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Cat Care

Cat Body Language 101

Written by
Meredith Stepita
Vet Behaviorist

Did you know that in the United States, it is estimated that there are 400,000 cat bites leading to 66,000 emergency departments visits every year? That's nearly 200 emergency department visits per day. Cat bites can be especially dangerous since they create small, deep wounds that are difficult to clean. The risk of an infection with a certain type of bacteria (P multocida) is estimated to be 10 times higher after cat than dog bites.

In addition to human safety, learning to read cat body postures can decrease your cat's stress and ultimately save the cat's life, since behavior problems are an important cause of relinquishment to animal shelters.

This article will give you some pointers that will help you read your cat's body postures and understand what she's trying to tell you in order to prevent fear and aggression which lead to biting.

The Basics: Getting Started

  • Look at the entire cat. Although we rely on certain key body parts when assessing posture, such as ear and tail position, the posture of these specific body parts must be taken into context with the entire posture of the cat.

  • Body postures can be subtle. For example, your cat may put her ears back a little, which may be hard for us to see.

  • Breed variations. Manx cats have a shortened tail or are missing the tail altogether, which may make it more difficult to communicate with us.

  • Body postures may change over time. Your cat may start out with fearful body postures, but as she learns that her behavior is effective, (i.e. her aggression works to drive scary people away) she may start to look more confident, even though her underlying motivation is fear.

Defensively Fearful Body Postures

Most cats with behavior problems tend to be fearful and stressed rather than confident.

  • Ears laid back, flattened against the head

  • Crouched body

  • Tail tucked under the body

  • Legs tucked under the body

  • Leaning away

The offensively fearful cat has been dubbed the "Halloween Cat." This cat has ears flattened against the head, arched back, tail held straight up, and bristled hair (hair standing on end). The Halloween Cat is the equivalent of the fear-biting dog. If a cat is exhibiting these body postures, she is more likely to become aggressive if the situation that provoked the fear is not eliminated. Avoid interacting with cats exhibiting this posture.

Other Signs of Stress

  • Freezing

  • Hiding

  • Increased activity/pacing

  • Trembling

  • Panting

  • Refusing food

  • Urinating, defecating, expressing anal glands (has a fishy smell)

  • Eyes widening so that the pupil is enlarged

Note that the context is also very important. A trembling cat may be cold, not anxious.

Another stress related phenomenon is "feigned sleep." This posture is shown by cats stressed for long periods of time, such as in an animal shelter. With "feigned sleep" it appears as if the cat is sleeping, but the difference between this posture and true sleep is that the body is taut rather than relaxed.

Some cats can also become easily overstimulated, which can lead to aggression in the form of growling, hissing, swatting, snapping, and biting. Signs of overstimulation include tail lashing, eyes widening so that the pupil is enlarged, and hair standing on end. If a cat is showing these signs, move away and do not interact with the cat. Some cats can remain overstimulated for hours to days.

Confident Body Postures

The opposite of fear is confidence, although some cats will show a combination of fearful and confident body postures.

  • Direct eye contact

  • Leaning forward

  • Ears forward to slightly turned out/sideways

People tend to interact with cats by approaching the cat straight on, looming over the cat, and putting their hand out or reaching for the cat's face. This human behavior causes cats to become more fearful. Instead, let the cat approach you and ask the cat's owner if she enjoys petting. If she enjoys petting, pet the cat on her body or under her chin rather than reaching over her head. If a cat is showing signs of overstimulation, fear, or aggression, move away and do not interact with the cat.

Learning to read your cat's body postures will help you communicate with your cat, keep people safe, and decrease the chance that behavior problems will lead to relinquishment.

10 Ways to Keep Your Cat Healthy

How often do you take your cat to the veterinarian? We want to remind you that even if your cat does not appear to be sick, preventative care is important. Between visits to your cat's veterinarian, here are 10 ways to keep your cat healthy.

1. Groom your cat regularly.

Whether your cat has short or long fur, he will benefit greatly from regular brushing or combing. This helps remove the dead hair from his coat so he doesn't ingest it while self-grooming. It also gives you the chance to notice any changes to his body. Irregularities such as lumps, bumps or sore spots can then be investigated right away by your veterinarian.

2. Provide fresh water daily.

Clean, fresh water is essential for your cat's good health. If your cat doesn't seem to drink from a bowl, consider providing her with a tall glass (some cats don't like to bend down to drink) or a cat fountain. Be sure to replenish the water with a fresh supply every day.

3. Make sure you have enough litter boxes.

A general rule of thumb for litter boxes is one for each cat plus one more. So if you have 2 cats, you should have 3 litter boxes. To encourage good litter box habits, keep the litter boxes clean. This may mean scooping more than once per day. Regular cleaning will also help you notice any changes in your cat's urine or stool, which could indicate a health issue.

4. Notice if your cat starts urinating outside its litter box.

Sometimes a cat will urinate outside his litter box if the box is dirty. But before you blame the accident on the state of the litter box or your cat's naughty behavior, schedule a visit to the veterinarian. A change in litter box habits sometimes means that a cat has a urinary tract infection or other medical issue.

5. Train your cat to use a scratching post.

Not only will this help prevent damage to your furniture, it will help your cat stretch her muscles and keep her claws in top condition. Regular scratching on an appropriate surfacesuch as carpet, sisal, or cardboard helps remove the old layers from your cat's claws.

6. Use a cat carrier in the car.

Does your cat need to visit the vet? Or are you moving to a new home? Transport your cat in an appropriate carrier designed for pets. Allowing your cat to roam freely in the car can distract you from driving safely, which can lead to accidents that may harm both you and your cat.

7. Keep your cat's teeth clean.

Like humans, cats can develop tartar on their teeth, which can lead to gum disease and tooth decay. The bacteria that collect on your cat's teeth also can enter her bloodstream, contributing to other feline diseases. Unlike humans, however, cats can't brush their teeth. And many cats won't let their owners brush their teeth for them. To keep your cat's teeth in top condition, schedule a cleaning with your veterinarian at least once every year.

8. Choose a cat-friendly vet.

It seems to go without saying that cats are not smaller versions of dogs. That said, it follows that cats have different veterinary requirements than dogs do. A veterinarian specializing in feline health and anatomy can be a valuable ally in keeping your cat in her best possible health. You can find a feline vet in your area by visiting the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

9. Schedule regular veterinary visits.

Annual visits give the vet a chance to catch any potential feline diseases in their early stages, administer vaccines, and clean the cat's teeth. Your vet can also tell you if your cat is at a healthy weight.

10. Spay or neuter your cat.

Reproductive diseases can affect cats of both genders, both male and female. Spaying prevents uterine infections, ovarian cancers and breast tumors in female cats, while neutering prevents testicular cancer and some prostate problems in males. The surgeries also reduce a male cat's urge to roam and if done soon enough in his life, may eliminate his urge to spray to mark territory. The best benefit? Your cat won't contribute to the pet overpopulation situation.