In part 1 and part 2 of our series, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve discussed the importance of context; the big picture aspects of cat body language, like body posture and tail position; and up-close-and-personal body language details, like ear position and eye dilation. Now, it’s time to fill in the final puzzle pieces. Let’s talk about extra tidbits, like vocalizations and the venus cat trap, and how to put these cat body language puzzle pieces together for a more fulfilling relationship with the felines in your life.
Though not technically body language, cat vocalizations are worth mentioning in the conversation around cat body language. Vocalizations offer valuable information that we can use to clarify ambiguous cat body language cues.
Did you know that adult cats rarely meow at each other? Cats will hiss, spit, and yowl at each other to set boundaries, but they typically save their meows for their human companions. Kittens meow at their mothers to express unmet needs, and as they grow up around highly vocal humans, they learn to translate this behavior over to their interactions with us. Cats will meow at humans to ask for food, water, attention, or simply to say “hello.” However, if you notice your cat is meowing more than usual, keep a close eye on them as this can be a sign of illness.
When something catches a cat’s attention, you’ll likely notice body language cues like dilated pupils and twitching ears. Likewise, focused cats often vocalize in the form of chattering or trilling, which is a high-pitched noise that comes out in short bursts, sounding like something between a meow and a purr. This noise, somewhere between excitement and frustration, is often heard when a cat’s hunting instincts have been stimulated but they are unable to attack potential prey.
Another way cats respond to stimulation is in the form of the flehmen response, also known at “the sniffing face.” This is the squinty eyed, open-mouthed expression that cats make when they encounter a particularly interesting scent. What could be misinterpreted as aggression to the untrained eye is actually just the position a cat’s mouth assumes as they run the new scent over their vomeronasal organ. Also known as the Jacobson’s organ, this is located in the roof of a cat’s mouth and connects to their nasal passage, making it valuable for identifying scents of other animals.
Anxiety and Fear
Fearful and anxious cats will often make themselves very loud. These antagonistic and defensive sounds are produced to send a warning or to increase distance. Growling is an initial warning sign, which may escalate to howling or shrieking if the threat does not back off. This loud, sudden noise is designed to startle an opponent to allow time for escape.
Once a cat realizes that escape is not possible, they will progress to hissing and spitting in a desperate effort to scare or deter the threat from attacking. If it’s not already clear, these are all a cat’s way of saying “stay away from me.” If you encounter a cat who is licking their lips, yowling, panting, growling, howling, or hissing, stay away unless you want to be scratched or bitten.
Cat Body Language Honorable Mentions
There are a few cat body language cues that don’t necessarily fit into the standardized categories we’ve been discussing, but I still think they are fun and informative.
The Venus Cat Trap
The venus cat trap is a phenomenon that’s been mystifying cat lovers, probably since the dawn of time. Though virtually any dog is up for a belly rub, cats often require a bit more caution. When a cat exposes their belly, it’s often a sign of trust, so many well-meaning people misinterpret this as consent for a belly rub. Once their hand is in the danger zone, the unassuming victim will find their arm trapped in the vice-like grip of the venus cat trap as the cat latches onto them.
Though an exposed belly is a sign of trust, it can also be a sign of defensiveness. This back-down, claws-up orientation leaves a cat’s most valuable weapon (their paws) free to defend themselves, so many cats assume this position when they feel backed into a corner. As a rule of thumb, you can avoid the venus cat trap by steering clear of a cat’s stomach – unless you know them well and they have a history of enjoying belly rubs.
Purring is the sound that’s created when a cat’s laryngeal and diaphragmatic muscles vibrate. Though purring is typically associated with happiness in cats, it can communicate a number of emotional states. Similar to how humans smile when we’re happy, but also when we’re feeling nervous or uncomfortable, cats purr to communicate anything from contentment to discomfort and pain.
Cat purrs vibrate at a frequency of 25-150 Hz, which is the range that many experts agree assists with physical healing and bone mending. Additionally, purring releases endorphins, which help with pain management. So, the next time you notice your cat purring, consider taking a closer look; they might be feeling happy or content, but they may also be trying to soothe themselves in response to pain or discomfort.
Rubbing on objects is a well-known sign of affection in cats. Cats have scent glands in the sides of their mouths, chins, the top of their heads, and the base of their tails, and they rub these glands on objects (and people) to distribute their scent and mark their territory. So, if you notice your cat rubbing on you or your belongings, they likely consider you to be a member of their family – or they’re trying to steal your stuff by marking it as their own.
Kneading, or “making biscuits,” is a sign of extreme happiness and affection. When feeding, kittens use their paws to gently knead their mothers’ stomachs, which stimulates the production of milk. This leftover behavior is often found in adult cats who are feeling extreme love and happiness. The next time you find your cat kneading on soft blankets, pillows, or even on you, know that the comfort you bring reminds them of their most formative moments of safety in kittenhood.
Putting It All together
I know we’ve thrown a lot of information at you, and it might be hard to put all of the puzzle pieces together into one cohesive picture. It’ll take time, patience, practice, and dedication to learn about the unique cues of the felines in your life, but it’ll be worth it to form a deeper and more authentic connection. But, if you find that you and your cat still have a language barrier, you’re not alone.
It all seems straightforward on paper, but many people struggle to apply cat body language in real time. When this begins to affect your relationship with your cat, it can be helpful to get expert guidance. Jessica Bartlett is a UW-Certified Animal Behaviorist with all of the tools to bridge the gap between you and your cat.
The founder of Cat Lovers’ Academy, Jessica draws on her certification in advanced feline training to offer virtual behavior consultation services that you can access from anywhere. Check out Cat Lovers’ Academy to learn more about Jessica, meet her kitty family, take a look at her free purr-fessional resources, and access her cat behavior consulting services today.