The Silent Language of Cats - And Why Their Owners Don't Understand

Cat Behaviors

Story at-a-glance -

  • Despite the sometimes bizarre behavior of our feline companions, they are wildly popular pets in the U.S., residing in 30 to 37 percent of American households. That means there are lots of confused humans sharing their lives with small furry creatures they often can’t fathom.
  • If you’re owned by a cat, what do you find most mysterious about her behavior? Does she knead you like dough? Snooze in your sink? Swat at your ankles from under the bed?
  • Here we solve 5 of the most common “Why does my cat…?” puzzles – everything from biting to boogieing to head-butting.

By Dr. Becker

Recent estimates are that from 30 to 37 percent of American households are run by at least one cat, and total cat ownership in the U.S. is somewhere between 74 and 96 million cats.1 That's a lot of cats.

Clearly, kitties are wildly popular pets, despite the mysterious mannerisms and baffling behaviors that leave so many cat guardians scratching their heads.

If you share your life with a far out feline, what does she do that puzzles you? Maybe you'll find answers to some of your questions right here…

Why Does My Cat…

…bite me when I pet her? This is a fairly common behavior. In the blink of an eye, Fluffy goes from purring contentedly to sinking her tiny sharp teeth into your hand or arm. Some like to call these toothy encounters "love bites," but feline behavior experts call it petting-induced aggression.

This tends to happen when kitty arbitrarily decides the petting has gone on too long. Unfortunately, this type of aggression isn't well understood, but it could be a result of "status-induced aggression," meaning the cat seeks to control the situation. It might also be some sort of negative neurological response that affects some cats who are petted at length. Or… it could be a delayed rather than a sudden reaction. Kitty may have actually been annoyed with you for several minutes or longer before she sunk her little teeth into you.

I recommend consulting with a veterinarian or certified veterinary behaviorist to learn the subtle warning signs of feline displeasure so you can continue having loving interactions with your cat without fear of being bitten.

…meow constantly? Okay, so it's not constant, but it's regular enough to be concerning, and sometimes it's just plain annoying. Interestingly, many cats "say" very little, while others are quite the talkers. If Tiger is meowing right at you, rather than at nothing in particular, he probably wants something. And that something is usually food, or perhaps attention.

Cats whose owners respond vocally to their meows tend to grow more meow-y as time passes, until the cat and his human are actually having lengthy conversations. And cats that learn they get food if they meow will ramp up the behavior – especially around mealtime. Senior and geriatric cats also tend to vocalize more, especially at night.

If your cat's cries are on your last nerve, your only real recourse is to completely remove the reinforcement he receives when he meows, which can be difficult if like many cats, he starts howling an hour or more before his morning and evening meal. You might also consider closing him off in another part of the house when he starts in. This probably won't change the behavior, but it will help you hold onto your sanity.

One very important thing to keep in mind is that although excessive vocalization is often an attention-seeking behavior in cats, it can also be a sign that your kitty is in pain, is feeling anxious, or is experiencing age-related changes. I recommend you mention the situation to your veterinarian at your next wellness visit, or sooner if you suspect your cat might have a medical problem.

…wiggle around on his back? Many cats find a comfortable surface, throw themselves down, roll over on their back, and boogie. And while catnip can be a trigger for this type of feline frivolity, there are other reasons for these cat dances as well. For example, some kitties accomplish a good back scratch this way. Or it could be an invitation to you to rub that exposed tummy. And it also seems many cats do it just because it feels pleasurable.

Two other possibilities are that kitty is showing submission, or he's hoping you'll play with him. Sometimes the back wiggle starts out for one reason, say, a back scratch, and evolves for another reason – perhaps Tiger has figured out that whenever he's on his back, you drop whatever you're doing to scratch his belly. It's as if he's saying "How cute am I? You can't resist me!"

…paw at her water dish? Many kitties seem to prefer smacking at the water in their bowl instead of drinking it. They seem to love water on their own terms (which as we all know doesn't include baths). However, some cats that do nothing more than play in their water bowl simply prefer moving water to still water. Those are often the cats you find trying to drink from the water tap in your kitchen or bathroom sink.

If your kitty has a habit of playing with water, or she ignores her water bowl but cries at the sink until you let her drink from the faucet, consider investing in a recirculating pet water fountain.

…head-butt me? This is actually called head "bunting" and it's a form of feline affection. If your cat rubs up against your leg or bumps heads with you, he's "marking" you with his scent and claiming you as his own.

Cats have scent glands in different locations on their body, for example, between the toes, and at the base and along the length of the tail. They also have them under the chin, at the corners of the mouth, the temples, and on the ears. With all those scent glands on their head, it's no wonder many kitties use their entire noggin when marking their human.

So the next time Major Meow crashes his little furry head into yours, smile through the pain, because kitties only scent-mark objects that are very important to them!

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