Feline dictionary: Understanding feline body language (Proceedings)

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Feline dictionary: Understanding feline body language (Proceedings)

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Apr 15, 2015

Objective Statement: Nonverbal communication is fascinating to most humans, especially to animal lovers. Body language, behavior, and vocalizations are key elements to understanding our feline friends, patients and shelter animals. Just as we have to improve our knowledge to communicate with each other, we should place effort on learning to use a feline dictionary, similarly to learning any foreign language. Such a feline dictionary should include 3 chapters including 1. Vocalization; 2. Facial expressions, and 3. Body language. Failure to read these signals correctly can lead to injury to human handlers, break in human-animal bond, and decrease in animal welfare.

Feline dictionary: Understanding feline body language

Nonverbal communication is fascinating to most humans, especially to animal lovers. Humans rely heavily on verbal communication, but misunderstandings between us happen at times. In fact, we are much better prepared to read body language than one might think. Interestingly, modern scientists cannot agree when vocal language first appeared, the range spans anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. This might be the reason that important emotions and intentions are processed by the limbic system and expressed through body language. There are recent studies which show that the expression of such feelings in humans is universal. If we are at times unsure about interpreting our own species body language, how much more difficult might it be to understand the body language of a different species such as our feline friends? We attempt to translate facial expression, body postures, tail position and many other small details into human understandable signals. It should be no surprise that this can easily fail. Failure to read these signals correctly can lead to injury to human handlers, break in human- animal bond, and decrease in animal welfare.

Compared to dogs, cats are not as obviously vocal. However, certain cats are more vocal than others and cats can learn to use vocalization to communicate with humans. Body language, behavior, and vocalizations are key elements to understanding our feline friends, patients and shelter animals. Just as we have to improve our knowledge to communicate with each other, we should place effort on learning to use a feline dictionary, similarly to learning any foreign language. Indicators such as the look in your cat's eyes, the tone of her vocalization, the position of her ears, and the motion of her tail can provide important clues that reveal certain intentions. You can learn to "read" these signals to get a better idea of what's on your cat's mind. Such a feline dictionary should include 3 chapters including 1. Vocalization; 2. Facial expressions, and 3. Body language. However, keep in mind that no feline language can be completely interpreted without taking into account the entire body language and the situation and surroundings the cat is in. 

Chapter 1: Vocalization 

Many different feline vocalizations exist and experts have tried to describe the repertoire, a daunting task when trying to classify the different acoustic variations. Most cat owners know when to give their cat attention or when it is time to feed her (at least in the cat’s opinion). Most people can tell when a cat is happy and most veterinarians have heard a really distraught cat – those emotions are differentiated by the different tones and noises the cat makes. The following tables are adapted from “Domestic Animal Behavior” Chapter 1 and do not claim to be complete. The presenter recommends consulting the recommended reading list for further details.

Vocalization Phonetics Translation
Murmur Soft, rhythmical pulse given on exhalation Request or greeting
Meow Characteristic feline call: “mee-ah-oo” An all-purpose greeting, also used in epimeletic situations
Purr Soft, buzzing, rapid contractions of the muscle of the larynx Social situations, sign of contentment; cat may also purr when anxious or sick
Growl, hiss and spit Harsh, low-pitched, open-mouthed, explosive sound Agonistic, defensive, frightened, stressed or aggressive. Leave this cat alone!
Squeak High pitched, raspy cry Play, feeding, female after copulation
Shriek Loud, Harsh, high pitched Intensive aggressive or painful – stop - what you are doing is not working for the cat
Chatter Teeth chatter Hunting sound or when restrained from hunting
Estrus call Long lasting, variable pitch, open mouth then gradually close Female in estrus
Howl and Yowl Loud harsh drawn out calls Aggressive, distress. Elderly cats with cognitive disorder
Mowl or caterwaul Variable pitch call Male sexual
Mew High pitched, medium amplitude, long “eee” Mother – kitten interactions
Moan Low frequency, long duration “oo” or “uu” Epimeletic, or before coughing up a hairball

 

Chapter 2: Facial expression

Facial part Expression Translation
Eyes Pupils constricted Content, offensively aggressive
  Pupils dilated Nervous, submissive (somewhat dilated); defensively aggressive (fully dilated); playful, aroused
Ears Forward Alert, interested, happy, relaxed
  Erect, swiveled, opening point to the side Irritable, stressed, aggressive
  Flat, backward, sideways Fearful, frightened, irritable, stressed
  Swiveling Attentive, listening to every little sound, alert
Mouth Closed Relaxed
  Open tight and showing teeth; wide open with hissing or spitting Fearful, aggressive
  Gape, flehmen: Head lifted, mouth open slightly, tongue is flicking, lips curled back slightly, eyes squinting Strange smell

Chapter 3: Body Posture

Body part Expression Translation
Body Back arched, fur standing on end (Halloween cat) Very frightened and defensively aggressive
  Back arched, fur flat Welcoming your touch
  Lying on back, purring Relaxed, may be asking for a tummy rub, or it may be a “Venus fly trap”
  Lying on back, growling, upset Ready to strike with teeth and claws
Head High Neutral, confident, happy, aggressive
  Low or backwards Fearful, submissive
Tail Erect, fur flat Alert, inquisitive, happy
  Horizontal Relaxed or unsure
  Straight up, quivering Excited, really happy, ready to urine mark
  Straight up, tense, fur standing on end Angry, frightened, fearful
  Held very low or tucked between legs Insecure, anxious, fearful
  Thrashing back and forth Agitated, watch out!

 

Distance increasing signs are signals that tell us it is safe to approach and interact:

When the cat is happy and content, she is sitting or lying down, has the eyes half-closed and her pupils are narrow. The tail is mostly still, the ears relaxed and forward and the cat could be purring. 

The cat is playful when her ears are forward, the tail is up, the whiskers are directed forward and the pupils somewhat dilated, usually seen in young cats. Of course different forms of play exist such as object play, social play or predatory play.

When your cat rubs her chin and body against you, she is telling you she is comfortable with you, because she wants to exchange scent, similarly rubbing the couch and other things in the home. It is a sign of comfort or marking the territory.

The cat is kneading when she uses both paws with a massage like motion mostly on a soft surface, some people call it "making biscuits", similarly to a kitten when suckling. This signals a really happy cat.

Distance decreasing signals are telling us to keep some distance and not to proceed with reaching or touching!

In an irritated or over-stimulated cat the pupils are dilating, the ears turning back, the tail is twitching or waving. The cat may growl or put her teeth on you as a warning to stop any further approaches. Even intense play can quickly turn to overstimulation in some cats, resulting in biting and scratching.

The nervous, insecure or fearful cat has her ears sideways or back, the pupils are dilated and the tail is low or tucked between legs. The body posture is lowered and she wants to turn away or hide.

The frightened or startled cat has her ears back and flat against head, the whiskers are back, the back can be arched. The fur might be standing up on the back, the tail can be erect or low. She might yowl, growl, hiss, and spit in some cases.

The fearfully aggressive cat displays a crouched body position with ears flattened and dilated pupils. The whiskers are back. The tail is between legs or wrapped around body. She may meow loudly, growl, hiss, swat, scratch, bit or spit.

The offensive aggressive cat has her ears back with very constricted pupils. Her tail is up or down with fur standing on end. She may display a hard stare or growl, hiss or swat.

References and further reading

Houpt, Domestic Animal Behavior, 4th edition, Blackwell Publishing, Iowa USA, 2005, 21- 26.

Bradshaw, Casey, Brown, The behavior of the domestic cat, 2nd edition, CABI, Boston, USA, 2012, 91-112.

Beaver, Feline Behavior, A guide for Veterinarian, 2nd edition, Saunders, Missouri USA, 2003.