By Dr. Irfan Ahmed*
Cats are one of the most popular pets and some of our closest companions. Their independent characters not only make them low-maintenance pets, but also challenge us to know their behaviour. Despite what some may think, cats are very expressive companions.
Most common behaviours a cat is likely to exhibit:
Cats have a few greeting methods, depending on how comfortable they feel around you. To start with, approaching you with their tail pointing up to the sky is a typical friendly greeting and means they want to say ‘Hello!!!’. Rubbing their head, body, and tail against your leg is another classic feline greeting – if you get a gentle headbutt, it indicates extra affection and trust. Cats have scent glands on their head and ears, so if your cats rub their cheeks and sides against you, this is their way of investigating your smell and then rubbing their own scent onto you.
TO STROKE, OR NOT TO STROKE; THAT IS THE QUESTION
Cat has a favourite spot to roll on its back and expose its tummy. If so, chances are it’s feeling nice and relaxed. It could, in fact, be a demonstration that they trust you and feel comfortable in your presence, as presenting the belly shows their vulnerability. However, cats are very aware of their surroundings and likely to change mood at slightest stimulus. So, just because a kitty is on its back, doesn’t mean it is inviting you to tickle. Depending on your cat’s character, they may have areas of their body that they do not appreciate being touched, such as their tummy. This is just one of their behavioural aspects, but there are some more general signs of comfort or anxiety. Relaxed muscles, forward-facing ears, and constricted pupils are all signs of calm. Conversely, if their muscles are tense, body is low to the ground, and their pupils are dilated then something in the vicinity is making them feel threatened.
EYES ARE A WINDOW TO THEIR SOUL
In the animal kingdom, closing your eyes is a sign of trust. It means you’re in an environment where you can let your guard down. Next time your cat gives you an unnerving stare, only to slowly blink its eyes, slow blink back at them because they just told you how comfortable they feel with you. Really comfortable cats will even lick their owners’ hands or faces! Many cats also maintain their prolonged stare while in hunting mode. When in this state of high attention, their brain is telling them to pounce at any movement. If the objects they happen to be staring at are your fingers or toes, it’s best to keep them still. A cat’s pupils can also tell you what they may be feeling. Wide pupils can mean fear or anxiety – as your cat tries to take in everything around them. Dilated pupils, when combined with purring and a relaxed body, can convey contentment or pleasure. However, your cat’s pupils shrinking can also be a sign of anger or fear, especially when paired with flattened ears and a tucked-in tail. Speaking of tails…
AN EMOTIONAL TAIL
Eyes aren’t the only way to get a sense of what your cat is feeling – a cat’s tail is very expressive. A high tail, if not too tense, denotes confidence and familiarity. This is doubly so if your cat decides to cuddle you with its tail as curling it around you means it is in an affectionate mood. A high, bushy tail can mean a cat is scared, especially if its back is arched or low to the ground, but this can also be a sign of excitement. Always take note of the cat’s surroundings so you can understand if its bushy tail is anxiety or excitement. Bear in mind that cats and dogs tend to tuck their tails in between their legs when they are scared. If your cat’s tail is pointing towards ground, there’s a good chance they are frightened, while a wagging or twitching tail means that your cat is irritated or upset and should be left alone. Of course, there is one more method of communicating that is more reliable than movement, eyes, and tails: speaking!
CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE?
As helpful as body language can be, nothing tells you better that your cat is comfortable than their soft purring as they settle in your warm lap. They might even start purring beforehand, as well – a sure sign that they’re craving some of your attention, while high-pitched gurgling is a sign of friendly kitty that wants to talk your ear off. Cats also meow to communicate with us. A short single meow is usually used as a casual greeting, whilst lots of meowing or trilling indicates that your pet is happy to see you! Longer, mid-pitch meows can be requests for attention or food, while high-pitched meows indicate shock or pain. Low meows are a sign that your cat may be ready to fight, especially when combined with growling, so it’s a good idea to let them be until they are more relaxed. Growling, hissing and spitting are common sounds of any pet that is upset, anxious, or feeling threatened, so be sure to give it some space if it sounds aggressive towards you. It’s important to be aware that whilst purring usually has positive connotations, it can sometimes be a sign of pain – so pay close attention to your cat’s vocalizations just in case. If you like to talk to your cat, then there’s a chance it might understand you! Cats can understand their owner’s voices and may even recognize several different words, besides their name. They also respond to different tones and volumes, so try to use a calm, gentle voice when speaking to them. It’s important to use consistent tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures to avoid confusing your cat.
TIPS FOR UNDERSTANDING YOUR CAT
There are several social cues which will help you further understand cat body language and behaviour. These are some of my top suggestions:
- If your cat gently bites you whilst playing, they are probably telling they have had enough
- If your cat growls at you when you stroke them or pick them up, they do not want to be disturbed – especially if they are sleeping or eating
- If your cat runs off when you greet them, you likely moved too quickly. When greeting your cat, take things slowly and let them approach you
- If your cat doesn’t show you the typical signs of affection mentioned here, don’t worry. All cats are different and show their feelings in different ways
NO ONE KNOWS YOUR PET LIKE YOU
These are the most common traits of cat behaviour, but every cat has its own way of communicating. The top piece of advice we can offer is that each cat is special in its own way, including its behavioural quirks. No one knows your cat better than you, so the best way to read your kitty is to spend time with them, play with them and learn what gets them excited and what makes them anxious. Ultimately, it’s learning to love and understand your cat for their individual nature that creates the strongest bond between you both.
*Author is a professor by profession. He is a self-confessed cat slave who has loved cats all his life. He is a pet parent to 3 ragdoll cats. He runs Mallika’s Cattery – a cat boarding service in Bengaluru.