What is your cat trying to tell you

Understanding Your Cat: Behaviour and Body Language

Cats are undoubtedly one of the most mysterious domestic animals among us today. In ancient Egypt, they were considered to be magical creatures that were highly revered, adorned with jewels, and held many associations to gods and goddesses of the time. Egyptians claimed that cats had the special ability to communicate with the dead, yet, flash forward a few thousand years, and here we are struggling to understand what their different meows and tail movements mean.

Between body positions and vocalizations, there are many ways that our furry friends are trying to communicate with us every day. It may seem like just “cats being cats”, but there is always a message behind every cat’s most subtle behaviours. If you have no idea what we’re talking about, or maybe have some concerns about weird habits, this article is for you.

Tail Position

Your cat’s tail is more than just a cute accessory—it’s a common indicator of your cat’s mood. 

High Tail

A high tail indicates confidence, friendliness, or that your cat feels comfortable in its surroundings. Happy and healthy cats will have high tails most of the time. However, this can also indicate that a cat is feeling aggressive, especially if the tail is puffed and combined with some other aggressive behaviours that will be discussed later. It’s important to read your cat’s tail in combination with other body language signs to understand the context.

Tail Flicking vs Quivering

If the tail flicks back and forth abruptly, this may be a sign of aggression, and a warning that your cat is annoyed. However, if your cat’s tail is quivering, it’s usually a sign of excitement, contentment, and a willingness to play or cuddle. 

Puffed up Tail

A Puffed up tail can be a sign of aggression or serious annoyance – be careful of handling your cat during this time.

Tucked underneath or around them

This is usually a sign of fear, anxiety, or submission and usually a response to a stressful environment or situation.

Eyes

Just like a human’s eyes can tell a whole story, so can our cats’. Here are some key signs to look for to understand what’s behind those diamond eyes:

Wide, Dilated pupils

This is most often a sign of excitement, attentiveness, and contentment. However, make sure to read the room-big bold eyes can also be a sign of aggression, especially if combined with other defensive or aggressive body language.

Relaxed, Slow-blinking eyes

Relaxed, slow-blinking eyes are a sure-fire sign of relaxation and trust, enjoyment, adoration and love. You can relax-your kitty loves you!

Constricted pupils (AKA slit eyes)

This often indicates fear or annoyance. Check for other body language, listed below, to get a better idea.

Ears

Cats are very sensitive to sound by nature, which is why their ears can tell us a lot about what they’re thinking and feeling.

Straight, upright ears

This indicated that your cat is on alert, or attentive to something that’s caught their attention. This can most often be a sign of curiosity.

Ears slightly forward

Forward ears are a sign of relaxation, contentment, and usually occur when a cat is laying down or cuddling with you.

Ears flattened back

A sign of fear or aggression—be careful and check for other signs of hostile or aggressive behaviour that may indicate this kitty is ready to pounce.

Whiskers

A cat’s whisker position is a more subtle indication of your cat’s behaviour. While more confident and comfortable cats tend to display their whiskers wide, a fearful or anxious cat will tend to hide or flatten their whiskers away. As with all other gestures, it’s important to take this into context by observing your cat’s overall gestures.

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Body Posture/Shape

Your cat’s overall body posture and shape provides a good background context against which to judge those subtle signs from their tail, ears, eyes, or whiskers. 

Tall, Arched Body

When angry or fearful, cats will find ways to make their bodies as big as possible. An example is arching their back and standing sideways. This is commonly combined with their fur standing up.

Straight Posture

Normal, straight posture usually means a cat feels safe, calm, and feels comfortable and open to interaction.

Crouched Down

When cats crouch down to the floor, this often means that they are in fear, anxiety, or preparing for an attack. Usually, when you see them shuffling their feet from underneath them and their eyes widen, this is a sure-fire sign that a pounce is underway.

Lying Belly-up

Lying down on their backs, cats are most likely showing you that they are feeling playful and would like a belly rub. However, this can also mean that your cat is feeling agitated and is getting ready to attack, especially if combined with other hostile gestures such as slit eyes or flattened ears.

Behaviour/Activity

Kneading

If your cat starts kneading  your lap like it was a ball of dough, this means that they are being affectionate and loving. Congratulations! Your kitty feels comfortable around your presence evokes nostalgia for their time as a kitten (kittens tend to knead their mothers’ tummies as a way to stimulate milk production). Kneading can also be a way of marking their territory.

Rubbing

When your cat rubs against you, this is a form of affectionate bonding that involves a marking of their territory. By rubbing their pheromones onto you, they show other cats that you are theirs. Kittens learn this rubbing scent exchange from childhood with their mothers, thus indicating to their owners that they share a motherly affection with them. Likewise, rubbing against furniture, objects, and walls is a way of indicating to other cats that this is their territory. 

Rubbing may also be a cry for attention, depending on the context. If you’ve just come home from a trip or a long day away from your furry family members, it’s likely that their rubbing is a call for reconnection.

It’s always nice to let them know that you appreciate their affection by stroking or rubbing them in their favourite spots (mine loves a good scratch on the side of the neck!). This fosters the bonding between you and your cat.

Wiggling

That’s right, cats like to wiggle their butts too, but not to the sound of a funky song, like you might think. When cats wiggle their butts, they are usually getting their footing and preparing to pounce onto a predator or a perceived threat. If you start petting a cat and they respond by wiggling their butt, get out of there—fast! 

This is a hunting instinct and is usually paired with wide, dilated pupils, torso low to the ground, and flattened ears.

Licking

Licking is a sign of trust and affection. If you’ve gotten a raspy tongue exfoliation from your beloved feline, you can rest assured that you are part of their inner circle. This instinct is inherited from childhood, also known as “allogrooming”, a form of mutual grooming behaviour that newborn kittens would engage in with their mothers. This is also a way of exchanging biochemical information with you, indicating that they are a fan of whatever scents you are emanating. 

Licking can also be a very territorial act in which your cat is attempting to mark you as their territory. This may sound a bit aggressive, but it’s actually a very instinctual way for felines to show love, trust, and affection.

Curled Up Kitty

When cats are curled up, this is a tell-tale sign of relaxation, trust, and comfort. It’s one of the most common positions for cats to sleep in, as it helps them retain heat by curling their body in towards their core.

However, if your cat is spending long hours each day curled up, there may be something worth checking out. The last time my cat spent almost two whole days curled up in the corner of my room, we knew something was up. Lo and behold, we found a small wound on the base of his tail that was slowly getting infected. Just like we humans tend to stay curled up in bed when we have a bug to fight off, so do cats. This is an instinctual way for them to conserve energy and heat in an attempt to rest through their malaise.

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The Low-down on Cat Talk

It may take a while to understand and discern all the different sounds that your cat makes. After all, we aren’t all cat whisperers by nature! However, by paying attention to the other body language that your cat is displaying each time they make a sound, you will soon start to decipher the many meanings behind those mysterious vocalizations.

Meowing

The most common sound that we attribute to our furry friends is the “meow”. As we’ve seen in many online cat video compilations, these meows can take on a multitude of forms, varying in pitch, length, and volume. The ambiguous meow can mean anything from a call for attention, to an indication of hunger or thirst, or even a sign of distress. Sometimes, it may simply be a way for cats to express themselves and communicate with their owners. 

Frequent meowing may indicate distress or anxiety. This should be taken into context with other behaviour as well as compared to their regular meowing pattern. As a cat owner, you will slowly learn your cat’s meowing schedules and patterns, eventually decoding their feline talk. 

Growling

Growling cats are not to be messed with, folks. If your cat suddenly lets out a growl, it means they are seriously ticked off. Perhaps they didn’t like a certain part of their body rubbed or they’re unhappy that you’ve put them in their carrier for a visit to the vet; either way, they’re not happy.

This should also serve as a fair warning to back off to avoid any preeminent attacks. Some of the less friendly or anxious cats tend to send this message to new human acquaintances as a way of letting them know they are not yet ready to mingle.

Hissing

Hissing is another sign of a seriously unhappy kitty. This usually indicates that your cat feels threatened and is sending a vicious warning to back off. This is common when cats encounter other larger animals, such as dogs or raccoons. We frequently hear our outdoor cats hiss at the raccoons that eat from their food bowls at night.

Much like the growl, this is an instinctual defense mechanism against perceived threats and it would serve any human well to remove themselves form the cat’s immediate vicinity upon hearing this sound.

Hissing is also a mother’s way of protecting hey young from perceived threats. Often, mother cats hiss at their own trusted humans during the first few weeks after birth. Don’t worry, your cat doesn’t suddenly hate you—she’s just adjusting to her new motherly instincts. Once her newborns start gaining their independence, she’ll rein it in and let you near her litter.

Cats are creatures of habit and don’t take well to major changes, such as a big move or change of environment. If your cat starts hissing for the first few days at your new home, don’t worry, they’re just stressed. Give them some time to adjust to their new territory and they’ll be back to their cute, cuddly selves in no time.

Yowling

The yowl is similar to the meow, except that it’s usually deeper, longer, and sometimes even sounds a bit human. It sounds more like a throaty, low-pitched moan. If your cat yowls, it’s most likely a sign of annoyance and desperation. Something in their immediate environment has left them feeling like they have no other option but to communicate in this somewhat disturbing way.

One of the things they may be trying to communicate is that they are stressed. Stress can be caused by many things, such as moving homes, loud construction in the home, or even just from noisy appliances such as blenders or vacuum cleaners.

Depending on your cat, this may also simply be a way of indicating hunger or thirst. You’ll have to evaluate the context and situation to be sure. Try feeding your cat to see if the yowling subsides. However, you don’t want to feed your cat every time they yowl, as it might encourage this behaviour with the reward of food.

Younger, unneutered cats may also use the yowl as a mating call to attract cats of the other sex. On the other hand, if your cat is older and persistently yowling, it may be a sign of illness or distress. Just like humans start developing physical struggles (i.e., digestive discomfort, arthritis, etc.) with age, so do your cats. It might be a good idea to take your cat for a checkup if the yowling doesn’t die down, especially if paired with other concerning behaviour.

Chattering or Chirping

This is often a sign that your kitty is focused on a prey that it’s hunting. It’s often an expression of frustration and excitement—of wanting to catch the prey, but not being able to. For example, a fly that keeps escaping the reach of your cat, or a bird it sees fluttering close by in the window may evoke some adorable chirping or chattering sounds.

However cute, these sounds do come from a deep predatory instinct and indicate that your cat is ready to attack. This is usually focused on other animals but can also be expressed during play. Our kitty loves to chirp and chatter at the laser bouncing back and forth on the wall. We’re still not sure if he knows it’s a game or if he sees it as a prey.

Trilling

Trilling is a very particular sound that is almost between a high-pitched meow and a purr. These sounds are often made with the mouth closed as opposed to meowing which is done with the mouth open.

The sound is most often used by mothers to communicate with their litter. For this reason, when your cat trills at you, it is most likely a sign of love and affection. It can also be a call for attention. As with all cat sounds, take the context into consideration and pay attention to your cat’s patterns over time to have the best idea of what your furry children are trying to say.

Purring

Purring is undoubtedly the most interesting and beloved cat sound of them all. Purring cats are usually a sign of very happy and relaxed cats. You’ll usually find that cats purr most often when they are lying down and cuddling with you.

Cats are extremely intelligent beings that tend to purr in response to pain. Several studies have shown that the specific vibrational range of a cat’s purr can be healing to other humans and animals. Skin, bones, and other soft tissues have been proven to respond to certain vibrational frequencies of the feline purring range. If you are feeling down, recovering from an illness in bed, or experiencing temporary physical discomfort, don’t be surprised if your furry companion comes to give you the purring treatment. 

However, keep an eye out for other signs from your cat, as they may also be trying to heal their own pain or discomfort. If the purring is abnormally persistent and paired with other signs of distress, it may be a good idea to see the vet.

Takeaway

Despite all the different signs your furry companion could be sending you, the most important point to take away from all of this is that context is everything. Different combinations of gestures and sounds could mean many different things and none of the behavioural signs listed here should be considered in isolation. 

The best way to understand your cat’s behaviour is to take note of their patterns and habits over time; how they react to certain situations, times of day when they make certain vocalizations, and what types of scenarios cause them distress. Before you know it, you’ll be a certified cat whisperer (well, maybe not certified, but enough to know what your kitty wants from you).

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