By London cat behaviourist Anita Kelsey
The cat has travelled a long way and endured many ups and downs to win the hearts of the nation. According to the recent BBC Documentary ‘Cat Wars’, our cheeky fur bods are now the most popular companion animals in the Western World. Originating from the big cats of Africa, domesticated and idolised in Egypt, vilified throughout Medieval Europe and presently enjoying a devotional status by millions of cat lovers in the western world. It is only right that we try to give them the best care and attention; this can be achieved by understanding how they communicate with us. Cats have paid a high price to remain in our favour so what can we do to understand them better?
How do cats show us they love us?
Cats communicate slightly differently with us, compared with how they communicate with other cats. For instance, a cat has learnt to vocalise to get food or attention and this vocalisation we recognise as the much loved meow. An example of this is when the clock is showing it’s time for dinner, but we’re engrossed in our favourite TV programme. Cats do not vocalise in the same way to other cats. A cat will vocalise as a threat to warn another cat not to come closer, or vocalise during fighting or sexual activities. It’s easy to adopt an anthropomorphic view of animals but let us learn the language of cat and look at some tell-tale signs your cat may give out.
Coming home to a happy cat
A happy cat will greet us with its tail high in the air, which may shake in excitement. A cat will rub against us, depositing its scent and may weave in and out of our legs, making it impossible to walk. Confident, outgoing, relaxed cats will greet visitors in the same way. They love attention and being stroked. Cats with this personality usually don’t mind being handled or picked up and are generally lap or beside-the-lap.
However, many cat guardians obtain cats with the opposite personality. They are shy of strangers, do not appreciate the feeling of confinement in a human’s arms and may lash out when stroked for longer than they wish. This doesn’t mean this type of cat cannot be affectionate and a great companion. Their contentment is merely shown in more subtle ways and at a time THEY choose to express it.
A cat that keeps its tail close down to the body or tucked under it is usually feeling insecure and on guard. Its body may be crouched to the floor in a hidden spot that’s hard to get to. This type of cat needs to be given space in a safe area and not constantly bothered. A cat usually comes out in its own time and, with patience and gentle encouragement, such as a slow blink from a human, a cat (especially a new cat) will eventually begin to settle. The slow blink shows the cat you are a friend and not a threat. Cats communicate to other cats in this way as a greeting and to show them they’re not a threat. A cat that blinks back at you is giving a positive sign. It means the cat has understood and communications are on the right track. Using healthy treats, such as Thrive frieze dried meat or fish snacks, are a great way to encourage shy nervous cats to relax. A hunting wand toy can also be a good barrier to getting a cat to deflect from its habitual fear responses.
As much as humans love holding their cats like babies and stroking them to the point of baldness, this may not be as enjoyable to your cat as you would like to think.
A cat’s tummy is a vulnerable area that should be respected when a human is shown it. A cat that lies on the floor in front of their owner, displaying the tummy area, means they feel relaxed and unthreatened. This doesn’t mean they are inviting you to suddenly start stroking them there. Many cat owners have been given a warning nip or scratch when they try to stroke this area. A cat being held like a baby, with its stomach on full view, will feel in a vulnerable position and many cats get very cross and frustrated with being held this way. It’s hardly the most comfortable position.
If you wish to show your cat just how much you love and respect him, then hold him with the tummy against you, with your arms supporting the back legs and around the body area. It’s also important to note that a cat will go into the ultimate defensive posture when feeling threatened, so it can protect itself by all means necessary using all 18 claws and teeth. That posture is on it’s back. It would be a very brave animal indeed to take on a cat in this position. This is one of the main reasons a human will get scratched when holding a cat on their back. If your cat loves a good old tummy rub that’s fine, but if they don’t, then you may need to stop trying to convince your cat that its good for him!
Cats do not sleep all day long. OK, so cats do sleep for long hours during the day and night, especially if they are exclusively indoor cats, but cats will also sleep out of boredom. Many people make the mistake of assuming their cats do not play when in their adult years. They assume that their cats just sleep because that’s what cats do. I visit them with a car full of hunting toys and suddenly their cat is jumping in the air and doing back flips to catch the toy. Depression and boredom in a cat can manifest itself in many ways from over-grooming, constant vocalisation and eliminating outside of the litter tray, through to sleeping all the time. Some cats will display unwanted behaviours because they know attention will be forthcoming. Cats require stimulation. It’s no good coming home, patting your cat on the head and then proceeding to watch a barrage of soaps on ‘Catch Up’. Your cat will have been looking forward to the precise moment you walk through the door.
Now its kitty time and you’d better be prepared to put aside anything you had planned to give kitty at least 15-20 minutes of focused playtime and cuddles – and that’s AFTER dinner has been served! Cats get bored quickly so 15-20 minutes should do the trick before they wander off, or settle down to take another well-earned rest. If you’re lucky, they might just choose your lap to settle down on.
Now, this is where it becomes tricky. Your cat has settled down, he appears happy, has been fed his favourite mouse flavoured pie and is purring like he’s the luckiest cat in the world, showing you signs he wants stroking and BAM! You get a warning bite out of nowhere. This can be very frustrating and can leave any well-meaning cat owner utterly confused and a little hurt. This type of behaviour is fairly common in cats that become overly stimulated or annoyed at being stroked for too long. Not all cats like being stroked all the time and they will very happily let us know when we have overstepped the line. The warning signs can be subtle so try to look out for them. You may find your cat’s back start to ripple when touching him in that specific area or his ears going slightly flatter to his head or the tail starting to twitch or even lightly thrash up and down. These are all signs that it’s time to stop touching them. If you know your cat has a low tolerance level to stroking or touching, keep the stroking to a minimum. They will love you just as much and even more so because you are respecting them and understanding what they do or don’t like. Holding back is hard because we all want a lap cat that loves cuddles and strokes and these actions are for the benefit of us as well as the cat. For owners whose cats will bite without warning, when stroked for longer than they appreciate, I would suggest that the cat is left to make all the moves. For example, let your cat rub and head butt you and leave the stroking to an absolute minimum.
So, how else can we show our cats just how much we love them?
A cat would be more than happy being presented with a mouse or two a day on a silver plate but ethics and common sense prevent us from going down this extreme route! However, seeing as cats are obligate carnivores who need meat to survive, we really should be giving them just that. The dry vs wet diet is a controversial subject, with camps on both sides vigorously sticking to their guns. I am in the latter camp so forgive me as I march forth with the wet meat banner in the hope I can change some cats’ diets to a more natural one.
A cat’s teeth are designed to rip meat from bones and not for chewing kibble. In fact a cat’s jaws cannot perform the action of chewing. A cats digestive system is designed for eating and digesting meat, so your cat’s main staple diet (if they like meat or do not have any medical reason not to eat meat) should reflect what it was designed to eat in the wild. Kibble is designed for the convenience of humans and can be a very boring and un-stimulating diet, especially for an indoor cat left to free graze all day.
Brands like Lily’s Kitchen and Thrive Complete are high-end wet foods that have all of the nutrients needed, without using unnecessary fillers such as grains, cereals, wheat and additives. A complete food is the one all cat owners should be buying. The ‘Complementary’ label means not all nutrients are present and some complementary foods, such as gourmet dinners, can be extremely high in calorific content. Make sure, if you’re going to think about switching kitty’s food from dry to wet, that you choose a variety of good quality brands. Always read the label and introduce any new foods gradually. Of course, if your cat likes biscuits, and you feel guilty not giving them any, then place a small amount in a fun puzzle feed ball that they will enjoy batting around. Again, go for quality kibble that has no cereal or grains added. Brands like Orijen and Purizon are excellent. Some cat owners feed their cat a raw diet, which, if your cat approves, is a very healthy alternative. The raw pet food industry has really grown over the past few years. There are some great UK companies supplying frozen raw meat packs such as Purrform and Nature’s Menu. Not all cats like a raw diet. My two Norwegian Forest cats didn’t take to it, but many others do, so it’s really a case of trial and error to see what your cat and its tummy prefers. Another positive attribute of a wet food diet is the high water content, which helps keep a cat hydrated and wards off illnesses connected to exclusively dry diets.
If you do decide to try your cat on wet food, please note that leaving one full pouch of wet alongside a full bowl of dry food is too much for one sitting and will most likely result in your cat becoming overweight. It’s best to have one or the other per feed/sitting and hopefully, after reading this, the bowl will be mainly full of flesh!
So, we have stopped dragging kitty out from under the bed, stopped holding him like a baby, stopped stroking him to death, stopped leaving him mountains of dry biscuits and stopped ignoring him because he doesn’t play and generally sleeps 24 hours a day….
CONGRATULATIONS! You have just become the perfect cat owner. Expect a furry Valentines card from your cat on Feb 14th!
This article was originally featured in Your Cat magazine.
About The Author
Anita Kelsey holds a first class honours degree in Feline Behaviour & Psychology and runs a vet referral practice in Notting Hill dedicated strictly to the diagnosis and treatment of behaviour problems in cats. She is also an expert cat groomer specialising in working with timid, aggressive or elderly cats in their own homes. Anita is a full member of The Canine and Feline Behaviour Association. To contact email please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Anita Kelsey holds a first class honours degree in Feline Behaviour and Psychology (work based BA Hons) and runs a vet referral service dedicated strictly to the diagnosis and treatment of behaviour problems in cats. She is also a qualified cat groomer and specialises in grooming aggressive or phobic cats. Anita writes for Your Cat Magazine and is on their experts panel answering readers questions on cat grooming. She also advises on feline behaviour for the CFBA (Canine and Feline Behaviour) magazine as well as being a full member. Anita is based in Notting Hill, London but consults all over the UK as well as international requests. She lives with her husband, a music producer, and two Norwegian Forest cats, Kiki and Zaza.