By Helen Anne Travis
Even the biggest feline fan will admit cats sometimes do things that are a little...curious.
“They’re not as easy to understand as dogs,” says Dr. Shian Simms, vice president of veterinary medicine at Bideawee, an animal welfare organization in New York City. “They do a lot of things on their own terms.”
But sometimes those curious behaviors are a cat’s way of communicating. Here are six feelings your cat is trying to express, and the signs that pet owners should watch for when observing their feline companions.
Your cat is sitting on the windowsill looking outside, and all of a sudden she starts making short chirping noises. This is usually what cats do when they’re stimulated or excited, Simms says. They might be telling us there’s a lizard or bird outside.
The chirping noise might also be their way of saying they want attention, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian and author of several books. Those chirping sounds are the way mother cats communicate with kittens, she says.
On the other end of the vocalization spectrum are yowls and howls, which are usually associated with pain, illness, or discomfort, Morgan says. Cats sometimes yowl before they vomit, she says, which may mean they’re telling you to get the paper towels ready. Yowling may also be a territorial behavior that cats use when they feel threatened by other cats or animals. If the yowling is excessive, you should take your cat to a veterinarian for an examination, Simms says. Excessive vocalization, like yowling, can be a sign of hyperthyroidism, a common hormonal disease in older cats.
Cats may also start to hide if they are in pain. “Cats are really good at masking sickness,” Simms says. “They can’t show their weakness in the wild.” Over the past decade, an increasing number of studies have found that older cats, especially those 12 and older, have a high incidence of arthritis. One of the most common signs of chronic pain from arthritis is hiding or sleeping more. So if your outgoing and friendly cat suddenly starts avoiding you, call your veterinarian.
If you notice your cat is peeing or pooping outside of the litter box, it may be your pet’s way of saying she doesn’t like something about her current litter pan set up, says Morgan, such as the location. If there are multiple cats or pets in the home, this behavior could also signal that there is too much competition for the litter box, or that your cat is afraid she might be chased or attacked while using it.
Your cat might also be trying to tell you the pan is too dirty for her liking. Morgan recommends cleaning the litter box at least once per day—more often if you have multiple cats in your home—and experimenting with different litters. If your home hosts multiple cats, adding another litter box may be an easy fix to make your felines more comfortable. Veterinary behaviorists recommend having one more box than cats in the house.
Urinating or defecating outside the litterbox can also be a sign that your cat is stressed. Make sure your cat has a place where he or she can hide away from other cats or people, and place food, water, and litter in a quiet, low traffic area. You can also utilize feline pheromone spray on your cat’s bedding and litter boxes to lower stress levels. If the problem persists, contact your veterinarian.
“Cats purr when they’re happy and comfortable,” Simms says. So purring is a good indication that your cat is content and feels at ease in your presence. But make sure to pay attention to your cat’s body language while purring to ensure that she’s not nervous or scared. If her tail is raised, if she is bunting (rubbing her face on things or you), or if she’s exposing her belly to you, it’s a good sign that your cat is relaxed.
Cats show affection in a variety of ways and they’ll use subtle and not-so-subtle cues to show you they care. If a cat kneads your arm or your leg, she is generally saying that she likes you. As kittens, cats knead their mothers when nursing, and this behavior carries over into adulthood. It’s a cat’s way of saying she’s comfortable and relaxed in your presence, Simms says.
Grooming you, lightly head butting (bunting), or rubbing against you are also signs of affection, Morgan says. Mother cats groom their kittens, and cats of all ages will display this behavior as a sign of camaraderie and friendliness. Additionally, cats have glands on their forehead, chin, tail, and the sides of their heads, Morgan says. These glands secrete pheromones, so when cats rub against you, they are essentially marking you as their property.
Cats have very specific ways of letting you know when they are under stimulated. If your feline won’t stop knocking items off of your dresser or the kitchen counter, she is likely bored and attempting to amuse herself. A cat may display this behavior because she knows a little destruction will get a reaction from you, Morgan says.
Cats may also meow and try to wake you up in the early hours of the morning if they want your attention—whether they’re looking for food or wanting to play. Cats are nocturnal animals, Morgan says. When they try to wake you up in the morning, it’s their way of saying it’s time for you to get up and entertain or feed them.