Cat Communication, What Our Cats Are Trying to Tell Us

Understanding dogs may be easier than translating feline signaling, or what cats are trying to tell us. So, often people misinterpret.

- Cats rubbing their sides or cheek pads against your leg or a table leg are depositing pheromones to demonstrate their comfort.

- No one really knows why cats purr, certainly when they are contended. But purring is also thought to be self calming, it's expected that is why some cats will purr when they're in pain, even as they're being euthanized.

- Cats that are excited may scratch. When we arrive home, a cat may make "mistake" and scratch at the sofa instead of a post. Also, there may be no appropriate place to scratch anywhere near the door. And your cat is only expressing joy to see you. Our response can be to holler at the cat. Definitely a communication gap.

- Rolling over on their back, exposing their tummies. This one totally depends on context. It may be that a cat is happy to see you when you arrive home, or is just elated about the sunshine, and rolling in its warmth. It may also be a response to catnip. However, cats are not dogs - and most cats who demonstrate this behavior aren't particularly seeking a tummy rub. In fact, some make take offense to a tummy rub.Having said that, some cats (though not the majority) have learned to enjoy tummy rubs. When cats are absolutely terrified, and feel there is nowhere to run, as an ultimate defense gesture they may roll over on their backs, threatening whatever it is with a full set of claws and teeth.

- The suggestion that cats lick their lips when hungry is generally untrue. Typically, quite the opposite - meaning a cat is nauseous. Licking lips may also be a signal low level threat to another cat, and/or a sign of stress. Cats will also lick their lips to clean themselves, removing excess after a meal.

- A flashing tail could signal aggression, depending on if it is gently waving or going back and forth quickly. The back and forth quickly in dogs could signal 'happy to see you,' in cats quite the opposite. A gently waving tail does signal, glad to see you. A tail standing straight up, as if to signal "I'm here, look at me," does mean happy to see you. Often cats will even point the tip of the tail at you, running in your direction - these cats are elated to see you.

- Relaxed cats will blink, it's thought to be a calming signal to soothe other cats as well. Veterinarians are now blinking at cats, which may help to calm them. Blink at your cat and if the cat blinks back....congratulations, you have just 'talked' cat.

- A cat with flattened ears, curled up is hiding....or trying to. If a cat is frightening, offering a place to hide is far better for the cat than "forcing" a cat to face his or her fears. Hiding places don't always need to be under the bed, they may be up high for some cats, if they have that option.

Further explanation from Nicky Trevorrow of Cat Protection in the UK.


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  • Steve, your observations are spot on! There is also more behind these signals. During communication sessions, I've found that cats are great at releasing buried trauma and emotional patterns with careful aromatherapy, chakra energy balancing, Reiki, and Tellington touch massage. Thanks for a wonderful article, as always!

  • In reply to Denise:

    thank you

  • In reply to Denise:

    Ah, tell more. My Bob lived on the street for years until I decided enough! and convinced him life would be so much better as a member of our family. Of course those years were filled with trauma. He still has small pellets under his skin from being shot. [side note: the man I suspect of doing that heinous act died a horrible, protracted death]
    For months when he was sitting with me in the evening, he would flatten himself against me when car lights from the side street shown in the window. We've come a great distance together but if I can give him more comfort, pls explain the techniques.

  • To expand a bit --Cats also have scent glands on the top of their heads. They use pheromones to mark territory. So, when your favorite felid is head-butting your ankles, your hand when being petted, or even your chin, you are marked territory, off limits to other cats. Ditto for the rubbing.

  • In reply to jkatze:

    totally, totally TRUE! Excellent point

  • In reply to Steve Dale:

    Being marked can be dicey. Years ago, when my beloved Maurice (RIP) was very young and full of himself, he casually lifted his tail and sprayed my calves and ankles as I was washing dishes.

  • In reply to jkatze:

    that's an all together different thing than rubbing a cheek pad or a head butt.....yikes

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