Deciphering Cat Code

Deciphering Cat Code: What is Your Kitty Really Saying?

Most animal lovers have heard (or perhaps experienced) that dogs are extremely intelligent, but what about our feline friends? You may be surprised to know that cats are just as smart, and constantly communicate to humans and each other! If you ever have or currently do take care of a cat, it’s crucial to know exactly what your kitty wants to express to you. Whether using vocal cues or through body language, they rarely hesitate to let us know exactly what they’re thinking.  In fact, some of their behaviors that may initially seem naughty may be major signals that your kitty’s needs aren’t being met!

Table of Contents

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more common ways cats express themselves.

Verbal Communication

Hissing and Howling

When a cat does either of these things, they can definitely scare us, but it’s often a signal that they’re scared as well, or in need of our assistance. Also known as cries for help, they howl or hiss when they feel they’re in danger. Often, a hiss is a warning. If whatever – or whoever – is making them feel threatened doesn’t back away, they’re likely to be scratched, bitten, and or swatted as a method of defense. A howl, on the other hand, can indicate your cat needs help. Otherwise, they’ll usually howl out of anger. 

Take my cat, for example. Fenway is my ESA. He’s also quite the feisty boy, and used to getting what he wants. He also has a very large addiction to most food. He’s stolen waffles out of toasters, opened snack closets by using his paws and very observant deductions, and has even been caught with his head stuck in a Dunkin Donuts bag. While his love for carbs is evident to all, his equal love for cat treats is shown in less obvious ways. 

He’d eat treats all day if he could, and when he’s reached his quota on any given night, he immediately runs to the closet where his food is, howling as though he’s just been locked out in the cold. While it sometimes still concerns me, learning the key differences between his actual distress cries and his temper tantrums has proven very helpful. Either way, it’s hard to resist giving him “just one more”, but when I know it’s for his benefit, it’s easier to handle.

Deciphering Cat Code

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Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.

Meowing

Meowing is a form of cat speak that’s more difficult to pinpoint. Cats can meow for countless reasons, depending on their temperament and current situation. Sometimes happy, sometimes lonely, sometimes bored, or sometimes sad, the keys to understanding why your cat is meowing are time and observation. The more you get to know them, the easier it is to know what makes them meow and why.

Panting

Cats only pant when they’re fearful, overexerted, or feel overheated. It mostly happens during labor, cat fights, or when fleeing from impending danger. If your cat keeps panting outside of these reasons, a trip to the vet is in order. It may indicate a deeper issue that needs medical attention.

Purring

Fenway is also a purring machine, as many felines tend to be. Usually a sign of happiness or satisfaction, cats will often purr to show their appreciation. When getting attention, like cuddles and pets, purrs are affectionate ways that a feline returns that attention and love.

It’s important to remember that purring isn’t universal. In fact, some might call it a mystery. Some cats also purr when scared, sick, or even on the brink of death. Most exceptions to the rule seem to be obvious, though. A cat in distress isn’t that hard to spot.

Deciphering Cat Code

Body Language

Ears

Much like meowing, ear position can mean different things for your cat. Straight ears are signs that your kitty feels comfortable, is tranquil, or relaxed. Alternately, flattened ears show that they’re afraid or angry. When Fenway’s ears go flat, it usually means that he’s scared and just seconds from fleeing, to hide under the bed. Common things our household does to trigger this kind of response are turning on the vacuum, rearranging bed pillows, and turning on the shower. 

For other cats, flat ears can mean that they’re ready to attack. Fenway does this too, especially at night, when he would rather I stay up and play than lay down. It’s just a less common response for him to show his discontentment. He does that by gnawing or biting, which we’ll explore below. 

Posture

Cats use a lot of positions to indicate their moods. They’ll stretch or roll onto their backs when they’re at ease and carefree. When their posture tenses or they arch their backs, it usually indicates that they sense danger or have anxiety. Similarly, slinking movements that let them stay close to the ground are used as defense mechanisms. Protective stances often accompany flat ears; double indicators that your kitty feels unsafe or threatened.

Deciphering Cat Code

Eyes

When cats respond to you by blinking slowly, it’s usually a sign that they enjoy the time they spend with you. In a sense, a blink communicates that they have let their guard down and accept your presence as a warm, inviting, and or safe space. If they avoid your gaze, however? It’s a sign of unease or uncomfortableness. 

Tails

A cat’s tail can signal their mood by the speed in which they move it. A fast-moving tail is a sign of aggression or overexcitement. A straight or a slow-moving tail can both point to serenity, but it’s important to take note of the level of tautness their fur has towards the tip. Tight, flat fur can indicate anger, while more relaxed fur means they’re happy. A hook at the tip of the tail is also a way for your cat to communicate a friendly welcome or hello.

Behavioral Signals

Biting

As I mentioned earlier, “naughty” behaviors a cat might exhibit aren’t always what they may seem. If a cat bites and doesn’t break skin, it’s rarely because they aren’t able to. Fenway bites often when playing or trying to give me a kiss. As a cat who likes to mimic, he isn’t one to lick me. After all, I don’t lick him when I kiss his head. Instead, his “love bites” are his way of  reciprocating love. Since his intention is rarely to hurt me, I like to think of this behavior as gnawing, not as biting. 

Even still, once in a while, he may nip me harder. That’s a different signal. Usually, it happens when he isn’t getting what he wants. If your cat is showing other signs of aggressive behavior, like flattened ears and arched posture, it may be a response to something you’re doing that triggers their anger. Paying attention to patterns and or similarities surrounding every incident may help you figure out exactly why your cat chooses to bite. 

Deciphering Cat Code

Marking

While unneutered cats often mark (slash spray urine), neutered cats can also do so when trying to show dominance or claim surrounding territory. I witnessed this firsthand when we had my father’s cat stay with us in our home one summer. Fenway never had an issue peeing anywhere but in his box. When the other cat was here, however, he’d spray around the areas the other cat was using, as well as around where I’d spend most of my time. 

The same can be true if you find that your cat randomly leaves a “surprise” on the floor, just outside the litter box. It’s often a sign they’re upset, not sick or unable to make it into the box before pooping. As always, however, it’s vital to consult a veterinarian if this behavior starts becoming more routine. It may be a sign of a medical issue, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to addressing their health. 

Rubbing Against You

All too often, cats will bump or rub against us during inconvenient times. It may be an annoyance when we’re trying to walk, work, or focus and are practically rendered immobile or almost fall flat on our faces (most owners can relate), but when our cats plop down on top of us or swerve between our legs, they’re usually trying to tell us that they’re happy we’re around. Pets spend the bulk of their time waiting to get our attention, and when that goes unnoticed, they may feel compelled to remind us they’re there.

Yawning

Unlike when they’re biting, cats won’t bare their teeth when yawning. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bored or tired, either. It’s (sometimes) yet another sign that they’re comfortable around you, and or feel relaxed within their surrounding environment. 

Deciphering Cat Code

Cat-to-Cat Communication

Cats even have their own language to speak to other cats! Chirping is most used by mother cats to call their babies over, but can also be a greeting from one cat to another. Unfixed, female cats who want a mate have unique vocalization, as well. Also called being in heat, they may yowl loudly to get the attention of other cats in the vicinity.

It’s a common misconception that cats pretty much care for themselves. Although they can appear less needy than their canine counterparts, they still need a lot of attention. The more you learn about the ways they most express those needs, the more likely it is that you’ll have an (overall) happier feline.

Bonus!

Cats are very intellectual creatures. They can even be trained to do some amazing things! Dogs aren’t the only popular domestic pets with skills, as any cat lover will surely attest. Cats have a reputation of being finicky, but in truth they make wonderful companions for many reasons.

Felines can be gentle, intuitive, protective, and comforting. Many individuals choose to have a cat as their Emotional Support Animal, and we agree that they can make an excellent choice. There are some breeds which make more effective ESAs, but every situation is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all mental health care plan. If you are struggling, and would like more information on qualification for an Emotional Support Animal, we are here to help!

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ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!

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Attention: Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible. Click here to see if you qualify.