1 August 2020
If you’ve ever been baffled by the mystery of cat behaviour, rest assured that you’re not alone. Cats are a unique breed and very hard to read if you aren’t familiar with them. Between body language and vocalisation, cats are constantly attempting to send their owners and caretakers a message. It’s up to us to learn how to read their messages correctly so we can maintain a harmonious relationship with them, and more importantly - walk away scratch-free.
Cat’s have a complex communication system and use their voice, posture, eyes, ears, and tails. Most importantly, cat’s communicate with a purpose. If you want to truly understand your cat, you will want to read this ultimate guide to understanding cat behaviour, so you know what to do the next time your cat is trying to tell you, “Walk away now before I swipe at you, human.”
Cat Body Language: Learn To Read It
Cat’s movements and subtle gestures are always telling you what they are thinking or feeling. The trick to deciphering what your cat is saying is by learning to read their body language. Everything from their ears to their tails will give you a glimpse into the intricacies of the feline mind.
Forward ears can be a good indication of an alert, curious, or happy cat. When their ears start to swivel around or are perched straight up, your cat is being a nosy neighbour and listening to every little sound happening around them.
If their ears are backwards, sideways, or flat, take it as a good sign that they are angry, frightened, or just plain old grumpy. The best advice in these situations? Steer clear. Even cats need time to cool their heels.
In general, it’s a little harder to read a cat’s mood without taking into account it’s entire body language. Because unlike humans, or even dogs, you really can’t read too much into cats eyes. But eye language can help in some situations!
Just remember that it’s all about the pupils with cats. Luckily, there are only two main options: dilated pupils or constricted pupils. Unfortunately, both options can indicate very contradicting cat behaviours.
Constricted or slit pupils might indicate that your cat is offensively aggressive or possible just content with life. Or they might even just be annoyed. Not the most helpful information, right?
Fully dilated pupils indicate excitement. Whether this excitement is defensively aggressive or just playful is up in the air.
Semi dilated pupils can indicate a nervous or submissive cat.
Don’t forget about slow blinking! Slow blinking can be a sign that your cat adores you and is blowing air kisses towards you. Savour this, because not every owner is bestowed this gift.
The key takeaway here is to pay attention to other parts of their body to help determine whether you need to back away now or if your cat is just having a good time. A cat’s eyes are probably the last body part you want to rely on when trying to understand their current emotions.
A cat’s tale lies in its tail. Tails are one of the most important features of the body to pay attention to if you want to know what your cat is thinking, saying, or feeling. Cats can tell you their whole life story with just their tail and even give you insight into the mind of your feline.
Remember, when we mentioned that cat communication could be a little complex? Yeah, well that’s where tail language comes in.
If your cat is un-neutered, you might find their tail standing straight up and vibrating before marking their territory with urine. To prevent this from happening (and we recommend doing this anyway) is to get your cat neutered or spayed.
If your cat is spayed or neutered and you see their tail vibrating (without being followed by urination) or moving swiftly back and forth - take this as a good sign! Your cat is probably playful, paying attention to you, or interested in something else going on. A twitching tail is a good indication of a happy or excited cat.
Rapid Tail Swish
If you see your cat start swishing its tail around in a rapid motion, this is a good indication that they are upset and agitated, according to The Humane Society of the United States. The faster the swish, the more upset they are. Don’t forget to check their ears and eyes (see above) to confirm their agitation.
At this point, feel free to give them plenty of space. They probably need it. Like us, they’ll get over it eventually. Even cats can’t hold that much of a grudge.
Embracing, Twitching, or Curved Tail
When cats curve their tails around them or even around other cats in an embrace, they are happy and satisfied with life. When cats twitch the tip of their tails or have a curved tail (similar to a question mark), they are probably feeling playful and looking for a little game or two.
If your cat’s tail is tucked between their legs, they are nervous, anxious or showing signs of submission. This can happen when cats experience a new environment or perhaps a new house guest. They will likely relax once they understand there isn’t any reason to be alarmed.
Puffed tails, while cute, are not a good sign. When your cat’s fur is standing on end, this usually means they are absolutely terrified or pretty angry. If you see your cat has a puffed tail and is hissing - they are likely preparing for an attack. Beware, and cross your fingers; this attack isn’t directed at you.
Also known as “making biscuits” because it looks like they’re kneading dough, cats will do this when they are pleased. Considering the average personality of cats, you might guess that cat kneading doesn’t happen too often. If this happens to you, consider yourself lucky!
If your cat starts licking you, they are showing you great affection and consider you to be a special “cat”. Congratulations! You have won the lottery of a cat’s love.
Rubbing Cheeks or Body
While rubbing isn’t a bad thing, it also isn’t necessarily as special as being kneaded on or licked by your cat, either. Sorry to burst your happy cat bubble. When your cat rubs against you, they are likely just marking their territory, especially when they rub their cheeks against you (or on something).
Cats have many glands located around their heads, including their mouth, chin, cheeks, necks, and ears. These glands secrete their scents when they rub against objects or people (otherwise known as their subordinates). Like the conquerors of history, this is how cats mark their territory and claim ownership of their environment.
This simple movement can mean two very different things - but it’s usually pretty obvious to tell the difference between the two when they happen. When a cat arches its back near you without any other alarming body language, they just want you to pet them or give them a little scratch behind the ears.
If cats have an arched back in combination with bristled hair and possible dilated eyes, they are angry or terrified. It should be easy to determine which arched back your cat is conducting.
If your cat is lying on their back with their belly exposed to you, this means you are the cat’s meow. A cat’s belly is one of their most vulnerable areas, so this means that your cat completely trusts and feels very comfortable with you. An exposed belly is like an exposed heart. Treasure it and keep it safe.
Cat Vocalisation: Learn What They Are Saying
Cat’s have a large repertoire of sounds including meowing, purring, trilling, howling, hissing, and growling. And they don’t hesitate in vocalising their opinions even if you can’t quite understand what they are saying, or rather, demanding.
Depending on the situation or context, the sounds cats make can vary extensively. Every cat has their own personal quality, pitch, and tone of voice - just like humans.
Learn to listen and hear the pitch and melody your cat makes. This will indicate the emotional state of your cat is in. Understanding the difference between an angry meow and a playful chatter will help you avoid any unnecessary scratches or mood swings from your cat.
According to Dr Susanne Schötz, the most important cat vocalisation is the “meow” since this sound is most commonly directed at humans. A meow usually indicates that your cat wants something. Depending on if your cat wants playtime attention, food, a cuddle, or something else, they might use different pitches, volume levels, or durations to communicate their request.
The more you are around your cat, the easier you will start to recognise the meaning of their meows.
A cat’s purr is usually just a simple sign of contentment - usually when they are being petted or eating.
An anxious, sick cat or cat in pain may comfort themselves by purring - similar to a child sucking their thumb when they are scared, tired, or don’t feel well. If your cat is purring more than usual, consider a visit to the vet, just to be safe.
Chirping and Trilling
Chirps and trills are adorable sounds cats make to get your attention. Trills are usually used by mother cats when they want their kittens to follow them. If your cat chirps or trills at you, it might mean the same thing: they want you to follow them - usually straight to the food bowl.
If your cat is chattering, chittering or twittering, you might find them sitting next to a window watching the birds or squirrels outside. This would be the sound they make as they go after their prey - if the window wasn’t in the way, of course.
Hissing or Growling
You probably already know a hiss or a growl isn’t going to be a positive sound. Hisses and growls are indicative of a frightened or angry cat. As long as you don’t think your cat is injured or in pain, just stay away and let them cool down.
Communicating With Cats
Once you’ve mastered the subtle art of understanding your cat’s behaviour and voice - there is no stopping you from interpreting (almost) exactly what your cat is trying to tell you. As you learn more about your cat, you will more easily determine whether they are excited, happy, scared, irritated, or sad - which will only serve to improve your relationship with your cat.
Not only will you understand what they are asking for - usually just food, pets, or to just be left alone - but you will be able to read their feelings and emotions to better cater to their unique personality. Your only problem now is getting your cat to listen to you. But that’s another topic for another day.