The Verbal and Body Language of Cats Explained
You might be wondering why cats act so differently from dogs. If you’re a dog lover, or a first time cat owner, you’re probably skeptical about the everyday things you see or hear about cats doing. Cats are generally more introverted-social than dogs, and we do crave attention but on our terms. All cats are different but this is a general truth across the board. Think about your more private, introverted loved ones and how much they enjoy their space and selective socializing, their independent nature. It’s the same with cats. With both introverted people and cats, patience and understanding are virtues.
We might not be interested in learning tricks—unless you have really convincing rewards (ahem, treats). I have heard that there are dog-like cats who are more trainable. Me and my brothers are perfectly happy with our completely feline mentality, but if you prefer one of our kind that might play fetch with you, there are pawfuls of people-pleasing cats waiting to be adopted by dog-whisperers who are looking for a feline companion.
We may share similar behaviors with both dogs and humans, but our species-exclusive tendencies definitely set us apart. In this guide, I, Laszlo, will tell you about why we cats act the way we do and why, from the most basic to what you humans consider bizarre.
Basic Cat Behaviors Translated
- Bathing. It’s normal and natural for cats to spend what feels like a very long time licking their paws, their legs and...elsewhere. We do this to stay clean and well-groomed on our own (the epitome of ‘I woke up like this’) that dogs just don’t normally do. However, with the exception that some breeds of cat need frequent bathing from their human, most cats don’t like or need baths for a few reasons.
- Believe it or not, a cat’s skin gets oily very quickly. Fortunately, we cats have barbed tongues designed to wick away natural oils—just like humans have—to keep our fur clean. It’s a lot similar to why you humans sometimes use special oils for your own fur—er, hair. Spreading the oil through and out of our fur is how it stays so shiny and soft! This is why, when we cats get water-logged, washing ourselves is even more tedious and extremely frustrating. After all, as the humans say, oil and water don’t mix. This is primarily why, unless we are truly dirty, or have a health issue or are coat type that warrants assistance, cats do not need to be bathed by their human. You will find that for us cats, getting wet is very stressful. And a stressed-out cat is a claws-out cat.
- We cats sometimes give our fur a thorough washing before laying down for a nap as a way to ‘wind-down’ and relax. If showering before going to bed is part of your routine or are getting ready to take an after-work nap, you can probably relate.
- Humans generally wash their hands before eating, but for cats it’s the opposite! After finishing a meal, we take time to bathe mostly around our face and between our toes.
- We stay cool this way. Okay, that may or may not have been a flex, but licking ourselves really does keep our body temperature down when we get too warm. Since cats only sweat through their toes, being able to cool ourselves down with a thorough cleaning is a huge advantage.
- Hiding. I have not heard of a single cat who doesn’t do this from time to time. We cats value our alone time, and will actively seek out small, enclosed spaces (under tables, chairs, in boxes, under beds, etc.) because we can easily become overstimulated or scared. The coming and going of people or other pets, commotion, change in routine, change in environment can become overwhelming depending on how the day goes. By giving us a small cardboard house, a box, or a hideaway cat bed, you can provide us with a safe space that also smells like you. Hiding gives us a place to recharge and we usually end up with a favorite spot. It’s our subtlest way of saying “I want to be alone for a bit. Please check on me later.”
- Sleeping a LOT. Cats require an average of 15 hours of sleep per day. Usually this leads to being awake while you’re catching z’s, but a cat’s sleep habits vary, typically due to their age, health, and temperament.
- Sparring. Cats are social and need a lot of stimulation and activity to stay healthy and prevent them from getting lonely and despondent. For this reason, they need to be around other cats, who will naturally bring out the urge to play-fight, stay active, and have some much-needed company. At times, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a friendly brawl and an actual fight between cats. A playful fight will be claws-in and non-vocal, whereas a spiteful one will consist more so of yowling, hissing, and biting. It’s important to let cats work out their differences and learn each other’s boundaries, but you should intervene—with caution—if it appears one or both of the fighting cats are getting seriously hurt.
- Clawing at surfaces (especially wood or fabric). By instinct, we need to sharpen our claws from time to time because we’re hardwired to use them for self-defense. When we claw at some surfaces more than others it’s because we love how that material in particular feels when we dig our nails into it. Simply put, it’s a necessity and it feels good.
- Making biscuits! Okay, what I’m actually talking about is a thing we do called ‘kneading’. When cats are very young, they press their paws repeatedly against their mother’s side when they want milk, usually with the tips of our claws out. This carries into cat adulthood, when we do it to ‘make our bed’ before lying down for a cat nap or getting comfy. At that point, it’s a comforting call-back to kittenhood, and we definitely do it on surfaces that we like best. Like your lap or the giant bed you keep telling us isn’t ours.
Annoying (and Sometimes Funny) Things Cats Do and Why
- Screaming in the dead of night. Most cats sleep for a large part of the day when they’re not playing, so at night, they become more active and have nothing to occupy them. This may inspire mischief, yowling for attention (when you’re trying to sleep), or banging pots and pans in the kitchen.
- The food bowl is ‘empty’ if we can see the bottom. Why do we cry for more food when we’ve eaten half of our given serving and see the bottom of the bowl? There’s a couple reasons why this sometimes bothers us. First off, cats have a blind spot under their nose and chin. Sure we can smell the food, but when it’s in our blind spot, we have to feel around for it. That’s why we think the bowl is empty when there’s a big hole at the bottom where food should be. So we love it when you shake the bowl and there’s suddenly more food in it! Another reason is that some of us have really sensitive whiskers, and when we try to reach food on the sides of a container, our whiskers are constantly brushing against it, and it’s uncomfortable. Therefore, we opt for eating right out of the center. Fortunately, not all cats have issues like this in getting every last bite in the bowl.
- Knocking things over. What else are we supposed to do to get your attention when meowing doesn’t work? You’re busy on the laptop? Time to send your potted succulent to the floor. Part of it is sheer curiosity and fascination with watching things hit the floor and sometimes break. The other half is because we want a reaction from you because we want something and you haven’t figured out what yet.
- Some humans suggest that cats have some understanding of gravitational-pull. Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. We cats do enjoy watching you humans try to figure us out. But we will always be puzzled trying to figure you out.
- The Butt-Wiggle. When we’re in play-mode and about to pounce on a toy—or your feet—you’ll see us crouch low and wiggle our hind-quarters. This comes with an internal monologue that sounds something like ‘ready...set…’ and POUNCE! Doing the Butt-Wiggle is how we ‘line up’ or gauge the power needed for successfully pouncing on our target. It’s no wonder we’re such great hunters!
Body Language and Verbal Communication
- Ears. If you’re wondering how a cat is feeling, pay attention to their ears, because they alone can give off a variety of signals as to what’s going on in their soft little head. You may have heard a cat having ‘airplane ears’, which is when a cat’s ears are flattened back against our head to show that they are frightened or nervous. They’re more likely to hide for a while when they feel this way. When we cats are purrfectly content or feeling safe, our ears casually face forward and semi-sideways. You’ll know when we’re feeling attentive or curious (maybe we saw a bird out the window?) when our ears go straight up and forward. When we’re alert like this, sometimes our ears will twitch backward as surrounding noises catch our attention.
- Our tail speaks volumes. Most cats have one, and we use it for balance, but we talk with it, too. A raised tail that’s a little curled at the top is a friendly greeting to other animals and humans. It means we’re happy to see you! Alternatively, like dogs, the tail-between-the-legs thing is something we do out of fear. It’s our biggest way of saying “nope, nope, nope!”. Similarly, we show nervousness by tucking our tail to the side.
We also have two ways to express annoyance or anger. Cats are saying they’re annoyed when the tip of their tail is flicking up and down. But if our buttons keep getting pushed, the whole tail will whip about or thump the ground repeatedly. Take this as a warning to not approach us if we’re acting this way. We may bite or scratch if you get too close. This is especially true if our tail is standing straight up and all puffed out. Though, usually at that point, we are hissing and arching our back, too.
Now don’t tell dogs this, because we’ll never hear the end of it—but cats wag their tails, too, when they’re excited or happy. When we want to play with you, we’ll let you know by raising our tail, curled like a question mark. And when a cat wraps their tail around you or another pet, it means the same thing as when humans put their arms around one another. This tail talk is a symbol of friendship, love, and trust.
- Meowing and purring. Cats just don’t meow to other cats, but we did a lot of it as kittens to tell our mother we were cold or hungry. Cats understand each other’s nonverbal cues, but humans? Not always. Therefore, cats meow to tell humans when they want something, such as food, attention...or food. Definitely food. Cats meow at humans because you respond to it and give us what we want. We also do it to say hi, to tell you when we want to be let in or out of a room, and, a bit more personally, to find a mate. But this isn’t an issue once you spay or neuter your cats.
That deep rumbling sound we make when we’re curled up in a sunny spot or get picked up is what you humans call purring. And while we usually make this noise when we’re happy and content, we also may do it to help us heal any injuries we may have. The vibrations from purring help soothe pain and swelling, but also aids in healing broken bones! I hear purring has a similar effect on humans, which is why we may lay on or beside you when we sense you’re ill or hurt. We want you to feel better, too. The healing effects of purring is probably why we have less surgery complications from injuries than our barking counterparts.
- Hissing and arching our backs. When we feel threatened, we show our teeth and hiss. Cats will also stand sideways and arch their back in an effort to look bigger and more intimidating so whatever spooked them is more likely to back off. In this state, our fur stands up on end, just like you humans when you get what Mom calls ‘goosebumps’. Apparently they don’t look like actual geese—oh well.
- Tummy rub? Maybe, maybe not. When a cat shows you their stomach, it’s a sure sign of trust, especially when they do a biiiiggg stretch. A cat’s stomach is the most vulnerable part of their body, so when they roll over in someone’s or another animal’s presence it’s an act of submission. It’s our way of saying “I’m comfortable around you”. Now, other animals know that when we do this, it may also be an invitation to play. Humans on the other hand see our fluffy (or naked) tummies and must think “I wanna touch it. I NEED to pet the tummy”. On behalf of all of cat-kind, I must warn you humans of this: touching the tummy is a TRAP. We may love it, or we may not. But if you’re feeling brave...give it a try. ;)
- Slow blinking. When a cat loves and trusts you, they’re likely not going to show it the same way you do with kisses and bear hugs. Our way of giving you a ‘kitty kiss’ or saying we love you is by staring into your eyes, closing them for a second or two, and slowly opening them. Why does this mean love and trust in cat language? Because when cats close their eyes, normally to sleep, they are showing vulnerability. And by slow blinking at their human, they are saying they feel safe around you. And that’s one of the highest forms of affection a human can receive from a cat! The action is reciprocal, too! If you slow blink back to a cat, you are telling them you understand and love them as well.
Hopefully this guide on cat behavior helped you gain a more solid grasp on why cats do the weird and normal things they do. After all, who knows better about cats than a cat themselves? You can trust that knowledge...just like you can trust me not to bite or scratch if you pet my tummy.