Feline Behaviour & Communication
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Feline Behaviour & Communication

As any feline enthusiast will tell you, cats have complex personalities and temperaments. Some will greet anyone with gusto, while others will remain aloof until their trust is earned; some cats are as expressive and responsive as dogs while others are stoic with all but their favourite humans. Understanding your cat's body language and vocalisation can help you bond with your cat, as well as determine the cause of undesirable behaviours or disease. This article will outline how to understand what your cat is trying to tell you and help you become a better cat owner.

Behavioural overview

Signs your cat is content:

  • Body: much like dogs, some cats may roll around on their backs when content; note that this is not always a sign they'd like their belly rubbed!
  • Eyes: may be partially shut or slowly blinked to communicate contentment with your presence.
  • Tail: may be straight in the air or curled at the end like a question mark. Your cat may also loop his tail around your legs as a sign of affection, or "vibrate" it to denote happy excitement.
  • Vocalisation: may include meowing, chirping or purring to invite attention.
  • Cats sometimes "head-butt" when they are especially happy. This is because the salivary glands on their lower jaw double as scent-markers; your cat is essentially rubbing his scent onto you and claiming you as his own.

Most people are aware that cats purr and knead their paws when they are happy or soliciting food, but both signals can also indicate extreme pain. Cats sometimes purr when showing symptoms of serious disease or when they are approaching death.Signs your cat is afraid:

  • Body: posture will revolve around the fight or flight response. Most likely, your cat will crouch down or attempt to flee if approached. He may arch his back or his fur may stand on end - this is a natural response to an unexpected threat, and helps the cat look larger in the event of an encounter with an enemy or predator.
  • Eyes: pupils may dilate in fear or shock. The cat will usually be staring straight ahead at the threat, but sometimes may avert his gaze to avoid direct eye contact - a sign of aggression in most animals.
  • Ears: may flatten down onto the head.
  • Tail: may be tucked under the body, especially if the cat is in flight.
  • Vocalisation: growling, spitting or hissing are all warning signs that the cat will attack if approached or grabbed at. Some cats will not vocalize at all before biting or lounging, so be extremely careful when attempting to handle a fearful cat.

If your cat appears to be scared, it is best to back off and leave him alone. In situations where it is absolutely essential that you approach him, such as for a trip to the vet or if he has escaped into unfamiliar territory, move carefully and purposefully. Avoid direct eye contact and be especially cautious picking him up. Putting a towel or blanket over his head may help you to securely lift him, but remember that if your first attempt fails you will have more difficulty trying to approach him again. If at all possible, try to coax him to come to you.Signs your cat is in pain:

  • Body: both under and over-groomed patches are signs of discomfort. Cats may lick where it hurts or avoid contorting themselves into uncomfortable positions to groom. A cat that is no longer licking his back or tail may be experiencing back pain; over-grooming patches on the abdomen may be a sign of cystitis, or urinary tract infection. His posture may assume a hunched or crouched position, with the legs drawn close the body.
  • Eyes: the gaze may be turned down towards an indistinct point, almost as if the cat were seasick. Unlike with contentment, a cat in pain may appear distant with eyes fully open.
  • Tail: may flick back and forth rapidly and with force, especially if the pain is caused by handling or touch. This may be an early warning sign that your cat will lash out with continued stimulation.
  • Vocalisation: yowling or crying out can indicate discomfort. Watch to see which activities cause a vocal response.

As with most animals, a cat's natural instinct is to avoid showing outward signs of discomfort or vulnerability. Therefore, it can be difficult to ascertain whether your cat is showing true signs of pain. Suffering may cause behavioural changes such as irritability or lethargy, so it is important you see your vet if your cat no longer "seems himself". There are some behaviours which may indicate that you have a serious emergency on your hands. Look out for:

  • Strained or increased urination
  • Panting
  • Unexplained, prolonged rapid respiration
  • Lack of appetite
  • Sudden reclusiveness

Because feline temperaments vary so much, it is up to you as the owner to recognise when something is amiss with your cat. Knowing your cat well can make a significant difference in terms of catching or preventing problems early.

Mixed messages

As you get to know your cat, you may discover that some signals can be interpreted in more than one way - a fact that is especially true if your cat is behaving abnormally. For instance, inappropriate elimination can be a sign that your cat is experiencing bladder problems, but it may also be a consequence of territorial disturbance. Male cats are known to spray their territory especially if they have not been neutered. Before you take your cat to the vet, try to take note of his body language: how is he postured when carrying out the troublesome act? What other unusual signals does he project? Answers to these questions may provide invaluable clues as to whether your cat's problem is behavioural or medical, as well as expedite the process of finding a solution.

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