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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many people think of cats as loners, but they’re actually quite social creatures. If your cat suddenly starts avoiding everyone or disappears for long periods of time, this can be cause for concern. Other troubling signs include lessening or no longer using the litter box or over-grooming. “Any change in a cat’s behavior should be viewed as a red flag indicating a potential medical problem,” Johnson-Bennett says. Take your cat to the vet for a check-up. If he's physically healthy, then “look at your cat’s environment from his point of view” to try to pinpoint the source of stress, she says.
It’s likely you’ve observed your kitty kneading his paws against something soft, such as a blanket or your lap, much like a baker working dough—hence the term “making biscuits.” A cat engaging in this behavior (also known as the “milk tread”) has regressed to when he was nursing: “When kittens are suckling they knead the mother cat’s teat with their paws to stimulate the flow of milk,” says Johnson-Bennett. A kneading feline is content, relaxed, and happy—much like a kitten with its mother–so if you find yourself on the receiving end, you should “consider it a compliment!” she says.