Category Archives: body language of cats

Why Cats Bite and How to Prevent the Behavior

By Julia Williams

My girl kitty Annabelle is the sweetest cat I’ve ever known. Normally, she can’t get enough of my lovin’, but if I try to pet her immediately upon waking, she will nip me. Not break-the-skin bites, but a clear signal for me to stop. I don’t know why she hates being touched only at that time, but I joke that “she’s just not a morning cat.” If people can be anti-morning, why not cats? Thankfully, it’s the only time she bites, and as long as I resist the urge to pet her upon awakening, it’s not a problem.

Others aren’t so lucky. According to feline behaviorists, biting is the second most common problem for cat owners (peeing outside the box is the first). This issue needs to be corrected, because cat bites are not only painful when they occur but they can cause serious infections. I’ll discuss three of the most common reasons why cats bite, and what you can do to reduce or eliminate this problem behavior.

Petting Induced Aggression

Scenario: You’re sitting there petting your cat who is purring away and seemingly enjoying the attention when all of a sudden she whirls and sinks her teeth into your hand. What just happened?

First of all, let’s be clear. In most cases, your cat’s transformation from friendly Dr. Jekyll to psychotic Mr. Hyde was not instantaneous. Your cat’s body language was telling you it was time to stop petting; you just missed the signals or misinterpreted them.

These signals include tail lashing or thumping, ears flattened or twitching, shifting body positions, eyes focused on your hand. She stops purring and may even meow or growl.  If you don’t heed your cat’s warning(s) that she’s had enough, she goes to Plan B – the bite – and voila, petting stops.

Some reasons your cat wants the petting session to end:

1. Overstimulation – for some cats, there’s a fine line between what feels good and what doesn’t. They can only handle so much stimulation before sensory overload occurs.

2. Not in the mood – sometimes what your cat wanted was to play, not to be petted. They may tolerate your petting for a little while because they love you, but then they just want it to stop.

3. Sensitivity – some areas of a cat’s body may be more sensitive than others, and being touched there is uncomfortable. Individual cats may also have specific areas of the body where they like being petted and others where they don’t. It’s up to you to figure out which is which, by paying attention to their body language.

Learning the sometimes subtle “stop it” cues your cat gives before they have to resort to biting you, will enable you both to enjoy the petting session and have it end on a positive note.

Play Aggression

Many people unwittingly encourage their cat to develop a habit of biting them during play, by engaging in roughhousing and offering their hands, fingers and toes as “toys.” Sure, it seems really cute and innocent when they’re a tiny kitten, but this type of play has Cat Bite written all over it. Your cat isn’t able to discern how rough is too rough. If you want your cat to stop biting you while playing, never use your body parts as toys. That means no tickling them, no moving your finger for them to chase, no tapping your toes as an invitation to pounce. And pass up products like gloves with balls on the end that encourages your cat to see your hand as a toy – they simply can’t understand that it’s only OK to attack when the gloves are on. Be sure that every family member follows this strict rule, or biting during play will continue, and one day it may go too far.

Cats are natural born hunters, and need to engage in “stalk and pounce” play for mental satisfaction. If your kitty likes to lie in wait and bite your ankles when you walk by, try carrying a small catnip mouse, fuzzy ball or other cat toy that you can toss away from you to redirect their attention. It’s also a good idea to provide plenty of interactive playtime with the appropriate toys (remember – no fingers!).

Redirected Aggression

Sometimes an agitated cat will lash out at a person or another cat in the household that had nothing to do with the reason the cat got upset. This is called redirected aggression. It can occur when your inside cat sees a cat outside – trespassing on “his” territory. It can also occur when you take one cat to the vet and he comes home smelling like “that place.” There are many other reasons that can cause a cat to take out his frustration on you instead of the person or thing that upset him.

Your best strategy is to try to figure out what the stressor is and take steps to remove it. For example, if a trespassing cat has your kitty in an uproar, find a way to either discourage the cat from coming around (such as installing motion activated sprinklers) or keep the curtains closed. It can take some fine detective work to figure out what’s causing the redirected aggression, but don’t give up. Also, don’t try to interact with your cat when he’s highly agitated, as this will almost certainly result in being bitten.

Top photo by Tnarik Innael/Flickr
Middle photo by Sam Howzit/Flickr
Bottom photo by d.i.o.d.e./Flickr

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Why Do Cats Meow?

By Langley Cornwell

Our cat has a very specific language and I know what he is ‘saying’ almost every time he meows. My husband marvels at how well I interpret our cat’s sounds, but it seems natural to me. I spend a lot of time with the little guy and tend to his needs. We understand each other. Moreover, he’s extremely communicative.

Jack, a neighbor’s cat, and our cat are best friends. They hang out on front porches and patrol the neighborhood together most of the day. If our cat is out and Jack isn’t, he’ll go to Jack’s door as if to say “can Jack come out and play?” and vice-versa. Their interactions provide entertainment for the whole neighborhood; everybody tells “Jack and Jet” stories. In total, I’ve probably watched these cats for more hours than I care to admit. One thing that stands out to me is that these two never meow to each other. All of their communications –of which there are many– are primarily inaudible. This observation got me thinking about how well my cat communicates with me through meows and why I never hear him and his buddy meow to each other.  

In researching this, I learned that cats only meow to people, not to other cats. Cats communicate with one another through scent, facial expressions, body language and physical touch. Think about it. You’ve probably heard a cat caterwauling for mating, hissing to scare off intruders, screeching when he’s hurt or fearful, or chattering when he identifies prey, but I bet you’ve never heard a cat meow to another cat. They save that for humans.      

According to Cornell News, only a mother cat and her young kittens meow to one another. A kitten mews to get attention from her mother cat and once the kitten is grown, they stop. This begs the question, why do cats meow to people? Cornell University did an evolutionary psychology study and determined that cats meow to people because it works. Cats have figured out how to get what they want from humans.

Since we evidently don’t understand the scent-messages the cat leaves us, and most of us are not entirely fluent in cat body language, cats have to resort to some manner by which to communicate with their humans. Because our cats are dependent on us in every way, they have to meow to get what they want. So cats are bilingual – they speak cat language to one another and they’ve developed a second meow-language to communicate with humans. Brilliant!  

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How a Cat’s Whiskers Help Them See in the Dark

By Linda Cole

Cats have 12 whiskers on each side of their nose. These whiskers help a cat navigate through darkness, and they can also tell us how the cat is feeling. A cat would be lost without their whiskers, which are remarkable communication antennas that make it possible for a cat to “see” in the dark.

Each whisker on a cat’s face has nerve endings that lead to the brain. Cat’s have reinforcement whiskers on the back of their front legs, a few on the cheek, under their chin and above their eyes. The whiskers on each side of the cat’s face are set in four rows. Most cats have 12 on each side, 24 in total, but some can have more. The whiskers on the top two rows can move independently from the bottom rows and the middle is where the strongest whiskers are found.

Cat whiskers are super sensitive, and cats receive valuable information via their whiskers by picking up air pressure and air currents. Changes in air currents and vibrations help cats locate prey in the dark. They can’t see a mouse rummaging around at night or in a darkened room, but they can feel its presence via their whiskers which also help them smell. Cats are able to navigate around the furniture or outside the home at night because as air currents move around objects, the whiskers pick up the change in the current which tells them exactly where an object is. It’s the same for a mouse or other small animals cats prey on. Their whiskers tell them how far away the prey is and even “shows” them the shape of the prey.

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Communicating with Cats: How to Learn “Felinese”

By Julia Williams

I remember seeing a funny cartoon where a woman is babbling at length to her cat. The last frame says “What Fluffy hears: blah-blah-blah-Fluffy-blah-blah-blah.” This is, I am sure, how many people perceive human-to-cat communication. These same people also think cats have only one sound: meow. As a lifelong cat lover, I’m positive they’re wrong on both counts. I’ve seen proof that my cats understand many different words I use. I’ve also identified about twelve different vocalizations for each cat.

I know, for instance, that a long, demanding “Mee-O-O-O-O-O-W” means someone is really hungry (or thinks they are). I can tell when they’re begging for a treat, when they’re asking for some attention, and when they’re just saying hello. Chirping and chattering noises mean they’ve spied a bird outside the window. Much to my chagrin, I also recognize the vocalization that means, “Look Ma, I’ve brought you a present, and it’s still alive!!” All of these sounds are quite distinct and easy to recognize. However, scientists have identified about 100 different vocalizations in cats, so I still have a long way to go to master cat communication. I’ve only scratched the surface of “cat speak,” but it’s a start.

If you want to know what your cat is saying to you, there are two simple things you can do:

1) Pay attention to the meow

If you’re not really listening to the vocalizations your cat makes, you might think every meow sounds the same. Pay closer attention, and you’ll quickly see how different they are. Pitch, intensity, frequency and volume all come into play, and reflect different emotional states and physical needs. Nicholas Nicastro, a graduate student at Cornell University, documented hundreds of different feline vocalizations in house cats and their wild cousins.

Nicastro’s study found a clear negative relationship between pleasantness and urgency. “The sounds rated as more urgent (or less pleasant) were longer,” Nicastro said, “with more energy in the lower frequencies. Whereas, the sounds rated as more pleasant (or less demanding) tended to be shorter, with the energy spread evenly through the high and low frequencies.”

In order to differentiate what each meow or vocalization means, it helps to notice the circumstances surrounding them. For instance, if your cat is making urgent-sounding, loud noises in your ear when you are trying to sleep in, they are likely saying “Feed me NOW!” If they come into the room and give you several short meows in a row, they might be saying hello. Each cat is an individual and will have its own vocal variations, but if you watch what they’re doing when they meow, you can eventually learn what they’re saying by the sound alone.

2) Pay attention to body language

Just like humans, cats can say a lot without making a sound. Cats use their tails, ears, whiskers, eyes, face, fur, entire body and more to communicate and to show various emotions. Learning to read the body language of your cat can be a tremendous help in understanding their different vocalizations. When a cat’s tail is standing straight up, it means they’re happy to see you, they feel safe, and all is well in their world. A puffed up tail indicates a fearful, defensive and emotionally charged cat. Head-butting is a sign of friendliness and affection. To learn more about this silent form of feline communication, read The Body Language of Cats.

Once you begin to understand “Felinese,” you may also want to explore ways to teach your cat what you are saying to them. My cats know simple words and phrases like snack, dinner, crunchies, shower, go out, good night and get down. I’ve taught them these words using repetition, consistency, complementary actions and tone of voice. It also helps not to view cats as just “dumb animals” but as intelligent creatures who can understand more than most people give them credit for. I speak in full sentences to my cats, and their actions tell me they understand. For example, I will say to Mickey, “Do you want to go out now?” and he will run over to the door. Rocky likes to sit on the ledge of my tub while I shower, so I will say to him, “Rock, I’m going to take a shower now.” Most of the time, he beats me to the bathroom.

Learning to communicate with your cat and being able to understand what they’re saying can help you develop a deeper bond with them, and it can simplify things too. I realize I am the “Crazy Cat Lady” personified, but honestly, I don’t think it’s all that hard to understand what a few different meows mean. Try it – you might be surprised to learn that Felinese is your second language!

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

How Much Do You Know About Felis Domestica, a.k.a. Cat?

By Julia Williams

On any given week, this blog might be exploring important issues of responsible pet ownership such as grooming, training, health and behavior issues, nutrition and exercise. For varieties sake, we also include profiles of special canines and felines, like Surf Dog Ricochet, Nora the Piano Cat, and Scout, an Avalanche Rescue Dog sponsored by CANIDAE. Lastly, we’re not above having fun, which is why today’s article is a lighthearted presentation of cat facts. So read on and afterwards, use your newfound knowledge of felines to impress your friends!

Does size matter?

The average weight for domestic housecats is 9-12 pounds. The world’s smallest housecat is the Singapura. A full-grown Singapura weighs on average 5 to 8 lbs– but many weigh a mere 4 pounds!

The largest domestic cat breed recognized by the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) is the Maine Coon, one of the oldest natural breeds in North America. Maine Coons are tall, muscular, big-boned cats that weigh from 9 to 20+ pounds. The second largest cat is the Ragdoll.

The tiniest cat on record was Tinker Toy, a male Himalayan-Persian from Illinois who weighed 1 pound, 8 ounces fully grown, and was 7.25″ long and 2.75″ tall.

How do you say meow?

Cats have the ability to make over 100 different vocalizations, while dogs only have about 10. The most common cat sound is the meow. There have been 30 or more types of cat meow sounds recorded, and each means something different. Curiously, cats only meow at people, not at other cats!

The French word for cat is “chat” (pronounced like shah or baa), and kitten is “chaton.” The German word for cat is “katze.” In Spanish, cat is “gato” and in Italian, it’s “gatto.”

How fast can a cat run?

The fastest feline is the Cheetah, which can run at speeds up to 60 MPH over short distances. However, housecats are no slouch in the speed arena either, and can actually run faster than humans can. The top speed for a human is 27 MPH, whereas cats can run up to 30 MPH.

The fastest domestic breed is the Egyptian Mau, a small, short-haired cat with longer hind legs that provide greater length of stride. The Egyptian Mau is the only naturally spotted breed of domesticated cat.

The “tails” have it

Humans have “mood rings” and cats have tails. Okay, I made that up, but cat owners wanting to know their feline’s mood should look at the tail. When a cat swishes its tail slowly and gently, this usually means it’s happy. If the tail is whipping back and forth, beware – kitty is warning you to leave her alone. A quivering tail means your cat is very glad to see you. Incidentally, the domestic cat is the only feline species that holds its tail vertically while walking. All wild cats hold their tails horizontally or tucked between their legs.

Love them…or loathe them?

Ailurophobia is “fear of cats” while Ailurophilia is “love of cats.” Napoleon, Charles XI and Julius Ceasar all feared cats. Among the historical figures who loved cats was Abraham Lincoln, whose cat Tabby could be considered the very first “First Cat.” Mary Todd Lincoln, when asked if her husband had a hobby, purportedly replied, “cats.”

Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII, shared his home with 14 cats. Upon his death he left money for the cats and the attendants specially appointed to care for them. Ernest Hemingway supposedly had some 30 cats at his Florida home, while Florence Nightingale is said to have owned more than 60 cats in her lifetime. Lastly, gifted scientist and inventor Sir Isaac Newton is credited with inventing the cat door.

Can you train a cat?

Gretchen Lamont’s book, The Mail-Carrier Cats of Liège, was inspired by a supposed true event that took place in Belgium in 1879. City officials attempted to train 37 cats to deliver mail to outlying villages. Considering the independent nature of cats, it’s not hard to see why this plan didn’t pan out. However, with a great deal of patience and cat treats, you can train your kitty to do tricks. For pointers, read How to Train Your Cat to Perform Tricks.

Your feline’s trick list will likely not be as lengthy as those of the Moscow Cats Theatre, a Broadway show that featured cats climbing poles, jumping through hoops, twirling batons, riding tricycles and other impressive feats. Nevertheless, you might be able to teach your cat to sit, shake, and roll over on command.

Miscellaneous cat trivia

A group of kittens is called a “kindle,” while a group of adult cats is a “clowder.”

Every behavior of domestic cats has a parallel in the wild.

Cats spend 30% of their waking hours grooming themselves.

A cat’s body has 230 bones (humans have 206).

Cats are sometimes born with extra toes; this is called polydactyl.

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

How Well Do You Know Your Pet?

By Linda Cole

Our pets are as individual as we are. They have their own little quirks and preferences. They don’t always follow what the experts say and they may or may not come when called. Understanding your pet on an intimate basis is important because during times of stress, you have a better idea of how they might deal with events that upset their normal routine. Our pets are creatures of habit and getting to know them well is as important as knowing a close friend. It’s possible your intimate knowledge of your pet’s personality could actually save their life during an emergency or if they were to ever become lost. Do you know your pet well?

How many times have you heard someone say, “He just wasn’t acting like himself?” Most likely he was, it was just a side others hadn’t seen before. Pets are the same way. It’s easy to learn and understand a dog’s body language and what their bark is saying. Your cat’s swishing tail will tell you it’s time to leave them alone and you know by their yowls if you are late with their supper or if they want inside or outside. It’s also important to understand their moods and the subtle looks they give you that sets them apart from other dogs or cats. When you know your pet well, it’s easier to understand why they do specific things.

Does your pet have a favorite room in your home? If they are upset, scared or not feeling well, do they hide under the bed, in a closet, under the recliner or someplace where you can’t find them? Does your cat like to catch up on what’s going on in the neighborhood from a certain window? What’s your pet’s favorite game or toy? Do you know when they want to play or go outside? Did you notice how much your dog enjoyed going on a hike with you? Is your pet comfortable around strangers or in unfamiliar surroundings? Do loud noises or storms make them nervous?

Some pets are more sensitive than others. They do get hurt feelings and will pout. They can also get mad at us and can display their anger via behavioral problems. If you know your pet well, it’s easy to see how things you do or changes you’ve made can affect them. They don’t have a vote in our decisions, but they do let you know how they feel about it in their own way.

My twelve year old cat, Taylor, decided one day she didn’t want to eat with the other cats anymore. She started to hide under the bed at meal times. The other cats intimidated her and meals had become traumatic for her. She would hiss and growl and wildly attack anyone close to her, including me. After a checkup with the vet revealed no medical reason for her actions, I was able to help her best by changing where she ate her meals. Some cats just prefer to eat alone. My work schedule had also changed and she wasn’t able to curl up next to me like she’d been accustomed to. She now eats in peace in my office while I work which is in a room away from the other cats, and she’s able to get the extra attention she craves.

When you know your pet well, there is a bond that continues to strengthen. The trust and loyalty your pet gives you is special. They will be by your side no matter who you are, where you go or what you do. Rich or poor, they will give us everything they have and expect nothing in return. Pets are always happy to see us no matter how long we’ve been gone.

Our pets do have feelings and fears, and we can hurt their feelings and miss their fears. They look to us to be their rock in good times and bad. Pets can sense our emotions and read our body language, and they love us unconditionally in spite of our faults. They react like children to our outbursts and cower or hide if they think they’re in trouble. They don’t reason the same way we do, but they do understand more than they are given credit for.

When you know your pet well, you see them for who they are – imperfect beings just like us. If you haven’t gotten to know your pet, there’s no time like the present. You might be surprised by what you learn. Having an intimate relationship with your pet says a lot about you, and benefits both you and your pet.

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.