All cats are evil, right? No. Like many of us, they’re just misunderstood.
From kneading or “making biscuits” to hissing at random things, cats are weird and can be difficult to comprehend. This may lead people to misinterpret cat behavior, thinking their stares mask plots of murder or their pooping outside the litter box, acts of vengeance.
The truth is, many cat owners don’t have enough accurate information about what their pet needs, said Rachel Geller, a certified cat behavior specialist. Some may even think about certain cat behaviors as quirks. But they could be signals that something’s wrong… or right.
“[Cats] don’t do things out of spite or revenge. If your cat is ‘misbehaving’ it is because he is trying to solve a problem as a cat, and what he understands and knows as a cat,” Geller told VICE.
Cats depend on humans for companionship, said Anita Kelsey, a feline behaviorist and author of the book Let’s Talk About Cats: Conversations on Feline Behavior. But cats have their own “language,” Geller said, so the trick is for owners to decode this.
Here’s the meaning behind the meow.
Hanging around their human
Cats show their moods in many ways, but one sign of a positive mood can go unnoticed.
“One of the [cats’ positive behaviors] is just presence. The idea of just being present in a room,” said Jackson Galaxy, a cat behavior and wellness expert. Galaxy explained that when cats sit with a sort of regal position—chest out, ears up and neutral, eyes clear—it means they feel a “confident ownership of territory,” or that they’re free to roam and lay as they please.
Another positive sign is when a cat just feels comfortable and relaxed being in the same room as you. According to Kelsey, this shows the cat’s trust. Cats sitting on your lap or exposing their bellies to you is also a sign of comfort, but take it with caution. “This is not a green light to stroke them on the tummy, as some cats will nip you, not wanting that physical contact,” said Kelsey.
Purring is a sign of happiness and love, said Geller. “Scent depositing,” or when cats rub their heads on you or an object, is also a sign of love. It’s a way for cats to leave their scents, thereby marking their territory. Cats can also do this by licking.
Kneading or “making biscuits”
One clear sign of cat happiness is kneading. “When your cat was a kitten, he kneaded to induce his mother’s milk to be released. Now that your cat is an adult, kneading reminds him of the security that he felt as a kitten when kneading on his mother. Adult cats knead when they’re feeling relaxed, content, and loved. Kneading is an expression of closeness,” said Geller.
A straight tail
A cat’s tail can also be a tell-tale sign of cat happiness—when a cat approaches you with a tail held straight up but slightly tipped over the end, it’s also a sign of love, said Geller.
A slow blink
One more endearing positive behavior, said Geller, is a slow blink. “Relaxed, open eyes, followed by a slow blink is a sign of cat happiness and love. Cats use a slow blink because a direct stare can be interpreted as a threat.”
Hissing and growling
Kelsey said that hissing and growling means a cat is not happy about something or that it may be in pain. Geller added that hissing is usually a warning to another person or animal—the cat’s way of telling them to back off. Cats like familiar things that make them feel safe, said Geller, so sometimes cats hiss because a new object is in their environment (like a toy or piece of furniture). When this happens, Geller suggests slowly introducing the new items into your home to help your cat get used to them.
Not using the litter box
Toileting outside the litter tray is also a sign that something is not quite right and that your cat is struggling or unhappy about something, said Kelsey. Geller said this may simply mean your cat doesn’t like the type of litter you’re using, or that it may be too deep in the box. A common misconception is that cats want privacy when they use their litter boxes. But Geller said the opposite is true.
“Cats want a clear visual field. They want to see all the way around them. Cats do not want a covered litter box or a litter box that is tucked away somewhere. When the cat is in the litter box, she is in a very vulnerable position. She wants ample visual warning time should an opponent or invader appear.”
Galaxy said that another reason cats don’t use their litter boxes could be territorial anxiety, or that the cats don’t feel safe in their space. In this case, “giving them more litter boxes is always a good idea,” said Galaxy, adding that the litter boxes should be in different spaces around the house.
Cats scratch for many reasons, according to Geller. These include getting a full stretch, expressing excitement, reducing tension and alleviating stress, marking their territory (visually and by scent), and removing the dead nail sheath and conditioning the claws. Scratching isn’t necessarily bad behavior, but it may be troublesome if cats start clawing the couch or the good hardwood floors.
“If your cat is scratching objects that you prefer it wouldn't, you can redirect the behavior by providing an appropriate scratching post,” said Geller.
Eating everything in sight
Extreme hunger or begging for food may be a sign of health-related issues, like hyperthyroidism or tapeworm, said Geller. Owners should take action to rule out conditions like these first.
Living their best cat lives
That might be plenty to take in, but Galaxy had some succinct advice for cat owners:
“Some of the best things that guardians can do, to give cats the best life, is to think about who [the cats] would be if they were living outside, if they were spending their lives, really maximizing their territory and hunting. That's where you get your cat's most stimulating and fulfilling life… we as guardians need to do our best to recreate that outdoor experience, inside.”
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