Feline body language: Talking without speaking!
Unlike dogs, cats are a lot more sophisticated when it comes to communicating amongst themselves and to their pet parents. To be a good pet parent, it is very important that we understand what our pet is trying to tell us, in their own species specific way.
Feline body language is very nuanced as compared to other animals. They can be seen a bit hard to read for someone who is not well versed in the feline, but there are several telltale signs that you can use to understand what your feline friends are feeling. Cats have a wide range of emotions – Happy, Sad, Angry, Hungry, Afraid, Relieved, Relaxed, Sleepy, Frustrated, Friendly, Doubtful and many more. Some ardent devotees of cats have even said that their emotional range compares to that of a human.
Happy and relaxed, often friendly and playful
This is how a cat would spend majority of his waking hours. This is a vital part of a cat’s body language as this is when the cat is happiest, secure and comfortable in its surroundings and this is the time when they are most accepting of touch and handling, even possibly pilling. Most of the time, they are just content to sit in a corner and purr, and watch the world go by, occasionally, even nap. A happy cat is easy to recognise.
Traits: When sitting, the cat will be straight and upright, the ears pointed upwards and slightly forward. The ears can gently swivel in the direction of an interesting sound. A friendly cat will have bright alert eyes and will blink at a normal cat. An unblinking or too rapidly blinking cat is one who is under duress. If the cat is standing, she will be with a head that’s held up, but not proudly so. Just a gentle head, without leaning or ducking identifies a friendly cat. If on the ground, the cat will lie prone, with paws outstretched. Often the cat will roll on her back, exposing her belly. If accompanied by gentle, forward pointed ears and gentle eyes, this is a cat who wants to play. Quite often, a happy, friendly cat will have her paws tucked neatly underneath her. They might often snooze, with eyes closed, or half open, and the lids are typically heavy, and the cat might appear to be daydreaming. But in reality, the cat is just gently regarding their surroundings. The whiskers are relaxed and fanned out, and often pointed sideways and forward. This is a happy, friendly cat. If you pet her, she will languish in the feel and gently surrender, often emitting purrs, meaning the cat is content.
Anxious and/or fearful cat
It is very important to understand anxiety in your cat. Cats can be very sensitive, especially to change. They can take some time to acclimatise, especially after a change. The bigger the change, the longer the phase of anxiety will last in a cat. The change can be something as minor as moving the litter box, to mediocre like re-homing (either the pet parent moves to a new place, or in the sad scenario, an abandoned cat has to be re-homed to a new adoptive home), or life altering, like the passing of a pet parent and change of ‘hands.’ The sooner you realise that there is something in your cat’s surroundings that is making her anxious, the sooner you can set about remedying that situation. An anxious cat is an unhappy cat and such a cat will often take ill. So it’s imperative that either the source of anxiety be removed from the cat or the cat be removed or calmed down in a situation where it’s not possible to remove the source of anxiety itself.
Traits: A fearful cat is even more obvious than simply an anxious cat. An anxious cat will have eyes that are wide open and unblinking, her pupils dilated to ovals or circles. However, when the anxiety progresses to real fear, the eyes will be flattened, the pupils fully dilated and toward the sides of the eyes, as if the cat is trying to avoid eye contact with the source of fear and her eyes will dart rapidly sideways with increasing speed as her fear increases. This is a cat who is a fight or flight risk. The ears will move from the relaxed position to independent movement in both directions as they scan for more and more information. The more anxious she gets, the more flattened the ears will get. Her head will begin to lower and she may sweep her whiskers. As the levels of anxiety increase, the whiskers will get alert and finally pulled to the side or back in a flattened manner. In a fearful cat, the whiskers will be flattened. This is an act used to mitigate the threat by trying to make herself appear as small as possible. Their whiskers can sometimes be half flattened or bristling, and this is a cat who is on the verge of an attack. The cat will hiss or spit at close quarters. When threatened, she may counter-threaten with a growl at a rising pitch. This is followed by spitting after which she will strike or swipe with her claws out. The body of an anxious cat will show the cowering behaviour, following which she will arch her back, indicating that she is getting ready to bolt. The tail may be still or move slowly from side to side only at the tip, which is a clear indicator of an anxious cat. When completely frightened, she will straighten her front legs to appear herself taller and hence, a bigger threat. The tail will be slashing vigorously from side to side and her hind legs will stay bent, ready to leap. This is a cat who won’t be reassured even with her favourite stroke or treat. If your cat is showing these behaviors often despite removing the possible causes, it might be time to see a behaviourist.
Frustrated or negative mood
There can be two kinds of frustrations, either a short-term or a long-term. For example, she wants to reach a toy but can’t. This is what is called, very often, in the feline lingo – the active frustration. The cat is intently focused on an object but can’t get to it. They will try everything in their power to get what they want. The other is long-term frustration, also known as passive frustration, which can often lead to clinical depression if not remedied in time. This frustration often results from the absence of stimulation. Cats are essentially hunters and they need consistent opportunity even after being domesticated to express their hunting and exploratory behaviours consistently. They need outdoor access or other methods of frustration release by means of games or entertainment. These cats are often withdrawn, lethargic, off their food and often reluctant to engage in social interaction or play.
Traits: All their senses are tuned on that one goal; wide-open eyes, dilated pupils, ears erect and forward, listening to any change in the sound that the object of fascination might make. The whiskers will be forward pointing and spread as well, and for the same reason. They might pace if they are not intently staring at the source of their frustration. However, this heightened sense of frustration can’t be maintained forever, and eventually, the cat will give up.
(Garima Singhal is a canine behaviourist, neurobiologist, school teacher and a long-term pet parent based in Bengaluru).