They’re notoriously aloof, can be territorial towards other animals, finicky with food, and sometimes selective of humans. Yet ancient Egyptians revered felines not only as pest controllers, but as beloved pets and even as deities, as discovered through temple art from about 4,000 years ago. Today, cats rule the Internet with their meme-worthy idiosyncrasies. Why the obsession?
Part of the allure could be their elusiveness. Aside from playing hard-to-get, getting to know one of these creatures often reveals a deftly intuitive, sensual side. Understanding “cattitude” can be perplexing at first, but decoding it is part of the fun of having a cat in the family.
They have a highly evolved way of communicating, even learning how to mimic the baby talk humans have been cooing at them for centuries. That’s right—when cats meow it’s a language they’ve specifically developed to communicate with humans, rarely with each other, according to Cat Sense by John Bradshaw. No wonder we can’t help but anthropomorphize them.
According to Bradshaw's book, as well as a host of other cat behavioral experts, here are 11 curious cat codes and what exactly these animals are trying to say.
This cute sound is a mother cat’s signal for her kittens to follow. When directed at humans, it means the same thing—to the food bowl!
Without even opening its mouth, a cat expresses this low, subtle growl meaning “Back off.” It’s often heard when they’re ready to unleash their inner beast, so give them some space. Forcing a cat to feel more comfortable once it feels threatened is futile.
This is the cat equivalent to a peace sign when directed at other cats—a signal that they’re comfortable enough to let their guard down. Some cat behaviorists refer to this as the “cat kiss”—an honor when bestowed on humans.
On the other hand, if their pupils turn into big, abysmal black discs, beware. That cat’s had enough and they’re just seconds away from retaliating. They can sometimes feel threatened by prolonged eye contact in this state, so just give them time to chill out on their own.
Bouncing off the walls
An unsuspecting cat owner might get a rude awakening one day when their feline friend suddenly launches itself off their face, sprints back and forth across the room, and bounces off the walls. The cat’s not losing it—they’re just expending all of their pent up energy. They are descendants of the African wildcat, after all, so acting a little bit frenzied now and then is a part of their DNA.
When cats pounce on feet, they’re not being jerks. Again, they’re full of energy and love to play. If a cat’s attack is a little scary, distract them with other things to play with.
When a cat climbs onto a person’s chest (or their bed, blanket, or pillow) and starts kneading, they are blissed out. They’re replicating their behavior of milk-treading from their kitten days of nursing from their mothers.
Licking humans and other cats
A cat is predisposed to lick dirty things clean, and this goes for their own bodies as well as others in their vicinity while grooming themselves. Since they often “see” by scent (their large eyes are unable to focus on anything closer than a foot from their face, according to Cat Sense), anything that smells like it needs cleaning gets licked. Return the favor.
When a cat lays on its back and exposes its belly, take it as an ultimate compliment. Cautious by nature, a cat surrendering its belly is conveying their trust. This calls for a treat.
Now this is a sign of agitation. When a cat’s tail thrashes quickly back and forth, the best way to let them calm down is to leave them alone. When a cat is seeing red, they generally won’t be comforted by getting pet like some dogs might.
This quiet rumbling sound starts after birth, as communication between newborn kittens and their mothers during suckling. Everyone knows that purring is a sign of contentment, but occasionally it can also mean cats are feeling anxious and trying to comfort themselves.
Like humans, cats are very dynamic creatures. Deciphering their codes can reveal just why cats make such lovable and quirky companions who’ll never be boring.
Photo credit: Ary - In the Nature with my Canon via Flickr