For the uninitiated, feline communication can appear nearly impossible to decipher. While dogs benefit from, conservatively, 15,000 years of co-evolution with humans, in addition to decades of intensive scientific and behavioral research, cats have largely been left to their own mysterious selves. The discrepancy between how we engage with dog versus cat communication is partially due to the difficulty of using cats as research subjects, because as it turns out – go figure – cats simply don’t care that much about our silly tests, and partially due to the persistent perception that cats exist as indecipherable enigmas with little need for human contact.
The reality is, of course, that cats have their own unique ways of communicating with the world, which, while perhaps more subtle than the languages of dogs and people, is nonetheless just as complex, intriguing and ultimately understandable for those willing to take the time to do so. What’s more, cats are almost certainly invested in letting humans know how they feel, as anyone who shares a private language of meows with a beloved feline understands.
In anticipation of our inaugural Cat Café on August 8, 2015 from 11 AM – 4 PM, the Cat Connection has pulled together a brief overview of cat communication and what behaviors our patrons could expect to encounter at the Café. While many resources abound on deciphering a cat’s tail twitches, eye and ear movement, meows, etc., in isolation, we thought it more appropriate to talk about cat communication holistically – essentially, what the whole cat is telling you in the moment.
Understanding cat communication is not just a cool trick, but it is essential to keeping you and our Café cats safe. Recently, the Denver Cat Company was involved in a lawsuit after one of the Café cats bit a patron. While the lawsuit was eventually dismissed, the incident highlights the stakes involved in correctly assessing a cat’s body language, particularly in a busy environment.
So without further introduction, here’s what our Café cats may be trying to tell you. Please keep in mind that these are not meant to be cat personality types, but rather represent how cats attempt to communicate their feelings to those willing to listen.
Relaxed Cat feels comfortable and secure in her space, content to share this time with you. She has soft eyes and may blink slowly, either to say “hey, you seem alright” or “I am really digging what we have going here.” She is likely reposed with her belly slightly exposed, spine relaxed and paws flat on the floor. Ears are forward, but may move occasionally as she monitors the sounds in the room. Tail may swoosh and curl at times, but the movement is slow and calm.
I’m OK, but I need a little more time Cat
Like Relaxed Cat, I’m OK, but I need a little more time Cat is calm, but a little more reserved at first. She has soft eyes, alert ears and relaxed whiskers, but her body is tucked up tightly. Notice that her front paws are folded neatly under her body, and her tail remains close by. Being polite with your greeting, speaking softly and using a toy to entice her should help kitty feel both safer and more relaxed.
Nice to meet you Cat
Nice to meet you Cat is calm, confident and eager to greet you. She likely makes a bee-line for you, although it could be a more circuitous route, with her tail pointed straight up in the air. Her eyes are bright and interested, with head held high and ears forward. She’ll probably rub up against your legs as she asks for you to pet her and perhaps even play.
Oh, Just watching you Cat
Oh, Just watching you Cat is likely a little apart from the group, just taking it all in. She may be up high, and you may not even know she’s been watching you for some time. Her eyes are alert and her body is contained and ready for movement – either a panicked sprint or a relaxed walk, depending on how kitty reads the situation. Like I’m OK, but I need a little more time Cat, she can probably be enticed to move closer by speaking softly, a polite greeting or even a toy. Watch for a softening eye or a smooth turn of the head that says, “OK, you seem alright.”
Something is about to happen Cat
Something is about to happen Cat has wide eyes with dilated pupils. Her ears may be back against her head, and her spine may be coiled, ready to pounce. She is still, but you get the sense that this is only a temporary calm before an explosion. Tail is usually twitching back and forth, indicating that kitty is either agitated or fixated on something. The ideal situation is that a cat toy is about to get what’s coming to it. Worst case scenario is kitty is fearful or agitated and needs some time to calm down.
I am not happy Cat
I am not happy Cat is not pleased. Her ears are plastered against her head and her eyes have been narrowed to slits, so as to minimize damage if a fight breaks out. Her whiskers are either flattened against her head or pointing forward, and her tail is likely moving back and forth rapidly. You may hear a hiss, a spit or a low growling sound, and her body is usually leaning away from the perceived threat. A raised paw indicates that someone is about to get swatted, likely a warning swat at first, but it may progress to include claws. Be sure to provide kitty with an escape route so she can flee rather than fight.
Pet my belly at your own risk Cat
Pet my belly at your own risk Cat is perhaps the most difficult to decode, as evidenced by the situation at Denver’s Cat Café. This cat may be showing you her belly as a sign of trust, essentially communicating “I know you could eviscerate me in this moment, but I trust you so much I’m taking the risk,” or she could be warning you, basically saying “My five pointy ends are now pointed at you because I’ve had enough.” However, she will definitely be giving you other signals to let you know where you stand. For instance, is her tail relaxed or swooshing back and forth? Are her eyes soft and welcoming or dilated and wide? Are her ears pointed forward or do they keep twitching? Is her spine relaxed or is it tense?
That said, unless you know the cat well, it may be advisable to let Pet my belly at your own risk Cat be. If she’s showing you her belly because she trusts you, she still may not be interested in letting you pet her there. Take it as a compliment and wait for her 5 pointy ends to be directed somewhere else.
Asleep Cat is asleep. Please do not disturb. No one likes their naps interrupted.
If you’re still unsure about what kitty is trying to tell you, have no fear: the Cat Connection and representatives from the shelters featured at the Café will be on hand to help translate as needed. Remember, all of the Café cats are adoptable, so you may have the opportunity to come up with a language all your own with your feline friend once she’s settled in her forever home.
For more information the Cat Café and a list of rules, please see Dallas Cat Café – Rules & Guidelines.