Rochester here. Some time ago, I wrote an article about my presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) and how my staff adjusted to it by becoming less vocal and more physical in communicating with me. Before I lost most of my hearing, I had a formidable command of language, both human and feline. Because my staff rarely shuts up, I was able to learn a lot more of their language than they ever imagined I could. To some extent, I could mimic the tonal quality of their speech. I could whisper, murmur, mutter, speak in both the declarative and interrogative, and make a plethora of noises such as sighing and snorting, all in context. Now that I can’t express myself orally, the staff has taken to reading my body language and behaviors to respond to my needs and desires. My personal assistant has done quite a bit of reading on the subject, but I thought a cat’s eye view might be beneficial.
Let’s start at the top with our ears. Here’s an interesting little factoid: we cats have very sophisticated musculature in our ears, and we can swivel them a full 180 degrees. Since I’m mostly deaf I don’t have much occasion to swivel my ears, but cats that hear well can’t resist doing it. Watching the rotation and twitching of a cat’s ears will tell you whether or not they are listening to you, even when they appear to be ignoring you. This situation presents itself more often than one might think.
Another thing we do with our ears is to flatten them against our heads when we’re ready to attack something — prey, another cat or an unacceptably exasperating staff member. This is an instinctive behavior meant to protect our ears while we fight. We can’t leave them sticking up like flagpoles for an adversary to bite off.
We cats have very expressive eyes, and we use them often when communicating with other cats. One thing about cat-to-cat interaction is that we tend not to look directly at each other, especially if the other cat is a stranger. For one cat to stare at another is considered an act of aggression… and very bad manners. Proper etiquette is to look away. Strangers will often sit in a sphinx-like posture several feet apart, at angles that make it necessary for either of us to turn our heads to look directly at the other. If one of us decides to take a peek, the polite way is to do it through half-closed eyelids. Yawning is another good way to let a stranger know that you’re not overly concerned with their presence. If all goes well, the sphinx posture might give way to a sprawl, although it usually takes more than one meeting to be so completely unguarded.
My staff is very good at “making cat eyes” and they’re accomplished yawners too, although whether they’re actually trying to communicate anything beyond boredom and lethargy is up for debate. It’s good to remember that cat yawning doesn’t always mean we are relaxed. Sometimes it means we’re nauseated, so a smart staffer will learn to read a number of combined signals before drawing any conclusions about the messages we’re trying to convey.
Move a little further down a cat’s face and you’ll reach the area that’s probably most important for cat communication — the nose, mouth and whiskers. These parts in combination tell us most of what we need to know about the world around us. Our sense of smell is more than ten times as sensitive as that of a human being, so it should come as no surprise that scent marking is the preferred way for a cat to get his message across, especially to other cats. We have scent glands on our lips, chins and temples, on our paw pads and also at the base of our tails. A lot of the things we do that humans interpret as being either affectionate or destructive are related to scent-marking.
When we rub our faces against a staffer, or knead them with our paws, it isn’t necessarily because we’re fond of them. We might even detest them, but rubbing and kneading is a good way to let other animals know to whom that staffer belongs. Good help is hard to find, so a smart cat doesn’t let staffers wander around without a good dose of scent on them. Sometimes a staffer will touch other animals… my staff insists on petting and hugging The Stupid Baby, so they need to have their ownership scents refreshed frequently.
I must spend an inordinate amount of time reminding The Stupid Baby which parts of the house belong to me. It’s a lot of work but it must be done, or the little excrescence will take liberties. I must scratch some objects, knead others, and sit or lie on still others. Just so you know, everything on the sun porch is mine-mine-mine. The parlor and all its contents — also mine-mine-mine. The kitchen is supposed to be mine-mine-mine, and the bathroom, but The Stupid Baby ignores what few scent marks I’ve been able to establish in those rooms. Ceramic tile is a lousy substrate for scent marking, I’m afraid. Of the two bedrooms, one is completely mine-mine-mine, and the other is simply mine.
This might sound like an unfair division of property, but you must realize that before The Stupid Baby arrived, everything and everyone here was mine-mine-mine, all the time. I think it’s rather generous of me to allow The Stupid Baby to have any property at all. He lays claim to the area under the kitchen table, the area under my personal assistant’s office chair, a closet in one of the bedrooms, and one of the staffer’s beds. He also has some of his own furniture, and of course he has toys and dishes of his own… unless I decide that I want them. If I want them, I mark them, and they become mine-mine-mine.
All of the litter boxes in the house are mine-mine-mine, but I allow The Stupid Baby to use one of them. However, since I am the dominant cat, I need not bury any of my leavings. The Stupid Baby must bury his, and I expect my staff to clean that particular box within seconds after he finishes using it.
Depending on how determined a cat is to prove ownership of something, he or she might take drastic “corrective” measures. I’ve had a few disputes with usurpers calling for the most extreme action… urination. Nothing says mine-mine-mine quite like a judicious infusion of urine. My staff is quick to resolve these border clashes so it hasn’t become a major issue, but in some households it turns into all-out war. Around here, if the conflict is about a small object, the staff simply removes it and no one gets it. If it’s about a piece of furniture, it becomes off-limits to all felines. Conflicts over territory result in cat-free zones. Disputes over staff are more complicated and must be tailored to the specific issue.
I make regular inspections to assure myself that no one’s been helping themselves to my possessions. If I encounter an unusual odor, I will draw my lips back and inhale deeply through my mouth, so that the scent can make contact with my Jacobson’s organ, a fluid-filled sac in the roof of my mouth that sends scent signals to my brain. People who see cats doing this say we look disgusted, but it’s just a method for us to get a really good whiff of something. We might be disgusted as well, but that’s not what the face is about.
The last facial feature that sends signals about our moods is our whiskers. The most important thing about our whiskers is that we want you to leave them alone, please. They are very sensitive and they help us to orient ourselves in relation to objects, so don’t touch them. As an indicator of mood, when we’re reasonably happy our whiskers are prominent, and we pull them close to our faces when we’re feeling less agreeable.
Now that you understand some of the things that happen with our faces, let’s move on to body posture. In general, we tend to be a lot like humans in this regard. If we’re uncomfortable or afraid, we will huddle up with our heads down and eyes averted. People call this the “meatloaf position”, and it is often a sign of distress. Some cats actually enjoy sitting or even sleeping in this position, but for most of us it’s a clue that all is not well, and a dedicated staff will take notice. Cats that sit in sphinx position are usually calm and confident; a sprawling posture is unabashedly comfy and relaxed.
The way we walk says a lot about our feelings. I am by nature a stalker… when I’m feeling well, I walk the same way a tiger walks through the jungle. If I walk hesitantly it means my arthritis is flaring up, or there’s another animal in my presence that’s making me nervous. The Stupid Baby is a scuttler. His posture is low to the ground and he moves quickly from safe zone to safe zone, probably because he is shy and somewhat submissive. The staff believes this is a leftover behavior from his life as a feral, and I tend to agree with them. Learning to recognize a cat’s normal walk can be very helpful in monitoring their comfort level.
My tail is another good barometer for how I’m feeling. Because of my age, I rarely carry my tail over my head these days, but if I’m dragging my tail there’s something very wrong. Happy young cats carry their tails high and proudly. People say that a waving tail is a sign that a cat is annoyed or over-stimulated, but that’s not always true. The Stupid Baby wags his tail all the time. Cats with nervous dispositions will do this even when they’re feeling contented.
While the generalizations about cat body language are a good starting point, it’s helpful if the staff recognizes that, like them, we cats are individuals and there is some variation in how we express ourselves. A staff that takes the time to decipher and respond to our unique signals is an asset and all cats should encourage their humans to acquire these valuable skills.