There is one question that all cat owners ask: Is my cat’s behavior weird or is that actually normal for felines? Most of the unusual behavior we see in our cats is perfectly normal; we just don’t understand what they’re telling us. Fortunately we have the secret that will reveal cat behavior.
Cat behavior decoded
Is your cat a chatterbox? Do you get greeted with a range of meows when you enter a room? Does your cat come and meow at you out of the blue? What does all of that meowing mean?
While kittens meow to their moms for attention and food, adult cats don’t meow to other cats. Meowing is used exclusively to communicate with humans. They meow to greet you, make demands (food), express unhappiness (stop rubbing my tummy), and attract attention (look at the present I bought you).
Some breeds are more vocal than others, for example, Oriental breeds can be particularly chatty. Other cats may learn to become more vocal as their humans respond to every meow. The more you respond to your cat’s meowing, the more they’ll meow for attention.
If cat behavior changes, for example, your cat has never been vocal but suddenly starts speaking up, it could a sign of a health problem. For example, thyroid problems and deafness in aging cats can result in excessive meowing.
Meowing is not the only vocal cat behavior. According to the Humane Society, cats also chirp and trill. They chatter, chitter and twitter, and sometimes they yowl or howl. Respectively, vocalization can mean your cat wants you to follow her, she’s watching ‘prey’ through the window and is imagining the kill, and she’s in distress and needs help (or is looking for a mate).
As we know, cats purr when they content but they can also purr to self-soothe when they’re not feeling well. Growling and hissing are also easy to read. Your cat is angry, irritated or frightened and does not want to be touched or bothered.
Cats also communicate through body contact with their people. If you have cats, you are probably familiar with the chin rub, the light heat butt and the body slide. It seems like your cat is telling you, in no uncertain terms, that he loves you. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what he’s saying. Cats have scent glands under their chins, on their heads, along their bodies and under their tails and when they rub or slide themselves on you they are, in effect, marking you as theirs. It’s a stamp of ownership. But seeing as it comes from cats, you’re welcome to consider it a sign of affection.
Cats may also knead your lap or your tummy and this really is a sign of affection and contentment. The kneading action stems from when they were kittens and they kneaded or massaged their mom’s teats to promote milk flow. They only do it when they’re very happy and comfortable with life. Note: Cats don’t always retract their claws when they knead you, so you might want to keep a blanket ready to act as a buffer.
(Another sign of pure contentment is the slow blink. If your cat looks at you and blinks very slowly, she is extremely happy and content. You can return the favor by blinking slowly back at her.)
Listen to the ears
Cats have supple ears that can move in all directions, including a 180° swivel forward and backward. This movement isn’t just so that they can hear a pin drop in the next room. It’s also a way for cats to communicate their moods. Understand the ears and you hold the key to understanding cat behavior. This is wonderfully illustrated by Catster.
- When your cat is feeling relaxed, the ears will also be relaxed, facing slightly outward and forward.
- An alert cat has perked up ears that face forward.
- Nervous cats have twitchy the ears.
- When your cat is feeling aggressive (motivated by fear), the ears will go into a horizontal position and when the aggression is motivated by anger, the ears will go backwards. If your cat’s ears are almost perpetually horizontal it may indicate an infection.
- Ears flat against the head are a signal that your cat is getting ready to attack, so clear the deck.
- When your cat is uncertain or unsure about a situation, the ears may move independently.
- When your cat is happy and relaxed, the tail is high, almost standing straight up, and the tip might quiver.
- If she’s happy but it’s tinged with some uncertainty then the tail will still be up but the tip will curl downwards – like an umbrella handle.
- When your cat is feeling threatened and is thinking about turning to aggression, the tail will hang downward. If the tip of the tail curls upward then an aggressive action in imminent.
- A straight up bushy tail is a sign of anger.
- If your cat’s tail is swishing back and forth (sword tail) then he is in stalk mode and is about to pounce or attack. The swishing movement elicits movement from the prey so cats can see them to pounce.
- If your cat is sitting and the tail is swishing, he is angry, excited or irritated. The context will give you more information.
- If your cat is sitting and just the tip of the tail is twitching, he is interested and watchful.
- When your cat’s tail is down between her legs, she is very unhappy and may be afraid or feeling ill.
The back practically shouts about cat behavior. The position of your cat’s back can tell you whether she’s angry, frightened or happy. For example, if her back is arched and the fur is flat, she’s happy to see you and wants a back rub. However, if her back is arched and the fur is standing up, she is angry or frightened. If she’s lying on her back and purring she is very relaxed and might like a tummy rub, but is she’s growling then she might attack the hand that strokes her.
Some cat behavior seems completely odd and inexplicable. For example, many cats will ignore their water bowls but leap up to lap from a running tap or water feature. The reason, according to cat behaviourist Marilyn Krieger, is that water in bowls can smell stale to cats, who prefer all things to be fresh.
Some cats will persistently use the floor next to the litter box rather than the box itself, or they may choose to go on the carpet. The problem is usually the litter. Cats like dry, unscented litter that clumps; scented wood chips or scented litter can be uncomfortable on their feet and too ‘smelly’ for the cat. The litter box might also not be clean enough for fastidious cats. Make sure you scoop it out regularly and change the litter often. The box might also be in the wrong location, for instance, somewhere with high traffic or too close to their food. Rather put it somewhere that offers some privacy. Also, use the ‘one tray for each cat plus one’ rule, so your cat always has a backup.
Stop, drop and roll – many cats perform this odd behavior when they want your attention, usually when your attention is elsewhere, like on work, cooking or shaving. You can respond with a belly rub but keep it short in case the belly rub ends in a hand attack.
Does your cat attack your feet from under the bed or under chairs? Does he pounce on your feet while you’re walking down the passage? This type of cat behavior could indicate boredom. You can keep him mentally stimulated with a selection of cat trees, scratching posts, shelves to climb, string toys, tinkle balls and puzzle feeders.
Cats are naturally quirky, finicky and precious. Learn to read their body language, remove perplexity, and come to a mutually beneficial understanding.