With so many people having a cat (or two, or three or more!) in their lives, it is sometimes surprising how little some of us may know of cat behaviour and how best to respond, so I thought a quick guide might be useful. I like to think I know cats pretty well, but still have so much to learn and as a Swansea Cats Protection volunteer, I’m lucky enough to get lots of opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding and hopefully in turn become a better cat owner. I’ve had cats my entire life – and I’ve loved every single moment with them. Mmm, well most of them, but perhaps not the time my Henry dragged a poor magpie through the house making a terrible din… and I proceeded to make a terrible din too! Thankfully the magpie flew off as Henry tried to readjust his grip back out in the garden. But I’m digressing… We love them and do our very best to care for them, but how well do we understand cat behaviour and how best can we respond to our cat’s needs?
Cat body language
Cats are subtle and complicated in the way they communicate but taking time to learn their body language can help to strengthen the relationship with your cat. You can even find out how to reply to them!
A cat approaching you with it’s tail up, is greeting you, often seen when they are coming home or when they want your attention. Make sure you acknowledge their greeting and give them a bit of fuss.
Rubbing on people or the corners of furniture – particularly when you have just come home – is your cat’s way of scent marking. While it is a greeting of sorts, your cat is doing it because you smell strange to them and they want to make you more familiar again.
If your cat rolls over and exposes their belly, then it’s a sign of greeting and trust. It is not an invitation to rub their tummies! Most cats will see this as a betrayal of trust and may retaliate with claws and teeth! A gentle head rub is a better way to respond. This behaviour in particular is too often misinterpreted. So many people seem to assume that cats are the same as dogs, who generally love a tummy rub. Some cats might like it, but most do not.
Purring shows that your cat is content or is looking for attention. But at times it can be a sign your cat is in pain, so if the purring occurs when there clearly isn’t a reason for puss to be happy and content, this may warrant further investigation or veterinary advice.
To show your cat that you are comfortable in their presence, you can slow blink at them and move your head slightly to the side. If you’re lucky, your cat will do the same back! This is such a lovely, comforting thing to do and you’ll often find our volunteers sitting and slow blinking with bewildered, newly arrived cats….try it yourself with your own cat.
Signs of distress
Flattened ears and/or body is a sign that your cat is frightened and stressed. If your cat shows this behaviour, it’s important to make sure they have somewhere to hide or to get up high.
Licking lips after a meal is normal behaviour, but at other times it can be a sign of feeling ill or that they are feeling stressed. If they are stressed, it is important to make sure that they have somewhere to hide or get up high.
As Cats Protection volunteers we spend time with many rescue cats who may have been through a traumatic experience, or even just the process of coming into our care is upsetting enough, so these behaviours are familiar to us. My own cat, Amber, who was rescued by Ann and Bex, two of our wonderful volunteers, displayed quite extreme stress behaviour whilst in our care. She would constantly drool so that at times saliva would hang from her mouth. At first, we assumed this was because of the significant dental problems she had and was subsequently treated for. But the drooling didn’t stop. In fact, it didn’t stop until she was adopted and came home to us and it just turned off like a tap…just like that. The comfort and security of a proper home meant she felt safe and loved. The transformative effects of a safe, loving home on a rescue cat should never be underesti-mated – next month I hope to share more about the many, many successful adoptions we’ve had the pleasure to witness.
Cats can’t be rushed
Does your cat like meeting new people? Or is your cat shy and likely to hide when visitors arrive? Give your cat the time and space to calmly get used to new people. And remember that kittens and elderly cats in particular need lots of sleep and careful handling, so always be aware of this when they are around young children
While many cats become more relaxed over time, particularly as they learn that people do not pose a threat, some cats remain cautious of strangers for their entire lives…and that’s ok, it’s just part of who they are.
You may want to encourage your cat to be more sociable, but it’s important to take things slowly and never force your cat to socialise if it would rather hide. By forcing your cat to do something, you are more likely to make it shy and timid, and less likely to enjoy meeting new people.
Help your cat get to know and trust new people
Introduce people one-by-one. Cats may feel overwhelmed if you try to introduce many people at once, especially if they are naturally shy or timid. By introducing people one at a time, you can help your cat to gradually accept and trust new people.
Go slowly. Encourage family members and visitors to take their time in getting to know your cat. It’s best to sit back and let the cat make the first move. This is much less confrontational. Your cat will also appreciate having an escape route or somewhere high to hide if they get scared.
Keep quiet. Cats are more likely to bolt if your visitors are noisy. By speaking in a calm, soothing voice you can help the cat to feel safe.
Avoid handling. Cats generally don’t like to be picked up unless they’re being handled by someone familiar.
Start with play. Playing with cats is a great way to bond. It gives cats a chance to get used to you, without having to get too close.
Learn about multi-cat households
Cats aren’t naturally inclined to live with other cats, so you may need to introduce a second cat carefully and slowly to help them get along and feel that they are part of the same social group.
While many cats love the company of other cats, this is not natural cat behaviour. In the wild, cats usually live solitary existences, guarding their territory against other cats so that they always have enough food and water. By understanding your cat’s ancestry as a wild, solitary hunter, you can better understand their needs in your home.
It’s not always obvious when cats are ‘at war’. They may be involved in a ‘cold war’ that does not include obvious signs of conflict like fighting and hissing. Some cats will block access to food, water and litter trays. This can be done subtly so the owners are unaware, but this can be very stressful for the affected cat and can even lead to behavioural problems. This is why it’s important to monitor your cats’ behaviour carefully to make sure they are getting on well.
Cats can live well together if:
- they have enough space
- they perceive each other to belong to the same social group
- there is no competition over resources such as food
In some multi-cat households, resources are sometimes shared throughout the day. One cat may use a space in the morning and then swap in the afternoon. In other cases, cats will live separately in a particular part of the house, and rarely interact with the other cats. Some cats never become friends or share the same social group, no matter how carefully they are introduced, and we as owners just have to accept that.
You can tell if cats are in the same social group because they will sleep touching each other and spend time rubbing and grooming each other, sharing and reinforcing their common scent.
If you have more than two cats, you may find you have more than two social groups. In fact, it is possible to have six cats and five or six social groups within them.
This is more likely to happen if your cats were introduced as adults, forced to interact too quickly or given insufficient resources. Even sibling cats may not necessarily remain in the same social group and may drift apart as they reach social maturity, between 18 months and four years of age.
Food, water and litter tray placement
The locations of key resources like food, water and litter trays is often a source of conflict for cats. Ideally, each cat should have their own food, water and litter tray in a separate location – even if the cats are in the same social group. Keeping resources apart can help prevent relationship breakdown.
Cats can feel vulnerable when they’re eating and drinking. By placing food and water bowls away from walls your cat can sit with their back to the wall so they can watch the room while eating and drinking.
As cat owners, we may not always get it right, but thinking from a cat’s perspective may help you to understand their feelings and behaviour, it’s probably the most important thing we can do for our beloved pet. Whilst of course there are times when we need to intervene in a cat’s natural behaviour (I just couldn’t let Henry kill the poor magpie!) or cannot easily remedy the situation, we can try, we can put ourselves in their paws and think more like a cat!
If you are interested in adopting one of our lovely cats or kittens, please call our helpline or go to our Facebook page or website to read about our ‘hands free’ homing system, which operates in line with Welsh Government advice on safety and social distancing. We can be contacted via our Helpline 0345 260 2101 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note our Helpline is answered by a messaging service and we will respond as soon as we can – but please be patient and remember that we are ALL UNPAID VOLUNTEERS trying to do our best for the rescue cats and kittens of Swansea. Thanks.