The vet’s office: Reading the whole cat
Why we should care about feline body language
By Dr. Elizabeth Knabe, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
Our domestic cats’ wild ancestors chose to live near humans because of the mice that were living off stored grains and food supplies. The cats found a steady supply of mice, and humans benefited from the cats’ hunting abilities.
Cats and humans still benefit each other greatly, but sometimes a cat’s ancestral behaviors still pop up and disrupt harmony. Who has not been frustrated by a cat seeming to ask for attention and then lashing out when you go to pet it?
Just as for dogs, we can help improve our relationships with cats by knowing what to look for in reading the multiple signals cats display in body language.
While cats may alter their behavioral displays depending on the situation, such as being at home or at the vet, many stressed cats flatten their ears against the head and pull their whiskers back along the face. The tail may be lashing or be tucked tightly along the body. The cat may align its body to face sideways toward its opponent, and it may be hissing or growling. Be aware that soothing “shhhhh” sounds humans like to make may seem like hissing to a cat and can make the cat even more stressed.
A stressed cat will also usually have dilated pupils and will often avoid direct eye contact. The body is often crouched as if ready to spring away in retreat. Some cats that do not see how to back away from confrontation will resort to offensive aggression and will show signs such as raising the hackles, facing their opponent head on, and making eye contact. Their whiskers will fan out and point forward.
Your cat can also show you that it is content and happy to see you or its housemate pets. A nonstressed cat shows its ears pointing slightly forward, its whiskers to the sides and relaxed, and the tail in various positions. Often a confident, happy cat greets you with its tail straight up. The feline face has abundant scent glands that are used when marking objects and people in their home. A friendly cat will rub its head on you as a greeting that spreads the “family scent.”
One confusing cat behavior some cats make is when rolling onto their backs in a deeply relaxing stretch. Their bellies are exposed, making them look like they want a belly rub. In some cases, what happens next is your hand stimulates a reflexive, defense response. The cat may suddenly grab you with its claws in surprise. Thus, to keep feline harmony in your home, it is best to learn some basics of feline body language.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.