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What is Your Cat Telling You?

Learn more about your cat's body language and behavior. What does it mean when a tail is up in the air? Why do cats rub inanimate objects? What causes them to purr and what does it mean?

In previous postings we talked mostly about canine behavior and language so I wanted to spend some time on our other favorite animal, the cat. First, lets take a little cat quiz. See how you do.

  1. Do cats have distinct personality types? Yes or No.
  2. Is temperament linked to coat color? Yes or No.
  3. Cats are color blind, True or False.


1) Yes for sure! We tend to group the personality types into the categories of Confident, Easy Going, Timid, and Nervous. It's believed that it is in part an inherited trait. It’s also about early handling and socialization as a kitten.
We can always help the adult cat through training however--and yes cats can be trained!

2) No. In fact all cats are actually tabbies! There are no non-tabby genes at the base. Only a few genes that effect the pattern and color. People however respond to coat color so perhaps cats meet our expectations?

3) False. Like dogs they have fewer cones in their eyes and thus tend to see the world in blues and greens, yellows, but not reds.


Cats actually have a very complicated means of communications. Body shape, posture, vocalizations and scent are all part of communicating.

Body Shape & Posture:

Even more so than in dogs, the tail position tells us a lot about what a cat is feeling. If the tail is vertical, it can indicate play, greeting, or frustration (if whipped). If horizontal, amicable approach. Concave, defensive behavior. Lowered, offensive aggression (especially if rigid & flicking) and if more flaccid, defensive aggression. If the tail is still or languorously moving, surveying. Finally if between the legs, submission and fear. The other area we look closely at is the ear position. The more erect the ears the more assertive, the more lowered, the more fearful.


There are three types of vocalizations. Murmur patterns (sounds made with the mouth closed) include the purr which indicates contentment but also can indicate mild conflicting anxiety and the trill/chirrup often heard during play. Vowel sounds (mouth open and gradually closing) are the meow which is usually directed towards caretakers as a means to establish contact. Finally we have strained intensity (mouth open) which are the growl and hiss.


With scent (Sebaceous) glands on the tail, forehead, lips, chin, and pads they have lots of ways of leaving a scent behind. You'll tend to see rubbing of the tail and lips on inanimate objects, perhaps as a way of marking them not as "mine" per se, but as something familiar and "safe". The behavior of head rubbing (called bunting), may be a sign of social status.

Remember that with all animals (even us), context is important in understanding what is being said. Start watching your cat carefully, sort of scanning their body with your eyes as they go about their business. You'll start seeing lots of profound things your cat is saying.

As always, please feel free to ask questions.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lynda April 30, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Scott, thanks for doing a column about cats! As I watch my cats and dogs try to communicate with one another, the differences in communication mechanisms are certainly apparent! I did attend a Cornell vet school seminar a few years ago where cat coat color, gender and personality were linked, (cat considered best to live with: orange/tabby male!) however, the studies may just have been influenced by human expectations. I wonder, however, if you would agree that long-haired cats (especially Persians, Maine Coons, etc) use their tails in ways different from cats with short hair. It is entirely possible that the very calm (probably not very bright!) long-haired cats in my home have just never felt intense emotions like their more sensitive (and intelligent) short-haired sisters and brothers. Thanks again for the column about cats. I hope you get some comments from readers sharing observations from their cats about the behaviours you identified. Although I love my dogs, watching my cats through-out the day is much more interesting.
Scott Shwarts April 30, 2012 at 04:24 PM
Lynda, I've seen a lot of the studies that try to make the link. Some I think are valid (gender for example). However, most of the studies are based on surveys of owners so there's an automatic bias to the data. The point is I think that genetically speaking, a Persian and a Maine Coon are just as likely to have the same personality IF we factor out the disposition of the parents. We have to then also factor out the way they are raised as kittens by us humans. I saw a lot of timid and nervous cats come into the shelter regardless of the breed that just go a plain poor start in life. For sure, body shape, coat, etc has an effect on the way that a cat communicates. I think some breeds (and this goes for dogs too) have to exaggerate body part positions just to be "heard". Is this genetic or learned? Good question.
Lynda April 30, 2012 at 11:33 PM
Thanks for the reply, Scott. Great point about the need for cats (and dogs) to exaggerate their body positions because of their body types; I had not thought about that aspect of long-hair (and fluffy-tailed!) cats communicating in ways less easily seen by humans than shorter haired cats. A hair all on end short-haired cat can seem more upset than a normally fluffy long-haired cat and we humans probably respond differently to each cat. I agree with you that kittens who get a poor start in life can miss out on how to communicate with people and with other cats. The rescue group I worked with in another state took the sick and damaged kittens and cats from larger shelters and rehabilitated them for eventual adoption. Despite our best efforts some kittens just grew into unsocial cats who were never comfortable with other cats or affectionate with people. What was amazing to me was the number of those "difficult" cats who we found homes for as treasured "only" cats whose affection had to earned! The relationships between people and their cats is a real pleasure to witness. Thanks again for your column. I always learn something interesting when I read it. I hope other Patch readers will share their cat behaviour stories too. I know my mom sincerely believes her cat understands every word she says!
Paul Ray May 04, 2012 at 01:11 PM
I am curious, when my cat is really deep in love mode, he will put his face in my inner elbow covering his face and sometimes in my arm pit. What does this mean? And when a cat shows its belly does that really signify anything? Thanks for a great article.
Scott Shwarts May 04, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Paul, thanks for the questions. The best I can offer is an educated guess. I think it's about the cat (I see dogs do it too) enveloping themselves in your scent. I think its calming and just simply feels good. Humans do it too in a way, use scent to calm ourselves or evoke certain thoughts. As for the belly showing, I think it's a sign of trust and/or respect. Some may say submission, but I'm not very fond of that term.


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