Cats communicate with other cats predominately with body language and scent. They communicate with us using body language, vocalizations and scent marking (although we cannot smell most of it). Unfortunately for cats, we humans have failed to uphold our end of the communication deal. We need to better understand normal feline behavior and the cat’s communication methods. Our cats do communicate with us and we need to do our best to “listen” and understand their language. Otherwise, we may miss important messages like, “Back off!” “I’m sick,” and “You are my favorite possession in the whole wide world!”
Cats are highly intelligent beings and have mental skills equivalent to that of a human toddler. Let’s talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle art of feline communication:
The art of feline nonverbal communication with humans engages the total body, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. Sometimes, we misinterpret nonverbal cues or interpret the cue to mean the same as a dog’s behavior — which is very often the opposite. Misinterpretations can lead to injury, scratches and bites. The best clue to nonverbal communication is to observe the total body for more accurate communication.
The eyes may be a beautiful, mysterious window to the soul, but you can think of them as your cat’s mood ring. Cats’ pupils vary in size from the narrowest slits to wide-open black pools, for different reasons from emotional to environmental. For example, pupils may widen or narrow adjusting to light levels or signifying fear or aggression. A happy kitty’s pupils are narrow, but the narrowest of slits means you’ve got an angry cat or a sleepy cat. The opposite, dilated pupils, again, may be adjusting to light or may indicate a fearful, agitated cat. Yet, it may also signal pain. The best interpretation of mood is reading the body posture in conjunction with the eyes.
Direct eye contact, or staring, is sometimes considered rude in human communication. In cat communication, a direct stare is an intimidation posture. The first to look away, blink or slink off will be considered to have ceded defeat.
Can You ‘Ear’ Me Now?
Cat ears are remarkable. Like radar dishes, cat ears hear the faintest sound, especially important for the hunter outside or inside the home. They also swivel independently, move up and down, and rotate 180 degrees thanks to 32 muscles. Ear placement indicates mood, too. An interested, relaxed cat sports upright, forward-facing ears.
An aggressive cat’s ears also stand up straight initially before moving sideways and flat. Look at the body to tell the difference. An aggressive cat’s ears rotate back and flatten, with whiskers forward. A swift paw, hissing, growling and/or spitting may accompany the posture. Hint: the flatter the ears, the angrier the cat!
Don’t Get Your Whiskers in a Twist!
Whiskers, or vibrissae, are sensitive tactile hairs, aiding the cat’s sense of touch. Whiskers are deeply embedded in muscle tissue and connect to sensitive nerve endings. Whiskers act like a cat’s barometer, transmitting information about air currents, air pressure and objects they touch. Additionally, whiskers act as a GPS system, sending back information about the cat’s surroundings. Cats have three sets of facial whiskers: the eyebrows, chin hair and the longest set, the muzzle whiskers. Muscles allow the whiskers to move forward and backward and it’s this movement that serves as a mood evaluator.
Much like body position and ears, whiskers and ears work together to indicate mood. A happy cat’s whiskers point forward while the ears are upright and forward. Whiskers pointed outward, with ears rotated back and flat, signal a cat is gathering information or agitated/aggressive. Whiskers pulled flat to the cheeks, accompanied by ears pulled to the side, indicates fear or aggression. Heed the warning.
A cat’s body posture and attitude can invite us closer or warn us away. The classic Halloween stance — back arches with raised ridge fur, raised rump, legs straight and tail fur puffed out — is a warning stance. These are physiological changes indicating extreme stress, fear, aggression or threat. Distance yourself if you come upon a cat exhibiting these characteristics.
Conversely, if a cat approaches you with a raised back and flat fur, rubbing up against you, you’ve been invited to a pet fest.
Some cats do what I call the “Stop, Flop and Roll” maneuver. The cat stops walking, flops on the floor and rolls back and forth, exposing the tummy. It’s usually right in front of you and it’s an attention-getting scheme for petting. Go ahead give the cat lots of chin scratching and head rubbing.
Careful, though. Here’s the scheme part: don’t pet the tummy! While some cats tolerate it, most don’t. A cat’s exposed tummy is not a submissive posture or invitation to a tummy rub like a dog. In cat language, it’s a strategic posture to better engage claws and teeth, even if it’s your hand that’s the possible target of attack. The more you try to pull away, the tighter the grip. Relax — yes, really — the cat will release shortly.
There is one posture or behavior that I think is an overlooked, misunderstood behavior: the defensive cat posture. The defensive cat sits curled in a tight, crouching position with the tail curled around the body, head to the side and fur flattened, trying to be as little as possible. This withdrawn posture should alert you to your cat’s nervous state. Salivating, shaking, vomiting and/or defecation may also be seen.
The defensive posture denotes stress, which may be from a larger problem of intimidation, bullying or harassment from another pet in the home, or, sadly, maybe even a human.
A cat’s tail clearly telegraphs the feline’s emotional state of mind. Learn the signs and remember the condition can change in a quick flick:
• Tail swishing side to side indicates a slightly irritated cat. But because some cats express joy with a swishy tail, you should know your cat’s disposition and personality. If not, be sure to look at other body indicators.
• Swiftly slapping tail means agitation. Leave this cat alone. Unlike a dog’s rapid, happy, wagging tail, approaching a cat with this tail movement often results in pain — yours.
• Tail thumping, similar to a drum beat, signals frustration or a warning.
• Tail up and fully fluffed means the cat feels threatened. If that fluffed tail moves over the top of the back, and the cat looks mad as well, stand back. Attack is imminent.
• Tucked tail is the universal sign of submissiveness.
• Low horizontal tail position says, “I’m cool, calm and collected.” • Upright, erect tail with a slight hook indicates a jaunty swagger and means your cat is interested in you or the surroundings.
• Straight up with a quiver is a great sign. Your cat is shaking with delight.
Feline Signs of Affection
Cats show us many signs of love and affection using body language. They sit near us, on us or follow us from room to room. They lick us, give us head butts and give us cheek rubs, all as love signs. Here are some common love signs and their translations:
• Head butts, known as bunting, involve cats rubbing against us gently with their forehead as a happy greeting and sign of affection.
• Eye blinks are “kitty kisses: in feline parlance. Direct eye contact is confrontation, but slow eye blinks express love and trust. Be sure to blink back.
• Licking, the pillar of cat grooming, health care and cleanliness learned way back in kittenhood, is lavished on us when they consider us a member of their family.
• Nose kisses are a sweet, gentle, nose-to-nose greeting between cat friends (and humans when we’re lucky).
Once you learn the basic forms of feline communication, it’s important to learn your cat’s quirks or dialect. Learn feline signs of affection and reciprocate them for a loving relationship. Learn the warning signs before they escalate to aggression, and then heed the warning.
By Sarah Zumhofe