Like all of us, cats communicate. It’s up to us to listen. Ask anyone what a cat says, and they’ll say, “Meow.” But meowing is only a small part of how cats communicate. Like dogs, they use their bodies to tell us—and each other—how they feel. Everything from their whiskers to the tips of their tails gives us clues as to what’s going on inside those furry, little heads.
A cat who feels loved and is relaxed with have loose, fluid body movements, and his breathing will be slow and steady. Maybe he’ll fold his fuzzy feet in front of himself or stretch them way out in front. His ears and whiskers will be at their neutral positions, slightly forward. His eyelids will be soft. He might blink slowly or close his eyes. These are all signs of trust. He feels safe and isn’t concerned about monitoring his environment.
One of the most accurate barometers of a cat’s mood is his tail. Curled around another cat’s tail or human legs, it signals friendliness. The next time your cat rubs himself on you or turns in little figure eights, this is his way of showing you affection. If he holds his tail high with a tiny curve at the very end, he’s showing you he’s happy to see you.
Cats have scent glands in their faces that allow them to claim friends and objects as their own, so the next time your cat rubs his chin against you, know he clearly loves you. Does your cat spend time cuddling in your lap, “making biscuits?” This is another sign he’s happy. Kneading his paws mimics feeding behavior in nursing kittens.
Purring is the classic sign of contentment, though keep an ear out for the tone—sometimes a purr is a way for them to calm themselves down in stressful situations. If it doesn’t sound like his usual soft, relaxed purr, take note and see what you can do to calm the little guy down.
You might think a playful cat will look a lot like a relaxed cat. But when cats play, they mimic survival behaviors, so they pretend they’re aggressive. His pupils may dilate, his eyes may get really wide. His toes will spread apart to gain traction for sudden movements. The behavior of cats who are hunting and a cat who is playing looks the same. His tail gets twitchy or flicks from side to side. He stalks, chases, pounces, swats, bites. The difference between play behaviors and “real” behaviors is that play will be bouncier, softer, and more inefficient.
Is your cat squinting his eyes, blinking rapidly, or turning his head away? Is his body stiff and maybe held low to the ground? Is he leaning away, or is one paw raised slightly off the ground? He might be a little stressed. Other signs he might be anxious are yawning, grooming, scratching, licking his lips, or drinking water excessively. True, these might be maintenance behaviors, but if they’re done out of context or to excess, they’re displacement behaviors. His ears may turn in different directions, his whiskers may be held further than normal, or his pupils may be dilated. These are all ways to keep tabs on his environment. Remember the twitchy tail? If it’s doing that or swishing from side to side, or if it’s held tightly against his body, there’s a good chance your little guy or girl needs some TLC.
Airplane ears! In a cat experiencing an increasing level of fear, anxiety, or stress, his ears may tuck back on his head or held low and rotated to the sides (hence, the term “airplane ears”). His tail will be kept low, and he may have squinty or wide, watching eyes. His head will fall at or below the shoulder level, and his breathing may become very fast. You might see his legs in a crouched position, or his body flattened to the ground.
In extreme cases of fear or aggression, your cat might stretch up onto his toes and arch his back to make himself appear as large as possible. His hair may stand up on his neck, back, or tail. He also might growl, hiss, and spit. If these clear warnings are unheeded, the cat may strike or bite. Don’t push your cat to the point of biting. Not only can their bites cause deep puncture wounds that can cause infection, but it will be difficult to regain his trust and repair the fractured relationship.
Your cat’s body language reveals more than how your cat feels emotionally. It can also reveal if he is feeling ill. Cats are good at hiding illness, so small body cues can be the first signs of trouble. A cat who is feeling sick may hold his head low. He may squint his eyes or hold them shut. His ears might sit low or rotated outward, his whiskers might point downward. Or he may hold his head, feet, and tail very close to his body so that they’re tucked into a tight ball. He might roll to the side if he feels too weak to prop himself up. Other things to look out for are eye or nose discharge or drooling. If you think that your cat letting you know by his body language that he is feeling ill or is in pain, visit your vet.
You'll learn a lot when you can interpret your cat's wide vocabulary of chirps and meows. They'll tell you when he’s hungry, feeling affectionate, or if he’s feeling threatened or in pain. Meowing can mean many things. Your cat may meow as a command, an objection, an announcement, or simply to say hello. Chirps and trills mean he wants you to follow him, maybe to his empty food bowl. Purring can be a sign of contentment but keep your eye on his entire body; purring can also be a way for your cat to comfort himself in times of stress or illness, like a child sucking his thumb. Hissing and growling are signs of aggression, so keep away. Yowls and howls tell you that your cat is in some kind of distress—stuck in a closet or looking for you. Find your cat if he is making this noise.
Now that you know what to look for pay attention to your cat’s body language. It is the primary way they communicate. If you see signs of stress or fear, see what is going on in the environment. If nothing unusual is going on, notice if he is hiding feeling ill.
Now that you know what to look for, pay attention, and you can have an even stronger, happier relationship with your furry friend.
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