Understanding Feline Communication and Body Language
“Cat’s rule, dogs drool.” I’m sure most of you have heard this saying at least once! And while most of us in the pet care business love all animals, we know many of you have crowned yourself either a “cat person” or a “dog person,” or may not agree so much that cats “rule.”
I know I personally can recall several times that I’ve heard someone say “Cats are creepy,” or “Cats are so sassy,” or even, “I hate cats!” Oftentimes, misunderstanding a cat can lead people to believe they don’t like cats or aren’t a cat person, but our feline friends are a lot more complex and crave their owners’ affection and understanding just as dogs do.
Understanding why a cat behaves the way it does can help us all (including us cat owners) to better empathize and bond with our feline family members. Paying attention and understanding cats’ use of body language and vocalization, among many other means of communicating, will also help ensure we are meeting those complex needs!
Felines communicate in several different ways; in this blog post we will discuss four main means of communication: physical contact/touch, olfactory (smell), vocal, and visual (body language). While touch, smell, and vocalization in cats are all interesting and important ways to understand your cats’ needs, we will be focusing extra attention and sharing more information on the visual cues and body language of felines in this blog.
(And if you haven’t yet come around to cats, we hope this blog post may help change your mind that cats really do “rule!”)
Ways Felines Communicate
Head-butting and touching each other’s noses are a few ways cats like to interact when feeling social. Not only is it cute, but it’s an important part of their body language between each other. You may also notice if you have cats of your own, that they will sometimes curl up together or may even try laying next to or against your own body. Of course, all cats are different and some may be more distant or aloof than others, but this touching and “cuddling” is a sign of affection and comfort, so if your cat attempts to lay against you and cuddle, you can feel confident your feline sure loves your company.
Kneading is also a very common form of touch among cats. When a cat pushes down their paws into soft surfaces, he is kneading. This is something cats first did as kittens to get more milk from their mother. When a cat kneads you or other surfaces, your cat is showing that it is feeling very happy and content.
Similar to dogs, cats also have a well-developed sense of smell and use this to communicate among other cats and animals. Rubbing against you or other objects, for example, is a way for them to mark their “territory” with their scent. If you are included in this “marking” territory, he is essentially marking you as his own and is letting you know he is quite fond of you! However, there are also other not-so-desirable means of marking, including when cats spray urine. While it could be due to a litterbox that needs to be cleaned, most commonly, if a cat is spraying inside the home, it’s a signal that the cat does not feel safe or feels there is some threat nearby. Paying attention to other signals can often prevent these serious behaviors, however, which is again why we must pay close attention to our cats’ attempts at communicating with us.
Cats also use something called the “Flehmen response” to communicate and understand the scents around them. Cats have an extra organ called the Jacobson’s organ which is located on the roof of their mouths. When a cat comes across something with an intriguing smell, a cat will open its mouth and inhale. The Jacobson’s organ is then able to help the cat essentially “taste” that odor to gather more information! Cats often do this, too, when meeting new cats and swapping scents with other animals.
Did you know…Cats have at least 60 different vocalizations?! That’s a lot more than dogs! And while feline communication is mostly non-verbal, listening closely to your cat’s special noises will allow them to get their point across to you as you listen and talk back to them. The most common vocalization that likely comes to mind is the soothing sounds of a cat’s purr. While purring does often mean the cat is feeling happy and content, this is not always the case. A cat will also purr to self-sooth or seek comfort in otherwise stressful situations or even when recovering from illness or approaching death.
And did you know that cats don’t typically vocalize amongst each other as much as they use their vocalization abilities to communicate with us humans? That’s right. Cats use dozens of different sounds to attempt to communicate with us, but it’s up to us to take the time to learn what those different sounds all mean! Meowing is a word with many different meanings. “Meow” could mean “Hey, Mom,” or “I want food,” or “Don’t touch me,” or you may even see and hear your cat walking around meowing to itself! While this may sound confusing to know what these “meows” all mean, many cat owners admit they’re able to decipher the different sounds and differences in tone of voice to determine what their cat is really trying to say.
Cats also make cute chirps and trill noises; these sounds are how mother cats tell their litter to follow them, so if your cat is aiming these noises towards you, he may be asking you to follow him; he could be leading you to an empty food bowl, a toy, or even a dead mouse he wants to show you!
Additionally, cats make many different hissing, growling or spitting noises. Hopefully you don’t hear these sounds too often in your household, as it indicates your cat is feeling especially annoyed or frightened, but if you do, it is best to leave the cat alone and allow it to have some space. If a cat’s level of fear or irritability continues to rise and its stressor isn’t removed, a cat may then resort to snarling, spitting or yowling before eventually attacking or fighting. A cat may also yowl when in pain or distress.
Catching the warning sounds along with other signals is important to prevent these escalating behaviors or serious physical issues. (It’s important to note that while cats are also capable of panting like dogs do, panting in a cat is never a normal sound to hear and likely indicates an emergency. A call or trip to the vet is necessary).
While these means of communicating are important for cats to communicate with each other and the world around them (including us humans), we are so excited to share with you what you can learn about your cats’ body language and visual cues in order to best meet the physical and emotional needs of your cats!
Visual Communication/Body Language
You may have heard someone with cats say that their feline is particularly “sassy” or mean, but there is typically a reason for their behavior as cats aren’t going to carry out certain behaviors out of spite. For example, a cat may suddenly start marking outside of their litter box, or it may snap out and bite at its owner; while these behaviors are certainly undesired and of concern, there is likely to be a serious underlying reason for these behaviors.
Paying close attention to different body language signals can help cat owners determine if your cat may be in pain or may be in need of behavioral or medical help. By paying close attention, we can also step in and help our cat ease fears, anxieties and/or fatigue before it results in those serious behaviors.
Cats can be confusing when it comes to body language. You might notice your cat roll over, exposing its belly as if begging you to scratch it, however, when you go to pet it, she may wince or become disgruntled at your actions. Why? When some cats feel threatened or potentially cornered by someone or something, they may stretch out to appear larger and more threatening as a defense; however, many cats will also do this same pose when they’re feeling happy and relaxed.
Obviously if you have cats of your own, you’re probably able to decipher between the two opposing emotions easily, but knowing what your cats’ body language is telling you is important in maintaining or strengthening the human-feline bond and knowing how to best meet your cat’s individual needs.
Just as mentioned above, a cat isn’t going to just bite out of nowhere. A cat will give us numerous warning signs to let us know it is becoming anxious/uncomfortable, but if we miss these signs, our feline friend will continue to climb the “ladder of aggression” and may then resort to biting or swatting, among other unwanted behaviors.
Here are some particular signals cats may show to communicate with you
A cat’s face shows emotion much like humans. By paying attention to muscle tension, pupils, eyebrow area, whiskers, mouth and even the tongue, we can gather more information to determine its demeanor and what he may be feeling. A happy and content cat will likely have a soft expression with little to no tension in its eyebrows, whereas a cat who is fearful or alert will look tense. Paying attention to the eyes, ears, and whiskers will help you gather more information to determine how your cat is feeling and how to best meet its needs.
Have you ever noticed that if you try to ignore a cat, that it approaches you even more strongly? While we may try to “ignore” a cat, cats actually find this inviting because they feel safe and know you are not a threat. Cats find direct eye contact or “staring” to be threatening, and if a cat notices it is being stared at, it will likely stop what he is doing to explore any potential danger.
If your cat blinks slowly or closes its eyes while around you, it is communicating affection with you! In the feline world, closing eyes around other cats is a sign of trust, and when they do this around their humans, they’re showing love! (Next time your cat does this, try blinking back slowly at it and returning the affection!)
Just because a cat may have its eyes shut doesn’t always mean it is sleeping, relaxing, or showing affection, however. A cat may close its eyes tightly as a coping mechanism when it’s feeling extremely stressed; it may be your cat’s best way of blocking or “hiding” from threatening external stimuli. This is one particular reason why it is so important for your cat to have a safe, dark “hiding place” in your home for it to go when he feels overwhelmed or needs a place to escape.
When a cat’s eyes are open, the pupils and shape of the eyes will also communicate with you! If you notice your cat’s eyes looking squinty, almond-shaped, and/or blinking slowly with narrowed pupils, your cat is likely feeling safe, secure and happy. On the other end, if you notice your cat’s eyes open very wide, with dilated pupils and not blinking, it will be a good idea to give your cat distance at that moment. Your cat is feeling excited and alert, or aroused or fearful, and you may want to use this information along with other body language cues and communication to determine if your cat is simply playing or may actually be experiencing fear and anxiety that needs to be addressed.
Did you know – a cat has 32 muscles in each ear? It goes without saying then that a cat’s ears are for much more than listening and can tell us a lot about our cats’ emotions! When a cat’s ears are facing forward, the cat is feeling happy and content, while a cat’s ears that begin to go down will show that the cat is becoming more and more alert and then fearful. If the ears go down very far or look as if they’re facing backwards, your cat is likely in “fight or flight” mode. It is ideal to recognize signs of fear in cats before it escalates to any form of aggression or fighting. Give your cat space when he’s showing signs of discontent and do not force any sort of interaction with your cat, especially when you notice these signs. Try observing the world around your cat to see if you can determine what may be causing the fear and do what you can to alleviate or remove that threat.
Dogs love to spend time with us. My own dog cannot sit on the couch without at least one appendage touching me. Still, if we do not want our dogs to be lonely, stressed or frustrated when we return to work. If we do nothing, there is a chance that our happy pups will “suddenly” develop separation anxiety.
One thing we can do is make it rewarding for the pup to spend time alone. Offer toys such as the Kong, filled with treats or frozen food in a quiet area, crate or another room when you are not there. Also, if you notice your dog being relaxed and resting in another room, or even across the room from you, quietly and without much fan fare, go over and give them a tasty treat. You are teaching your dog that it’s ok to be alone and are helping to form a positive emotional response to time alone.
Seeing your cat’s tail held high in the air, maybe even with a little crook or curve towards the top will tell you your cat is feeling friendly towards you or any animal it may be approaching. A cat may also rapidly shake their tails which is out of excitement or as a means to show love and affection towards us.
On the other end, if your cat is feeling uncomfortable or even threatened, it may crouch down and tuck its tail alongside its body. If the fear or anxiety increases, he may also thrash his tail from side to side which can show that he may be in “predator” mode or may try to attack. But putting these “clues” all together with context is incredibly important, as many cats also carry out similar behaviors when playing with a toy or attempting to play.
Overall Body and Posture:
Body posture used with other cues can continue to tell us what our cats are trying to tell us. A cat that stands with its back arched and fur standing on end, like the stereotypical “scary Halloween cat,” shows an angry or terrified cat (its fur may fluff out to make it appear larger and more threatening); while a cat that arches its back but has its fur flat may be welcoming your touch… such a subtle difference that gives a very different emotion!
Further, a cat that is feeling relaxed and comfortable in your presence may lay on its back, exposing its belly (as a sign of trust); but as mentioned earlier in this blog, that doesn’t mean it’s an invitation to rub or pet the cat’s belly. A cat may also lay on its belly when it’s upset and ready to attack, however you will likely also notice some growling or other vocalizations that will help you determine it’s time to give your cat space. Seeing a cat crouch down with its forelimbs close to the hind legs also shows your cat is feeling unsure or uncomfortable and could be ready to fight. (Remember, context is important though because if your cat is playing with a toy, you may also see these same body movements showing your cat is just being playful).
And while cats often attempt to look larger when they’re feeling scared, some cats may do the exact opposite and will cower up, holding her extremities as close to its body as possible. Oftentimes, this is a sign that your cat is shutting down out of fear, wishing to disappear from the stressful situation.
Sudden, quick movements or changes in behavior can also indicate some serious fears or anxieties in your cat. For example, a cat may begin licking its lips or body when she’s feeling afraid or stressed from the environment or stimuli around her. Yawning, freezing, excessive grooming or out-of-context play behaviors can also indicate a cat that is starting to escalate up the aggression ladder. If these subtle cues are missed by the humans around her, this cat will likely start to exhibit more serious behaviors or turn into full blown fighting or aggression. These serious behaviors are hard to de-escalate and resolve once they’ve reached that point.
Please note: This is not an exclusive list of signals to watch out for in your cats. If you are concerned about behaviors or notice any sudden changes in weight, sleeping patterns or emotional changes in your cat, they should be addressed by a vet and/or cat behavioral specialist. Do not hesitate to reach out for additional resources if you are struggling to meet your cat’s needs or are unable to prevent unwanted behaviors.
Putting It All Together:
While the different means of feline communication discussed above are a good starting point or guideline to begin with and watch out for in your feline, you will need to be sure to use context along with putting all the signals together to best understand your cat. A cat’s vocalizations may tell you your cat is relaxed and content while components of its body language may say otherwise. Understanding and listening to each “warning” signal and giving your cat space when he asks for it is critical in preventing more serious, escalating behaviors.
When observing your cat and/or interacting with it, take time to assess all of its body language and vocal cues. Paying close attention will help you catch any issues or causes of fear and anxiety in your pet so that those threats can be remedied or removed from the cats’ environment.
A few other tips for effective communication with your cat: avoid direct eye contact to keep your feline comfortable, and when you talk to your cat, speak in calm, soft tones; Let your cat initiate contact with you and/or other visitors in the home, and if your cat stops interaction with you or gets up and walks away, do not follow the cat and attempt to continue petting the cat. Your cat may be becoming more irritated or overstimulated and is kindly asking for space from you.
Allowing your cat to have its space when he asks for it and learning to decipher all these (sometimes confusing) feline behaviors and signals will help you deepen your bond with your cat while preventing your cat from simply being misunderstood. You just might find yourself understanding just how much "cats rule!"