Cat Body Language & Communication 101

My name is Jaime Johnson and I am a cat behavior consultant. What is that, you ask? Well, I work with cats who are exhibiting behaviors such as scratching furniture, peeing outside the litter box, fighting with other cats, biting people, or even waking their owners up in the middle of the night. I also teach people the art of playtime, how to feed your cat, and how to catify your home. My dream is to create a cat sanctuary for senior cats. And everything I am doing right now is to support that dream, starting with my business: Cat Happy. Cat Happy is about the relationship between us and our cat companions. And how I do that is by teaching human guardians to increase communication with their cats.

I believe in a biologically appropriate diet for our animal companions. That means a diet that nature has intended for the species. So for cats: I feed birds, rabbits, and other small prey whenever possible. But because you don’t see ground rat or mouse or lizard in specialty pet stores as cat food, I also feed things like venison, beef, wild boar, and a limited amount of fish, for example.

It is my belief that good behavior and nutrition go hand in hand to make a healthy cat, and I take a holistic (whole body) approach to everything I do.

My background:
I worked at an animal shelter where I oversaw the cattery for 5 years. I had NEVER even had a cat before I was appointed to that position, but I did my research and soon became known as their cat lady. While I was working there, I scored a job with Pupologie Encinitas and worked there one day a week for several years, which is what catapulted me into the nutrition arena. Then about a year ago I had begun asking myself how I could help as many cats as possible in my life. I had this burning desire to specialize in cat behavior for a while, and so I finally made a giant leap and began working independently to create Cat Happy!

I typically work with a handful of clients at a time and so far I have seen behavior resolution in as little as one visit to several months. The biggest factor I have experienced in my rate of success is dependent upon client participation in doing the homework, communicating with me, and setting follow-up appointments.

Cats Communicate Via:

  • Body language
  • Vocalizations
  • Scent

VOCALIZATIONS
Cat to cat vocalizations are typically limited to communicating with:

  • Kittens
  • Mating partners
  • Potential adversaries
  • People

FRIENDLY/NEUTRAL VOCALIZATIONS:

  • Meowing: Meows vary greatly and are typically done toward people. They can mean a greeting, demand, objection, announcement, and some cats simply walk around the house meowing to themselves.
  • Purring: is caused by twitching of the cat’s throat (laryngeal) muscles and it usually indicates contentment, but cats can also purr when they are injured/ill.
  • Guess the vocalization: VIDEO
    • Trilling: is somewhere between meow and a purr. Cats use trilling as a friendly greeting and an invitation to approach.
  • Chirping: Used by mother cats to tell her kittens to follow her, but also used as a way to communicate with other familiar individuals. VIDEO
  • One more VIDEO:
    • Chattering: Used to express excitement, often in response to seeing prey from behind a window. It may be an indication of frustration at not being able to get to the prey.

CONCERNING/WARNING/DISTRESSING VOCALIZATIONS

  • Panting: Cats rarely pant, but can pant due to anxiety, fear, stress, or excitement, usually in response to environmental causes such as car rides or heat. Panting can be a serious red flag for health or welfare issues. If the cat appears in distress and you cannot identify or remove the cause, then you should take your cat to the vet in case there is a serious medical issue going on.
    • If your cat is panting after playtime, then you need to look at doing less rigorous or shorter play sessions. The mental stimulation portion of playtime is just as important as the physical portion, if not more so.
  • Growling: The first warning sign a cat will make to communicate for you to back off.
  • Hissing: The next stage in warning after the growl. It usually succeeds in repelling an enemy.
  • Howling: Are sounds like long, drawn out meows, lower in pitch than a yeowl, and indicates stress or a health problem. SHOW WEBINAR
  • Snarling: is a more heightened version of the growl, coupled with a louder sound with a higher pitch, and often showing the teeth. SHOW WEBINAR
  • Spitting: Often comes with a hiss. It is a short, popping sound. It’s defensive sound that is made when the cat is surprised. SHOW WEBINAR
  • Yowling: usually means pain or distress, but is also heard when female cats are in heat. If no environmental stressor is identified, and the cat is not in heat, see your vet. VIDEO

INTRO TO BODY LANGUAGE

Body language is a kind of nonverbal communication, where thoughts, intentions, or feelings are expressed by physical behaviors. Cats are doing this all of the time!

  • Body language consists of FOUR parts:
    • Body movements
    • Positioning of body parts
    • Body position (forward, center, or backward)
    • Body postures and facial expressions
  • Distance-reducing body movements: typically occur when a cat first approaches a novel item. See #1. The sequence involves first a slow approach, then multiple short sniffs, followed by tentative pawing of the object.
  • Distance-increasing body movements: are usually silent patterns of behavior, like walking away, shifting, or looking away from an unwelcome stimulus while scoping out an escape route. #8 & 12 would be examples.
  • Positioning: describes when the cat positions himself in a distinct place or location, such as on a cat tower or even on your lap. The intention of the cat can be caring, a message of superiority, or even attention-seeking behavior.
  • Nose-touching: See #2. A friendly greeting done by two cats, or a cat with another animal or human. Cats do this to identify one another by sniffing the scent glands around the lips. You might see this w/
  • Rubbing/bunting:  Refer to #11. When a cat rubs his face against objects with their forehead, cheeks or chin, which is the cat’s way of leaving his scent via sebaceous secretions from their scent glands in the face or other parts of their body. It is also a way of adding his scent in a friendly way to the person or object. This can also be an attention-seeking behavior, like asking for a head rub.
  • Butt presentation: when a cat backs up towards a person and gives you the booty, often by your face, lifting his tail, this is actually the equivalent of a cat hug. Somewhat like #2.
  • Elevator butt: is when a cat puts her head down, bends her front legs, and raises her rear quarters and tail to expose her butt. This is seen in females who are in heat as an invitation to males. A modified version is done by spayed and neutered cats as an invitation to come closer and interact.
  • Kneading/making muffins/biscuits: Cats usually contentedly knead something soft, like a pillow or blanket, person’s lap, or other animal. Many cats also purr. For adults, it is usually a remnant of kittenhood, when it was used to stimulate milk during nursing. Many cats are ready to nap after they knead.
  • Pawing: Refers to a cat using her front paws to interact with something in a non-aggressive manner. The speed and force of the pawing, as well as whether the claws are exposed, depends upon the cat’s intention. Pawing can indicate a cat soliciting attention, playing, or investigating.
  • Rolling/flopping over: When the cat turns or flops onto her side and exposes her abdomen. See #5. It can be due to happiness, response to a smell (like catnip), basking in the sun, or absolute fear. When done in fear, they do this to have their claws at the ready in a defensive posture. Cats do NOT usually roll on their sides or back as in invitation to rub their belly. Rather, a contented roll over is a sign of trust and not usually anything else.
  • Grooming: is done by using the tongue and paws to tidy their coats. It helps the coat to look good and is a gauge of feline health. The backward facing spines on their tongues help comb fur, reduce mats, maintain healthy skin, and remove loose hair, dirt, and parasites (like fleas). It also helps to straighten out the coat to make it a better insulator in cold, and cool the cat down by adding saliva. Hair loss from over-grooming can signal illness in a cat. When cats lick you or groom other cats, also called allo-grooming, this is a sign of affection. When cats are not grooming themselves, this can indicate stress or illness.
  • Scratching: can be done for defense, aggressive purposes, to kill prey, to stretch their muscles, and to relieve stress. See #10. Cats must absolutely have appropriate places to scratch, as it:
    • Sharpens their claws by shedding the outer sheath
    • Leaves scent communication via the scent glands in their paws
    • Relieves frustration
    • Different cats prefer different kinds of scratching surfaces
  • Lip licking: can be a sign of anxiety or indicate a medical condition. They can also lick their lips before/after they vomit. It can even indicate an intestinal obstruction or kidney failure. Be sure to go to the veterinarian if you are not sure of the cause of the lip licking.
  • Biting: The nature of the bite depends upon the cat’s intention, which can be aggression, irritation, hunting, play, or a combination of these.
    • When biting is directed toward living beings, the motivation is either hunting, offensive or defensive aggression, an expression of irritation, or simply in play.
    • When hunting, the intention is to KILL the prey, so the biting pressure will be the hardest.
    • Cats will lash out and bite if they are fearful or feel threatened, so the aggression can be offensive or defensive in nature. The intent is to cause harm so the offender backs off.
    • Biting from irritation is an inhibited bite, typically used to end an interaction, saying “don’t pet me anymore!”
    • Play biting: starts as a learned behavior from kittenhood, and is done with the mother cat and with siblings. Cats that are raised with another cat or kitten they have a close relationship with typically learn bite inhibition, meaning they learn not to bite too hard because they learn that it hurts.
    • However, people who raise their kitten by using their hands as a toy are teaching that kitten that it’s okay to bite hands or other body parts, and this typically goes into adulthood, when the cat’s biting is not usually deemed quite so cute, especially to guests. And that is when you may need to call upon a cat behavior consultant.

INTRO TO BODY PARTS

In order to understand what the cat is trying to communicate to you, you will need to put together the individual body parts:

THE BACK:

  • Cats have super flexible spines due to the 30 vertebrae in their back, plus the additional 18-23 in their tails.
  • Back arched, fur flat: when a cat arches her spine and her fur is flat, it can be a sign of accepting affection or just simply stretching after sleeping.
  • Halloween cat stance: is the unofficial term for the curved spine and piloerection of the fur, or fancy term for hair standing on end. See #18. The cat stands with his body to the side to make himself appear larger and more threatening to defend himself. If the cat feels there is no escape route, there is a likelihood she will strike.

THE EARS:

  • Cone shaped, which amplifies sounds
  • 32 individual muscles in each ear, which can each move independently forward, backward, and up/down
  • They can swivel ears independently, nearly 180 degrees
  • Cats to use their ears to express their moods, acting as a gauge to anticipate and avoid potential problems, and to respond to acoustic clues with better discrimination abilities than dogs and humans
  • Generally, the more the cat’s ears are moved sideways, backwards, and downwards, the greater the cat’s arousal
  • See #13. When both ears are erect and forward, the cat is signaling alertness and that something has caught his attention
  • Airplane ears:  ears flat and sideways, signaling fear or defensiveness. See #15. The cat does this to protect his ears, keeping them out of range of things like claws and teeth during an attack. If the ears move into a folded, backward position, this may communicate the cat is about to aggressively attack.
  • Offensively aggressive ears: when a cat moves her ears from a forward position to a backward facing position, it is an offensively aggressive gesture. Ears pricked up and turned backward indicate a warning that an attack is being contemplated. Coupled with lowering of the head and clamping of the mouth indicate a more confident and offensively aggressive cat.
  • Relaxed/content ears: are pointed forward and slightly to the side indicate contentment and relaxation.
  • Ear twitching: occurs when a cat moves one or both ears with a sudden, jerking motion. This is typically an indication the cat is agitated, nervous, or there is a physical irritant of the ear. If the twitching is persistent, it could be a sign of a medical problem and you should take your cat to the veterinarian.

THE EYES:

  • Cats only require 1/5, or 20%, of the light that we require to see
  • Pupil size can indicate a reaction to light, but can also be an indicator of mood
  • Constricted pupils:
    • In bright light they contract to slits, called constriction.
    • Pupils also constrict in response to irritation, as well as feelings of tension and aggression.
  • Dilated pupils:
    • In dim light, eyes are enlarged and circular.
    • Pupils also dilate in response to fear, surprise, excitement and stimulation.
  • Oval pupils: or half-closed eyes, indicate a state of relaxation and a trusting kitty.
  • I’m going to demonstrate the next term: Can anyone tell me what this?
    • Slow blinks: when a cat slowly opens and closes his eyes, blinking toward the object of the cat’s attention, he is communicating a sign of trust. Slow blinks can also be used as a calming signal, to diffuse tension. The cat is communicating they are peaceful and mean no harm.
  • Staring: when the cat looks at something fixedly and intently, typically for a longer period of time and without blinking. A direct stare by a cat is communicating a challenge or a threat.
    • Staring is used between cats to determine the pecking order. Higher ranking cats to more staring.
    • We all have that friend who doesn’t like cats and our cats are all over them, right? That’s probably because they aren’t staring at our cat and so our cat immediately gravitates toward them, as a non-threatening being.

HAIR:

  • Piloerection: a nervous reflex that causes the tiny muscles in the skin at the base of each hair to involuntarily contract, resulting in the hair being lifted away from the skin. It is usually triggered by cold, fright, or arousal, including aggression. Piloerection is similar to us getting goosebumps. It can also be used to insulate the cats for warmth.

HEAD:

  • Head held up, back flat or straight, and a tail that trails out and behind is generally a relaxed, alert cat, #1 on poster
  • A head stretched forward generally indicates greeting.
  • Lowered head is generally fearful and meant to avoid interaction, but it can also be used by a cat on the offensive. This would usually be coupled with the cat slowly walking directly toward the subject of his angst with his eyes on the target.
  • Turning the head sideways indicates an attempt to diffuse or avoid the situation

MOUTH:

  • Flehmen response (flehmening): when a cat sniffs an odor source, then raises head, lips drawn back, nose wrinkled and mouth partially opened for inhalation, often holding this position for several seconds. This allows the cat to access the scent organ above the roof of their mouth, called the vomeronasal or Jacobsen’s organ. This intensifies the odor and gives the cat more information about the scent.
  • Yawns: cats yawn to indicate drowsiness, contentment, to stress or ambivalence. Observe the cat’s surroundings to figure out which type of yawn.

TAIL:

  • Vertical: friendly greeting towards human beings, cats, or other species in the home, #2
  • Vertical and piloerect: indicator of defensive behavior of a fearful or highly agitated cat, #18
  • Vertical and quivering: can indicate spraying or just high arousal, including extreme happiness or anticipated conflict
  • Question mark: the cat is expectant or monitoring the situation
  • Curved to the side: may indicate a cat/kitten expecting play, defensive aggression, avoidance or distance increasing measures. For example, a cat trying to get away from a pesky dog.
  • Tail lifted at an angle: nonthreatening gesture, see #8. The cat may be interested or just unsure about something.
  • Horizontal tail: when held behind the cat, it’s usually neutral or friendly, see #1
  • Diagonally lowered tail: usually neutral, but can depend on the cat’s other body language, #1 vs #12 vs #13 – different other body language for all three
  • Lifted and swishing slowly: mild interest, relaxed state; if swishing becomes more dramatic, then can signal irritability and/or wanting to be left alone, #4 if the tail was moving
  • Tucked tail: tucked between legs is a sign of fear; makes the cat look smaller and less threatening to another cat, similar to #14 and 15
  • Twitching to thrashing tail: ranges from pensiveness to a play gesture, “I’m going to get you!” see #19
  • Tails intertwined: two tails upright and intertwined indicate a very close relationship between those cats.

WHISKERS:

  • There are nerve endings attached to the shaft of each whisker to detect air movement, prey location, navigate in the dark, and help the cat decide whether they can fit through an opening
  • Held to the side, less spread out, and loose and droopy can mean friendliness or indifference
  • Whiskers back against the cheeks: indicates fear, helps protect the whiskers in a fight. See #16.
  • Forward whiskers indicate curiosity or hunting prey. See #13.

BODY POSITION:

  • Weight forward: the cat is about to move forward
  • Weight centered: relaxed and somewhat stationary
  • Weight backwards: fearful and defensive

SMELL:

  • Sense of smell is 16 times stronger than ours
  • It is the first sense used by newborn kittens to orient themselves to their mother
  • Used for communication, sexual status, social status, identify territory, and sniff out other cats
  • Flehmen response
  • Bunting
  • Scratching objects: leaves pheromones for communication
  • Sniffing: done to identify a scent
  • Urine spraying: the cat will sniff an object, back up to it, raising the tail erect and quivering, standing tall with butt held high. The cat then releases urine on the object to send “pee-mail” to other cats to the newly claimed territory.
    • This is one of the biggest requests I get as a cat behavior consultant. Some of the things you can do to prevent urine spraying are:
      • Spay/Neuter ALL of your cats
      • Keep your cats indoors only
      • Stick to the litter box rule: one per cat, plus one extra
      • If your cat is urine spraying near doors/windows, she is probably reacting to outdoor cats, and is communicating her territory. You will likely need to invest in outdoor cat deterrents.
      • If none of those seem to resolve the issue, it could be stress-related and the stressors will need to be identified.