What Is My Cat Thinking: Part 2 – Body Language
In this week’s post we’re going to be taking on the fascinating subject of cat body language. We’ll learn how to decipher the secret signals that reveal your cat’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
This is part two of a three part series, so if you missed last week’s post (Part 1: Facial Expressions) it’s well worth having a read. Each part of the series hones in on one set of cat signals.
Part 2: Cat body language (this post)
Taken alone, they each give you an amazing insight into your cat’s feelings, but the real superpowers come from reading them all at the same time. By the end of this series we’ll learn to do just that to become kitty mindreaders!
I could write a whole blog post just on cats’ tails! Who knew that they were broadcasting so much information through those big furry antennae. Here’s what you need to know to become an expert tail-reader.
When you cat bounds towards you with its tail up and a little curled over at the top, you should feel honoured, because it’s saying a big cheery ‘hello‘ to you!
Cats do this to other cats that they enjoy the company of, as a greeting, and to signal that they ‘come in peace’. Amazingly, there is even evidence to show that the curl of the tail is often directed towards the person or cat they’re greeting, so if you’re in a room with other people you can work out if it’s actually you that your cat is happy to see!
TAIL UP AND WHIPPING
TAIL OUT & BEHIND
This is the tail of a happy, relaxed and confident cat, who is alert and willing to explore the environment around them.
A lowered tail usually denotes aggression, but to interpret this one properly it’s important to take a closer look at your cat’s tail. Is the tail rigid and flicking? In that case, it’s probably a sign of offensive aggression – for instance if your cat is trying to scare off another cat that has wandered into its territory.
If however the tail is more floppy, then it’s more likely your cat is showing defensive aggression – for instance if it has just been threatened by a more dominant cat. This is a tail that says “watch out, I will defend myself if you start something”.
An arched tail that is raised in the middle is another sign of defensive aggression – often seen in a cat that is feeling threatened and trying to dissuade its aggressor from launching a physical attack.
TAIL BETWEEN LEGS
A cat whose tail is curled between its legs is trying to withdraw from social interaction – this is a tail that says “Please leave me alone“. It can be used as a submissive signal in a threatening interaction with another cat, the equivalent of “I’m not causing any trouble here so can we PLEASE not fight?!”
Reference: Overall, K. 2013
When a cat shows its underbelly it is generally a sign of vulnerability – it is revealing its soft furry bits to the world!
What that means depends on the context. If it’s in the middle of a fight with another cat, it is trying to show that it is completely defenceless and doesn’t want the fight to go on. In these cases a cat will also usually bring their back feet up with their claws out, as an insurance policy in case their opponent doesn’t back down. But crucially, if their opponent does back down, a cat that has shown its belly won’t chase after them to try and catch them unawares. In this way the belly up pose is like saying “truce, truce” – a cat promise to not carry the fight on.
If however your cat has just rolled over and proudly displayed its belly to you, that is a sign that it trusts you and is relaxed in your presence. For many cats, it is not a sign that they want a belly rub… after all, they just said “here are my most precious fluffy bits” so reaching in and trying to grab them can freak them out. However, there are cats that like a good belly rub. The best advice is to follow their lead… if they get upset or try and scratch you when you pet them around the belly area, then that’s a sure sign they wanted their belly to go un-rubbed! (Overall, K. 2013)
Photo credit: Flickr @torne
When our cats head butt us, and each other, they are actually engaging in a behaviour that scientists call ‘bunting’. This is usually a very friendly signal. Between cats it’s really only observed between cats that consider themselves part of the same colony or ‘gang’.
The purpose seems to be exchanging scent from the scent glands on the head and neck. Many experts believe that these mingled scents create a sort of ‘colony odour’. This scent would help them work out who is and isn’t in their gang. It’s a nice theory, but conclusive evidence for this ‘colony odour’ has yet to be found (Crowell-Davis, S. et al 2004).
What we do know is that if your cat is head butting you, it is affectionately rubbing its scent on you and saying ‘we’re in the same gang’.
Sometimes cats end up rubbing other things but as a proxy for us. If you’ve ever noticed your cat rubbing a chair or table leg when you come home, that’s what’s going on. In these cases the cat isn’t marking the furniture – it’s using it as a stand-in for you!
Your cat’s bunting behaviour can also tell you something about their confidence level. Research suggests that confident cats bunt more than less confident cats, and those lower down in the pecking order. (Overall, K. 2013)
This has been called the ‘Halloween Pose’ – a cat with an arched back like this is on high alert. They will usually be in a confrontation with another cat. This posture signals that they are ready to fight, defensively or aggressively, depending on what the other cat does next.
They usually perform this posture side-on for maximum effect, and it’s intended to show how fearsome they are. But if you want to know whether it’s just a bluff, it’s worth watching what a cat’s ears are doing… if they start to fold them back and down flat to their head it suggests that they might not be very confident of winning, and are getting ready to tuck them out of the way of harm during the impending fight (Bradshaw, J. 2013).
A cat that is in a low crouch is being defensive. It will usually wrap its tail around its body to signal to other cats that it doesn’t want to interact, and also to keep its tail safe if it ends up in a confrontation (Overall, K. 2013).
The difference between a ‘loaf’ and a ‘low crouch’ is in your cat’s front paws. In a crouch their elbows will be angled up so that they’re ready to move at a moment’s notice. In the loaf they’ll rest flat on the ground and the paws may be tucked under the body.
This is generally a contented pose, but it also signals that your cat doesn’t really want to interact. This is cat for “please do not disturb!” (Eilert-Overbeck, B. 2009)
This is the sign of a fully relaxed cat, who is feeling content and open to interaction.
Some cats have so much confidence in their abilities that they maintain an elevated rump at all times. This is a super assertive cat who wants to let all potential challengers know that it’s not worth bothering trying to knock them off their pedestal! (Overall, K. 2013)