Talk To The Paw

By Chandra Orr

February 5, 2010 6 min read

Ever wonder why your favorite feline rubs her chin on you or compulsively scratches your favorite chair?

Cats have a surprising array of subtle cues that they use to communicate with other cats and their human families, from casual flips of the tail to flexed ears, and deciphering these understated signals is the key to harmonious human-feline relations.

"Cats should be recognized as smart and sensitive creatures that portray feelings and communicate very honestly," says Carolyn Bartz, author of "Secrets of Cat Attitude Revealed." "I know when one of my cats is embarrassed by a reprimand; lots of licking takes place. I see love and approval when I get the half-closed squint of the eyes or an upturned belly -- a vulnerable gesture in the wild. A butt in the face -- you are one of the cat family."

Cats have more than 500 muscles, and they rely on all of them to send their mysterious messages. Want to crack the code? Start with the tail and ears.

"The tail and ears are the most important aspects of cat communication. The tail acts as a read of a cat's mood, whereas the ears tend to reflect a cat's intention," says Stacy Mantle, author of "Conquering the Food Chain: Living Amongst Animals (Without Becoming One)."

Relaxed ears and a tail held high means all is well. A tail between the legs indicates a lack of confidence. A twitching or swishing tail reflects curiosity and concentration -- and possibly frustration.

"You will see this when they are focused on trying to catch a fly or hunting, but it can also act as a warning that a cat is irritated," Mantle says. "A mother cat will do this when she's had enough with her little ones."

During playtime with people, tail flipping could signal overstimulation, and it's best to back off.

"If his tail suddenly goes still, he lies low to the ground and his ears lie back, you'd best believe you're going to be bitten if you continue to reach for him," Mantle says.

Here are a few more cues to watch for:

*Kneading. The rhythmic kneading that often precedes naptime is a sign of pure contentment. Learned while nursing as a kitten and usually accompanied by purring, this reversion to the early years indicates relaxation and comfort.

*Sneering. Sneering is actually smelling. This odd facial contortion is called the flehmen response, and it's related to the Jacobson's organ, a special scent organ in the roof of a cat's mouth. With his lips curled and his mouth open, your cat may appear to be grimacing, but he's actually drawing in air -- and scent molecules -- in an attempt to get more olfactory information.

*Face rubbing. Cats have scent glands located on each side of their heads that release pheromones to mark territory, whether that "territory" be furniture, doorways or people.

"These glands create a database of information about the cat that has passed through an area, which other cats can pick up on," Mantle explains.

Think of face rubbing as friendly feline graffiti. It says "Kitty was here" without the offensive overtones of spraying.

"Generally, the front half of the body -- the face and front paws -- is used for friendly marking. The back half, including spraying, indicates a territorial response, which acts as a warning," Mantle says.

*The crouch and wiggle. Often seen during playtime, this stalking behavior primes a cat's body for pouncing on prey ... or fuzzy catnip-filled mice.

"It allows the cat to bunch up the muscles in the powerful hindquarters," Mantle explains. "You'll see it in cats that are at play, because it's great hunting practice to stalk their owners' feet or a toy."

*Purring. Not all cat cues are open-and-shut. Purring, in particular, can mean multiple things. Though usually associated with peace and contentment, purring also can be a sign of pain or stress, so it's best to take it in context.

"Purring is tricky because it can indicate pleasure or pain," Mantle says. "A cat that is purring and acting obstinate or standoffish likely needs to go to the vet. However, purring can also indicate pleasure or contentment, like when a cat is lying on your lap or in a warm, comfortable place."

*Scratching. According to Bartz, scratching occurs for territorial reasons and also because cats need to shed their nail sheaths. Cats scratch to sharpen their claws -- often before playtime -- and leave scent markings within their territories.

Often a source of contention with their human families, scratching is perfectly natural, but if you can't stand to see your sofa shredded, consider a well-placed scratching post, a good nail trimming or nail protection, such as Soft Paws, rather than declawing.

"Cats' claws are very important to them," Mantle says. "They help mark territory, allow cats to stretch their paws and act as a grabbing tool when cats are climbing, playing or defending themselves."

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