cat language: learn what your cat is saying & how to ‘talk’ to them
Every species of animal has a language it uses to communicate between its own kind, and to learn to understand I think is much easier than trying to learn a different human language! Cats actually have quite a rich language and even a complex system of social manners to be respected, and this is also the same in big cat society not just your domestic moggy! I have always been able to ‘read’ animals, which has developed from a high attention to detail. As I was growing up, I spent a lot of my time with my cat (and neighbours or friends’ cats too!) and I tended to notice things like certain expressions would be accompanied with a particular eye wink, twitch, flick of the tail or vocalisation that most people overlook. Without realising it at the time I managed to develop a basic understanding of the language and social code of conduct that cats use between themselves! Most people will probably think I’m completely insane for writing this, but if you take the time to watch out for and try the techniques you will see what I mean!
If you watch your cat close enough you too could work it out for yourself, but I thought I’d better explain a few of the major expressions to help you get started! When you learn to read your cat you will no longer have to suffer the frustrating confusion of not knowing what your cat wants, or is trying to do/tell you! You can almost have a conversation with your cat without uttering a sound! Also when you begin to read your cat well, human body language will become screamingly obvious to you!
Communication #1: Greetings!
This is the easiest communication to read and so the best example to start with. When your cat strolls into a room to greet you they will make brief eye contact followed by a ‘smiling squint’ (think of what your own eyes naturally do if you laugh or smile) which is a cat sign of pleasure. The tail often springs upward to a relaxed upright posture with a slightly sideways-curved tip to emphasise the expression (like us raising a hand in a wave!). Vocally, though not always as it depends on the cat and their level of enthusiasm, they will also utter a gentle prrrp! If they come over to you they will normally bump heads or at least rub on your leg as its closer. To return the greeting all you need to do is repeat the squint back to them, which normally results in more squints from the cat in return! Don’t follow the squint with continued eye contact as this is considered threatening and rude, instead look to the side slightly! I can personally mimic the prrrp vocalisation too (and purr!), though I don’t know many other people who can! So don’t worry if you can’t do the sounds, your cat will understand what you mean without you having to purr or own a tail as no doubt he/she has come to read your thoughts and feelings like a book already!
Communication #2: Irritation
I think we can all tell when a cat is really angry because of the tail swishing and cold stare, but there are many more subtle signs that lead up to that stage that are handy to know especially if you have children! A lot of people consider my cat as unpredictable as she ‘turns on you without warning!’ (please note that the pictures are not my cat! They just had perfect expressions!) but I often have to interrupt a fussing session she’s having with some poor oblivious soul as I can read her signs changing and see that she is ready to swipe! Of course not all cats are like mine, but she was born feral and seems to have a low level of tolerance for people!
The signs begin with a general stiffening of the body (barely noticeable at first), and what I can only describe as a fed up expression sometimes accompanied with the odd twist or slight flattening of the ears and a gentle tap of just the end of the tail. As the irritation and annoyance level rises you may notice a slight twitch of the head, angry eyes if you can see them, followed by a bluff bite (mouth slightly open and head moved toward you!). However depending on the situation, you really shouldn’t leave it until the bluff bite stage of annoyance as sometimes they will go straight for the real bite! When a cat is at the furious level, (ears flat, hissing, spitting, swiping, tail swishing etc) you will certainly know about it and there is nothing really other than retreat that I can suggest!
Communication #3: Confusion
If a cat is unsure of anything, like a sound or smell (or even as to what you’re doing as us humans do some very strange things in animals’ eyes!) you will often be questioned with a left-eye fast wink and ‘weird ears’. Weird ears are when they twist them quickly backwards then back to the front and is the equivalent of us raising one eyebrow! If you wish to question their behaviour then you can also do the left-eye fast wink coupled with our eyebrow version and watch for the response.
Communication #4: Embarrassment
Cats do get embarrassed surprisingly easy, as they seem to want us to believe that they are perfect at everything and NEVER make mistakes! This expression will usually follow a fall/slip or an overreaction to something like a loud bang. Their head and ears lower just slightly, accompanied by an upward tail flick and you will receive a slow right-eye wink, basically translated to ‘don’t mind me I’m just being stupid!’ Though if you continue laughing at them (and I can’t usually stop if they do miss a jump etc!) they will leave the room in embarrassment with a sideways tail flick which roughly translates to ‘hmph’! You can also use the same expression to answer a question expression you may have received, or get it in response to a question expression you may have given them.
Hopefully I have helped clear up some of the confusion around your cats’ expressions or mannerisms and perhaps spurred you on to seek out more information or try a bit of communication! My skills have been developed by observation and only a little research, but there are many books available by feline specialists that I’m sure could tell you a whole lot more than me! One of which is ‘Communicating with Your Cat’ by J. Anne Helgren who is an expert in feline physiology and behaviour. Her book explains a great deal about the history of cat evolution and behaviour, and also answers common problems with pet cat behaviour and training techniques.