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What is Your Cat Saying? Reading Your Cat’s Body Language

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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What is Your Cat Saying? Reading Your Cat's Body Language

Wouldn't you love to know what your cat is thinking? You can sit and watch your cat for hours but you never know just what is going on behind those big dreamy blue (or green or amber) eyes. Your cat squints at you, fluttering his eyelids until they almost close. He switches his tail. Is he angry or just excited? We may not know, but we can make some pretty good assumptions about what cats are thinking based upon the full context of their behavioral signing and events that normally follow.

The Eyes Have It

Look into your cat's eyes and you can tell a lot about his state of mind. The direction of your cat's gaze will direct you to the subject of his attention. But gazes vary. Some are intense and focused while others are haphazard. When your cat stares without blinking, does he want something from you or is he feeling hostility? Either could be true. Although a fixed gaze and rigid body posture might mean hostility, the same look might be soliciting petting or some other form of attention in a relaxed, purring cat.

Another fairly definite eye sign relates to pupil size. If your cat's pupils are constricted and slit-like, his mood is probably ambient, bordering on vegetative. Or perhaps it's predatory. However, if your cat's pupils become fully dilated in broad daylight, appearing as large black pools, he's either in pain or ready to fight or run away. Increased pupil size is not intended to intimidate other cats or people but rather to allow more light into the eyes. Cats' pupils are always large at night but veterinarians learn very quickly to beware when a cat's pupils are fully dilated in a brightly lit examination room.

The degree of opening of the eyelids can tell a tale, too. Wide-open eyes correlate with alertness and increased levels of mental activity – ready for action, if you will. Semi-closed or fluttering eyes mean that the cat is in a more dozy, complacent mood or may be in the mood for a nap. So if your cat's eyelids flutter and periodically close while he is looking at you, it is a sign of faith or trust. Even if he is on the brink of falling asleep at the time, squinting at you is still a compliment because your pet is showing that he is comfortable and trusting enough to take a nap in your presence.

The Ears Have It, Too

A cat's ears can adopt several different positions and for several different reasons:

  • Ears erect and forward – alert, with attention focused ahead
  • Ears swiveled sideways like a swing-wing fighter – on the offensive
  • Ears pressed backward onto the head giving the appearance of a snake – extreme defense (ears folded back to protect them from harm)
  • One ear forward and one back – ambivalence
  • Ears rotating like radar dishes – listening carefully in an attempt to find the source of the sound.

    Mouth

    Your cat normally keeps his mouth closed. This tells us very little about a cat's motivation. When the mouth is open, however, you can sometimes learn about your cat's motivation.

  • The gape. Your cat gets a far-away look, allows the bottom jaw to drop, and looks as if it's grimacing in pain. What he's actually doing is savoring certain pheromonal odors on the breeze.

  • Open mouth with lips retracted. Your cat stares, bears his teeth and hisses. This indicates intimidation and aggression.

  • The yawn. Yawning indicates stress, ambivalence, or sometimes preparedness for action.

    Head and Body Position

    A cat on the offensive often walks directly toward the subject of his angst with his head held low and moving slowly from side to side, with his eyes fixed on the target. When in this mode, your cat will swivel his ears sideways and his body will appear wedge-shaped as his rear legs stiffen. Watch out for this cat: He means business.

    When your cat is on the defensive, he will hunker down while backing up and lean away from the threat. His head is sometimes deflected to one side giving the appearance of a sideways glance and he will vocalize (hiss, growl or shriek). Other signs of defensive aggression include extension of claws in readiness for a fight, and piloerection (hair raised) - making him appear larger and thus more fearsome. A cat in this posture is less likely to attack than retreat – because he is afraid.

    Tell-Tail Signs

    Tail position and movement offers insight into your cat's psyche. Basically a cat's tail can be up, down, or sideways; it can be curved or straight; and it can be still or moving. Here's how to interpret the various positions and movements of the tail:

  • Tail tucked – fearful, defensive
  • Tail held at half-mast and moving slowly from side to side – indicates mild interest
  • Tail vertical or straight up – indicates anticipation and/or greeting
  • Tail vertical but curved to one side – indicates playfulness
  • Tail curved over the cat's back – indicates expectation/monitoring
  • Tail held completely to one side in a female – indicates sexual receptivity
  • Tail held low with tip twitching – indicates a stalking, predatory stance
  • Tail frantically switching in wide arcs – indicates heightened affect/aggression
  • Tail puffed up (piloerect) – indicates fear and aggression

    Marking Signs

  • Bunting. Your cat may rub or push his face against objects with his forehead, cheeks or chin. What your cat is doing is marking them with subtle biological scents. Some say that a cat's rubbing with the forehead or cheeks indicates affection, but rubbing with the chin is usually reserved for territorial marking.

  • Furniture scratching. Contrary to popular belief, furniture scratching is not the cat's way of sharpening his claws but is a form of visual and scent marking. Your cat's paws are equipped with scent glands to facilitate this function. Territorial concerns will increase furniture scratching/marking and should be addressed if furniture scratching becomes a problem.

  • Marking objects with urine or feces. This is an even more distasteful form of marking behavior to most cat owners. The function is similar to furniture marking signifying an olfactory warning.

  • Anal sac secretions. Your cat may sometimes discharge his anal sac when in situations of extreme fear. Anal sac secretions are thought to contain a fear pheromone that serves to remind the cat not to pass that way again.

    There are benefits to caring cat owners in obtaining glimpses into the mind of their pet because it enhances their bond with their cat and facilitates communication. So, next time you are alone with your cat and don't have anything to do, try reading your cat's mind. You'll probably learn something you didn't know before and have a greater understanding because of it.


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