According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, cats have become the most popular pet in the United States, surpassing dogs. Cat owners love their pets but don’t always understand them or know when they are sick, hurt, angry or playing. Cats don’t have the strict social hierarchy that dogs have so their behavior and communication may seem harder to grasp but it is possible to learn to read your cat’s moods.
Back off when your cat starts to swish its tail rather slowly but deliberately. This often happens when you want to play and your cat doesn’t, or when you want to hold it and it would rather not be held. The tail will not typically be raised, but will just swish back and forth slowly but very deliberately as opposed to relaxed and casual.
Teach children to observe and respect the cat’s signals that it does not want to be bothered now, such as the slow tail swishing or trying to walk away. If the cat is restrained when trying to leave it may even give a low growl, or something that sounds like a growl mixed with a meow. Forcing the cat to play or be petted when it doesn’t want to can cause the cat to become aggressive or very shy, hiding from the people who are too rough.
Let go and back away if you hear the growl mixed with the meow sound. The cat has usually lost all patience at that point.
Pet your cat when it rubs back and forth against your legs. The cat may want food, but often just wants attention. The cat may purr, which sounds like a low motor running in her chest; don’t confuse it with a growl. Purring is almost always done when the cat is content and safe, but occasionally a cat will purr when afraid. The cat’s entire body will be very relaxed and fluid if it is purring and content.
Take your cat to the veterinarian if he stops using–or never learns to use–the litter box. This is a common sign of a urinary tract infection, especially if the cat uses the sink or tub. If your cat seems to go to the litter box and strain or goes very frequently, it should see the veterinarian right away.
Don’t worry if your cat crouches down, lowers her head, and shifts weight repeatedly from one back leg to the other, then pounces and grabs your foot. This is predatory behavior that is meant as a game. It can hurt if you aren’t clipping your cat’s nails weekly. This is generally considered inappropriate behavior when directed to humans and you may have to take steps to stop the behavior if the cat gets carried away with this game, but it is not intending it as aggression. The cat will exhibit the same behavior when stalking a toy, bug or rodent.
Recognize when your cat is contented and feels secure. It will not only let you know the best times to pet him; it will also help you recognize better when he is upset, scared, sick or angry.
- Study and understand the Leyhausen facial expression scale. It is read across, down, and diagonally and shows varying facial expressions of a cat, as its mood changes from relaxed to defensive or aggressive. Note the position of the ears, body and mouth in the different pictures.
For Reference & Further Reading
- Purina: Cat Body Language
- Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine: Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression
- Ohio State Veterinary Education: Feline Friendly Hospitals: Leyhausen Facial Expression Scale
- American Pet Products Manufacturers Association: National Pet Owners Survey
- Friskies: Explore Your Cat’s Sensory World
- Purina: Cat Behavior
- Feline Advisory Bureau: Zoo Cats and Pet Cats
- Stanford Cat Network: Guide to Caring For Your Adopted Cat or Kitten