch of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation 13 years ago and is a dedicated fundraiser. Indeed, when she married her long-time manager Rene Angelil, the couple requested more than 500 family members and friends to make out cheques to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation-totalling $200,000 - in lieu of wedding gifts. "I didn't need another iron and I didn't want their money," says the most successful female singer in the world who, until eight years ago, couldn't speak English. "I wanted people to do something that would make them feel good - and I wanted Karine to be a part of the most important day in our lives."

Karine Menard was Celine's beloved niece who died of cystic fibrosis at the age of 16. "We were very close," Dion says in the soft French-Canadian accent of her native Quebec. "I was fighting with her to cure the disease but she passed away in my arms."

"When Karine died, I felt I had lost the battle and became depressed for a while, but Karine knows that I'm still fighting until this disease is beat. I can't wait to put an end to this."

Celine takes her obligations to her family seriously - though that's hardly surprising, considering she comes from a tight family unit. Celine was the youngest of 14 children (nine girls, five boys) who grew up in humble circumstances in a tiny house in Charlemagne near Montreal.

We were sleeping three or four kids in one bed," says Celine, now 29. Being part of such a large family, she adds, "taught me how to give. And I don't take anything for granted."

Her ''wonderful" parents worked hard but money was tight and music often paid the bills. The brood toured as the Dion Family before Celine was born, singing and dancing at weddings and parties. But when Celine joined their basement rehearsals, she soon out-belted them.

"The basement was full of musical instruments and my family rehearsing, so I joined in. These were the equivalent of my toys and dolls. I didn't care about playing like other kids. I only wanted to sing."

Celine's father was the family's band leader who secured music dates. "He also did all kinds of jobs, from being a prison officer to child counsellor. And my mom never worked," she laughs. "Are you kidding, raising 14 kids!"

Every Sunday the Dion family grew even bigger. "We never really had money to go out anywhere and didn't have a car big enough for all of us, so people came over to us. There was so much going on in our house that neighbours, family members and friends all wanted to be round us. My mother was always cooking a huge ham or meats. We never locked our doors because musicians always come in late but my mom always made sure everybody finally came in. Even half-asleep, she recognised everybody's footsteps."

The tale of Celine's discovery is almost a Canadian Legend. In 1980, the 12-year-old singer already showed an extra ordinary vocal range. Her brother Michel sent his baby sister's demo tape to Rene Angelil, a music entrepreneur in Quebec.

The veteran manager recognised a star voice and mortgaged his home to pay for Celine's debut album. His gamble paid off. Celine has grown from a gifted pre-adolescent singer to an international superstar; her most recent album, Let's Talk About Love , has already sold over 16 million copies since its launch in November and My Heart Will Go On has won two Golden Globe awards.

Dion quickly became a national treasure in Canada and, in 1991, when she was chosen to sing the theme song for Disney's Beauty And The Beast, her international success was sealed. And Angelil, 26 years her senior, has gone from mentor to soul mate.

Despite a hectic touring schedule, Celine remains very close to her mother. She has bought her parents an all-white home - "white carpet, white walls, white furniture". Even so, with all that money can buy her nowadays, the object closest to Celine's heart is "a pink stretchy nightgown my mom used to wear. I love the smell and feel of it." It was fashionable 40 years ago and Celine still cherishes what is left of this tattered nightie. Full of holes, it's now a T-shirt for her favourite teddy. "Every time I go home, I give the teddy a hug and smell it and my childhood memories come back."

Lest there be any doubt about the impact growing up in a family of 14 has had on her life, Celine says:

"It's taught me how to live. I consider a human being who has had happiness and health has had it all. Everything extra is a blessing."

Will there be 14 Dion/Angelil children?

"I'd love to have them," she admits, ''but I'm not thinking of having 14 kids. It's difficult now because I'm constantly on the road and my husband is not always with me.

Hopefully, one day I'll have a child and it will simply be out of this world."

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