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Understanding Your Cat's Behavior

Get a better sense of your complicated (yet cuddly) kitty.

By Sean Cunningham
Cat laying on windowsillCindy Prins/Getty Images

Cats are mysterious creatures—cuddly and affectionate one minute, irritated and aloof the next. The ability to read your feline’s body language will help you better understand his seemingly bizarre behavior. Certified cat behavior consultants Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of Think Like a Cat ($18, amazon.com), and Mieshelle Nagelschneider of The Cat Behavior Clinic offer their insights into what your precious kitty is communicating.

Head Butting

When a ram smashes his skull into another ram, he isn't announcing to the world, “I like you!” But for  cats, a knock of the noggin (referred to as “bunting” or “allorubbing”) is a sign of fondness. “Cats will physically use their heads to show affection,” says Johnson-Bennett, adding that felines may seem to “head butt” you with their foreheads and chins to demonstrate their amorous feelings and to leave their scent as a form of communication and identification.

Blinking

Cats can also express their affection for you without making physical contact. “Slow, relaxed eye blinks are often referred to as cat kisses,” Johnson-Bennett says. These long blinks indicate Fluffy is happy and relaxed.

Tail Up

If your cat greets you with her tail held high, she’s giving you a warm welcome. “A sure sign of happiness is their tail is held upright like a flag pole. Plus, they want to be seen,” says Nagelschneider. Other tip-offs that Kitty is in a good mood: The ears are in a relaxed position, not flattened, and the pupils are normal-sized instead of dilated. Your cat has a relaxed gait when moving about the room and isn’t “skulking around,” says Johnson-Bennett.

On Its Back

A cat lying on her back can mean very different things. “It’s important to not take a behavior out of context,” says Nagelschneider. You should look at the cat’s body as a whole, including the ears, eyes, paws, and tails. If Snowball is napping with her belly exposed, it probably indicates she’s feeling very secure and relaxed. But what if your cat has her tummy showing while she’s awake? If she’s simultaneously purring and kneading her paws in the air, she’s content and stress-free. But if she’s on her back with flattened ears or dilated pupils, she feels threatened. Your cat is defensively announcing that if she has to fight, she’s ready to use all of her weapons—including those powerful hind legs and claws.

Balling

If your pet “hunkers down into a tight little ball” and then “tucks his limbs underneath his body and tightly wraps his tail close to his side,” depending on the immediate environment he’s in, he might be indicating that he’s afraid, says Johnson-Bennett. This posture can also mean your cat doesn’t want to be bothered. Essentially, your kitty is trying to make himself as invisible as possible. Balling up usually occurs during times of fear or uncertainty: You might observe this behavior when your cat is at the vet.

 
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