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Interpreting Feline Non-Verbal Communication

Jane Ehrlich examines the basics of feline body language. This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2015, page 26

Learning how to  interpret a cat’s  body language is  invaluable in helping cat owners assess  the animal’s  emotional state
Learning how to interpret a cat’s body language is invaluable in helping cat owners assess the animal’s emotional state. Photo © Can Stock Photo

Keep an eye on your cat’s body language to know what he/she is thinking and feeling. To that end, here is a scenario. In fact, you probably already know the signs. It is only a matter of putting them together and monitoring at what point Noodles starts demonstrating even one of these signals. It is the same as reading a human’s body language: one sign may not a message mean, but put a couple together, or anticipate what might be coming, and you are ahead of the game.

For example, you are absentmindedly petting your cat who has already begun to indicate she has had enough. What was the first sign? Probably the body tensing. Even twitching a bit. Or she has ceased purring. Perhaps her tail has begun to switch back and forth. Cats are not dogs—a little switching does not mean they are enjoying whatever is happening. Maybe her fur has begun to ruffle just a little bit.

Perhaps she has shifted into second gear, the ‘I SAID I’ve had enough’: She has shifted her body position. Perhaps she is looking back at your hand. Cats tend not to do this if they are relaxed and feeling mellow, enjoying the stroking. Her ears have juuust begun to flatten, getting into ‘airplane mode’.

You still have not stopped? Third gear: ‘NO MORE!’ Some cats never bother with this point, they just jump off or give you a filthy look and a swipe, either with claws in or out, and then leap. Otherwise, Noodles might let out a complaint. A low growl. An irritated ‘mrrowrw’. Her pupils are fully dilated by now.

Pay attention from the beginning, owner/servant/staff member/cat lover. And you will not only be able to read her mind at the earliest sign but will also have a much better chance of extending the stroking, a wee bit at a time, without getting attacked, every time she is on your lap.

Aggressive Postures:

•  Rigid, straight-legged upright position
•  Rigid rear legs with rear raised and back sloped down
toward the head
•  Tail stiff and lowered or straight down
•  Direct stare
•  Upright ears with their backs swiveled slightly forward
•  Fur ruffled, including the tail (piloerection)
•  Narrowed pupils
•  Directly facing opponent, cat or human, possibly moving
forward slowly
•  Might be growling or yowling

•  Crouching
•  Head tucked in
•  Tail curved around body, tucked in
•  Eyes wide open with pupils dilated
•  Ears flattened sideways or backward on the head
•  Ruffled fur
•  If anxious, whiskers might be pulled in. If fearful, whiskers might fan out and forward to estimate distance between herself and the threat
•  Turning sideways to threat, not straight on
•  Open-mouthed hissing or spitting
•  Might deliver quick smacks with front paws, claws in or out

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