Cats did not evolve to be social animals. Highly independent, they have developed subtle and complex ways of behaving and communicating that often send confusing messages to their owners.
Domestic cats evolved from a small, solitary, and territorial predator that rarely met others of its kind. This feline ancestor did not need to develop a complex visual communication system like that of more naturally social species, such as dogs and humans, so our pet cats today do not have a particularly sophisticated body language.
Their solitary past also means that cats are more independent than most other pet species and although many enjoy cuddles, they still appreciate their own space. Cats are supreme hunters and because their prey is more active at dawn and dusk, this is when cats are most active.
Motivation to hunt at these times might cause an indoor cat to have a “mad halfhour,” dashing about energetically. Because their eyesight evolved primarily to detect movement in poor light, cats do not see patterns or colors with the same clarity as humans do.
Their eyes are not sensitive to colors at the red end of the spectrum and, as a result, they may have difficulty picking out red toys against a pink carpet.
On the other hand, they are extremely quick to respond to a trailing string. The sense of smell is very important to cats. They head-rub to deposit scent in areas where they feel relaxed and spray urine where they feel threatened.
Cats also use scent to orient themselves in their environment, following “scent maps” created from scent glands in the feet and flanks.
Any upheaval in the home—such as redecorating or moving—can disrupt this mapping system, causing a cat to feel displaced and bewildered. Although a cat’s body language is quite subtle, it is important to learn to recognize when your pet does and does not want attention. A cat will greet you by approaching with his tail up, and may rub against your legs. Rubbing deposits scent, making you smell more familiar after you have been outside or in the shower.
Purring and kneading with the paws in response to owner attention are behaviors retained from kittenhood, when they were associated with suckling.
Although purring usually indicates contentment, it can sometimes indicate pain. When a cat’s ears are flattened, his whiskers bunched forward, he is licking his lips, and his weight is shifted onto his back feet, you should leave him alone because these are signs of fear.
Cats in company
Cats can happily live together in social groups, but only under specific circumstances. Groups largely consist of related females that hunt independently and do not compete for food and territory. They show friendly behaviors to each other, reserving aggression for “outsiders” that represent a threat to resources.
Even though their owners provide food, cats will still protect their territory from others that are not part of their social group. If you have more than one cat, watch them to determine whether they are friends or not.
Friends rub and groom each other and sleep together with bodies touching. If you do not see at least one of these behaviors, then it is likely that your cats feel stressed by each other.
When conflict arises, cats cannot use body language to defuse the situation. This is why fights can break out just as easily between members of the same household as between rivals from opposite sides of the garden fence.
Handling your cat
Cats rarely enjoy being picked up— watch out for lip licking—so only lift your cat when necessary, unless you are sure he enjoys it.
Handle him calmly and quietly, stroking his head, back, and cheeks to relax him. If he rubs or noses your hand you know that he is enjoying the attention.
Never lift your cat by the scruff but pick up him gently by supporting his chest, behind the front legs, and hindquarters at the same time.
Hold him upright, because cradling in your arms can increase his sense of insecurity.