Cat Behavior

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While their emotions are often obvious they have a complex range with many subtleties. To develop a deep relationship a person has to be aware of their moods and respect them.

One of the reasons that many people like dogs is that they are obvious in their affections. You can generally see how a dog is feeling with little more then a glance and as often as not they are staring at you in drooling devotion. Well cats are nothing like that are they?

Many people believe that cats are lacking any great degree of sophisticated social behavior. Cats in fact have a fairly well developed repertoire of subtle behaviors. Some studies have shown that cats have actually evolved behavioural traits that appear to exist for no other reason than to manipulate humans on an emotional level. For instance some of the meows the make have been shown to mimic a human babies cry.

The human cat relationship goes back 1000’s of years and in many cases it is a symbiotic relationship that is formed and it lacks any significant depth. The cat comes and goes, as does the human. The human supplies food and heat when needed and in return the cat makes the human feel good on some level. That level may be no deeper then the satisfaction of having a relatively cheap maintenance free pet to give the kids. Cats can live a relatively happy, albeit short, life that way.

How ever under the right circumstances a cat can form an extremely tight bond with a human. The strength of that bond generally depends on the human but if the effort is made it can result in a very worthwhile friendship. They are subtle animals and expect their friends to be sensitive to their needs and emotions and they are quite clear in expressing those feelings if we pay attention.

With an inherent distrust for predator species, such as humans, they will instinctively try to minimize contact with people perceived as untrustworthy. They also have a strong escape instinct which can be triggered by something as simple as an attempt to pick them up. It is proper socialization that allows a cat to overcome these instincts. Much of what follows assumes that the cat was properly socialized to begin with.

They will remain a family unit until the mother starts getting annoyed with them. When it is done right you can step right into her shoes and form an exceptional bond.

They will remain a family unit until the mother starts getting annoyed with them. When it is done right you can step right into her shoes and form an exceptional bond.

Body language and common behaviors

Cats rely strongly on body language to communicate. Some the most common forms of body language would be:


  • Head butting or pressing of the face or top of the head against a person. This is a form of scent marking and indicates a form of ownership or a tight bond.
  • Kneading of the paws, another scent marking exercise.
  • They may blink slowly as an expression of affection or security.
  • Whiskers stretched in a forward direction.
  • Purring is both a sign of affection and or general contentedness.
  • Nipping, a light biting motion, is a strong, and often misunderstood, sign of affection. Nipping has been compared to kissing and is generally accompanied by some combination of purring, the vertical tail, forward whiskers, rubbing of the face on nearby objects or an arching of the back.
  • Licking or grooming shows care and affection.
  • Yawning while in front of you and aware your attention is on them is a sign of trust or affection. It is often accompanied by eye blinking. Some cats will respond to humans who yawn or close and open their eyes by reciprocating the action.
  • A slow blink by the cat when it is aware you are looking at it. Some cats will do a series of relatively quick slow blinks or will do a slow blink as they shift their gaze over to you. It is both a sign of trust and affection.
Some cats tell you everything you need to know with just a look.

Some cats tell you everything you need to know with just a look.


  • The sweeping of the tail in a wide swath, mid-air or against a person. Flicking the tail in short twitches is a sign of inner conflict while a wider swishing shows external conflict.
  • Whiskers are pulled back.
  • Batting with their paws, either with claws extended or retracted, while the ears are back or the tail is flicking. People often mistake this for the desire to play.
  • Nipping with the teeth can be both a sign of affection and agitation. When irritated, tired, or just cranky a cat may nip at you. The difference from affectionate nipping will be obvious as there will be other indications such as the position of the ears, flicking of the tail or pulled back whiskers. This is not a sign of real aggression, just simply a strong request that you stop what ever it is you are doing that is irritating the cat
  • Cats are rarely truly aggressive and you will know it when you see it as it includes most of the above behaviors combined with hissing and arching.

Attack Mode

  • when ready to attack the hair will stands up in a narrow strip along the spine and tail as compared to a fear reaction where the hair over the entire body stands up.
  • Will turn sideways to appear larger.


  • Kneading with the paws. Research has shown that cats get a great deal of pleasure from kneading. Young kittens knead their mother’s nipples to stimulate the feeding reflex so that her milk flows. Kneading is also a way for cats to mark their territory as there are scent glands on the underside of their paws. See also Pain or discomfort
  • Purring usually indicates that the cat is happy and content. The purring will sometimes be accompanied by a tremble of the tail. It can also be a sign of affection. Also see Pain or discomfort.


  • Lifting or shaking of a paw or paws often accompanied by moving the ears back. The more agitated the paw is shaken is the stronger the feeling.
  • The look, you’ll know it when you see it.
Go ahead, poke her, I dare you.

Go ahead, poke her, I dare you.

Displeased or distrustful

  • Lowered tail or tightly controlled tail. Bengal’s will often wrap their tail tightly around themselves
  • Whiskers are pulled back.
  • Pupils are very large often making the entire eye seem to be black .

Eating Food – scooping food or water onto the floor

  • Cats will sometimes scoop their food out of the bowl onto the floor. If your cat does this try placing the food on a plate. If the behavior changes then the cat simply disliked feeling its whiskers rubbing again the sides of the bowl.

Eating Grass

  • Eating grass, or vegetable matter, is something cats do to cause vomiting. All cats should have access to grass or plants of some type. Generally vomiting will happen shortly after the vegetable matter has been eaten.
  • I’ve also read that cats eat grass to get Folic Acid. Although cats require very little folic acid there is none available in their normal diet of meat.


This cat is is signalling it is mostly trusting you but it is still very alert.

  • A cats ears are one of its primary tools for communicating it emotions. They are never still for long, even when sleeping.
    • If the ears are pricked up it shows interest in what’s going on and generally expresses a desire to take part. It can also indicate the desire for attention.
    • When the ears are back and the posture is steady, the cat is unsure of what move to make, considering his options.
    • If the ears are back and the body is low to the ground, this is a display of shame or remorse.
    • When a cat raises his head, this is a display of dominance.
    • If the head is lowered, that means submissiveness or even a feeling of inferiority.

Feliway – a behavioral modifier

  • FELIWAY ™ has been widely reportedly to be very effective at calming cats down as well as helping reduce, or even stop, stress related spraying. It is available at a variety of sources online but take your time as the price seems to vary quite a bit.


  • is when a cat opens it mouth and curls back it lips is a non aggressive way. This is a way of allowing air carrying chemical aromas to reach the vomeronasal organ which is also called the Jackobsen’s Organ, a chemoreceptor organ, which is situated in the roof of the mouth. The Jackobsen’s Organ is also wired into the the part of the brain concerned with sexual behavior Oddly enough according to Wikipedia it is found in “some” adult humans so back in my younger days I wasn’t drooling slack jawed at girls, I was flehmening them.


  • When frightened the hair stands up more or less evenly over the entire body.
The gifting of toys is much nicer than the gifting of dead things.

The gifting of toys is much nicer than the gifting of dead things.


  • Cats will sometimes present you with gifts although we see it more like dead things. This is more common with outdoor cats but indoor cats will display the behavior given the opportunity. This behavior should never be punished. They are simply providing for the family unit and punishing them will confuse them and create a distance between you.


  • Some will rub their faces along their guardian’s cheek or ankles as a friendly greeting or sign of affection. This is also a form of scent marking.
  • A questions mark shaped tail may show a desire to greet someone they are fond of.
  • Approaching with the tail straight up and ears alert.
  • A trilling chirp or a musical meow that ends on an up note. We have a domestic that will sometimes use a somewhat abrupt demanding meow as if she is insisting that you must love her …NOW!
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This little guy is all ears.

  • Ears up and moved slightly forward shows real interest in what is going on.
  • Tail straight up as the cat moves forward.
  • Making chirping or chattering noises. This is also associated with hunting behaviors and there are several types of chirping used as greetings. Cats in living with humans are much more vocal than feral or wild cats. Wild cats use mostly body language and scent to communicate.


  • Kneading is when a cat alternates the pressure applied with its front paws on a surface. This sometimes includes extending and retracting the claws. Kittens knead their mother while suckling to make the milk flow and the behavior stays with them though out their life.
  • Adults do this when they feel safe and content.

Litter box Habits

  • Burying Feces or not burying them. Cats will some times choose to leave their feces exposed as a means of identifying themselves as the dominant cat in the area. A subordinate cat will usually bury them. In most house holds the cat bury them because they feel their owner is dominant.
  • Defecating on the floor, or scratching around the floor, next to the litter box is generally a sign of displeasure with something. Either the feel or smell of the litter, the degree of cleanliness, the location or something else. Have a look at the situation and figure it out.

Pain or discomfort

  • Purring can occur when the cat is in extreme discomfort or pain as well as sometimes when in labor.
  • Kneading, like purring, can also occur. These both appear to be methods of comforting themselves and it is not uncommon for a cat to purr right up to the time of its passing.
Wound up and ready to go.

Wound up and ready to go.


  • We are all pretty much familiar with the various signs of playfulness that a cat exhibits but I thought we should discuss biting and clawing.
  • Some owners get quite upset if their cat claws or bites but if you engage a playful cat with your hands it is enviable. Cats play rough and they are being quite gentle by their standards as our skin scratches and punctures much easier then theirs does. Their desire is not to cause harm and they can usually easily be broken of the habit just by enclosing their paws in your hands firmly but softly and saying no several times and then ignoring them for several minutes. They will learn how rough they can be with different family members.


  • Kittens start to purr when they are a few days old and it is believed to a be a communication to the mother that everything is ok.
  • It remains a method of indicating contentedness throughout the cats life.
  • While cats do purr when they appear to be content, they also purr when they’re giving birth, sick, nursing, painfully wounded, or in a stressful situation.
  • Cats purr during both inhalation and exhalation with a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz.
  • Various studies have shown that sound frequencies in this range can improve bone density and promote healing. This has lead to the theory that because cats have adapted to conserve energy via long periods of rest and sleep, it is possible that purring is a low energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy.

Rescue Remedy – a behavioral modifier

  • Rescue Remedy is a homeopathic solution based on the Bach Flower that reduces stress. In cats it reportedly reduces aggression as well. It can be found at most Health Food Stores. It is usually an infusion and is used by adding 4-8 drops twice a day in food or water or even squirted into the mouth. This is not a pet only remedy, but rather was originally created for use with humans. Animal or human, the result is calming affect is the same. It can be purchased online here.


  • A twisting, sprawling, stretching motion is not only a strong indication of relaxation but if done as you approach is a sign of complete trust. It is often an invitation for massage, scratching, or petting depending on your companion. This is noticeably different then the submissive rolling on its back.
Not fully relaxed but not far from it either.

Not fully relaxed but not far from it either.


  • Moving the ears backward shows distaste or a desire to not engage. The further back they are laid the greater the emotion. For cats moving their ears back is the equivalent of a frown.
  • A cat will often do a little sidestep, a back step or give a faint “meow” if it doesn’t want to be picked up.


  • Cats have to sharpen their claws and removing the claws is not an option for anyone that loves their cat. Sharpening accomplishes a few things, it pulls the old husks off the claws, it allows the cat to exercise its claws and paws and it is a way of scent marking.
  • The key is training and understanding. Show your cat how to use a scratching post and start training as soon as possible. We have had many types of cats and we have never had a problem so it is certainly doable. When you catch them getting ready to scratch something immediately pick them up and take them to the scratching post. Hold them near the post and scratch their claws on the surface. Catnip on and around the post will also help. If you supply a good scratching post they will catch on very quickly.
  • In a multi cat household one cat my not use the post. Remember that there is scent marking going on as well so there are domination issues involved. Supply more scratching posts and in most cases the problem will be resolved although you may have to reinforce the training as well.

Scent Marking

The first type of scent marking that comes to mind is spraying and of course, to us humans, that is negative. That form of scent marking is brought about by strong stimulation, stress or excitement. There is a well defined sequence of behaviors leading up to the act.

The cat will:

  • Select a vertical surface
  • Paws at the ground
  • Turns its back to the surface often doing a little excited prancing movement
  • Lift its tail
  • Sprays the surface with urine.

The cat will perform this behavioral sequence of urine marking:

  • During a period of sexual activity
  • If it feels it territory is being encroached on
  • Following an event or change that causes stress to the cat

Spraying is characterized by a strong smell and the locating the source can be done with the aid of a black light. FELIWAY ™ has reportedly been very effective for many people in controlling the urge in cats.

Other forms of scent marking are much less intrusive and certainly much less offensive.

  • Cats scent mark with their paws, their temples, the sides of there mouths and the base of their tails.
  • These are used when a cat is marking familiar territory.
  • These pheromones have a calming effect that reflects the cat’s sense of security.
  • When a cat rubs itself against an object, including you, it is a possessive act
The ultimate trust.

The ultimate trust.

Slow Blinking

  • A very content and serene cat will sometimes slow blink at you. This is often witnessed when they are laying completely relaxed on your lap. Many cats will respond very positively if you slow blink back at them although a strong response may include feeling so safe and happy they fall asleep. 🙂


  • If you approach a cat and it flops on its side it is indicating submission. That does not mean it wants its belly scratched like a dog. In fact it is indicating that it is not seeking attention and is unwilling to put up a fight.
  • Rolling on its back and wriggling about is also a demonstration of submission and is a statement of trust but once again it is not a request for belly strokes. There are obviously exceptions.


The tail is one of the cats primary means of communicating with the world around it. The way a cat is holding its tail combined with the position of the ears and body posture will clearly tell you the cats feelings and even its intentions.

  • When a cat’s tail is held high it indicates confidence, that everything is fine
  • When it holds its tail half-mast it is concerned or uncertain
  • When it is held down low it indicates the cat is unhappy
  • A twitching back and forth s indicating displeasure
  • A bushing out of the tail can indicate anger

Types of vocalizations 

I’ve read numerous articles that discussed the various ways cats communicate though vocalizations and started to write a list for this page. As I created it though I came to the conclusion that cats vocalizations mean exactly what they sound like. When they want attention they sound demanding, when happy they purr, when disgusted they snort or sigh and when scared they sound scared. I decided to not bother with a list but if it is something you are interested in here is a Google search that will yield numerous good articles on the subject.