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Interpreting a cat’s attitude

Tabby cat sat on the kitchen table advice
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Cats express their mood and emotions through their attitude and behaviour. Knowing how to understand them is essential to building a relationship of trust and respect.

By Emilie Heyl

Here we’ll review the main behaviours and what they signify. 

Aggression 

If your cat becomes aggressive, you’ll notice that he will try and make himself appear bigger than he really is. He will take on a peculiar gait: he will stand up straight on the tip of his toes, with his head low. Because his back legs are longer than his front, the back will seem to bend towards the head. 

The tail comes low to the hocks and the hairs become raised. The ears are straight and point outwards, the pupils are contracted. The whiskers point forward and the claws come out.  

This display aims to induce fear and respect. If this does not work and the cat feels truly threatened, he may attack. This behaviour is more common among males around mating season but equally found in cats with behavioural issues. 

Contrary to popular belief, when a cat is hissing, producing saliva and “spitting”, and the back is curved with hair raised (a pose also known as the witch’s cat), this indicates fear as much as aggression. Just as a dog may growl or bite when scared. 

In this kind of situation, cats are very impressive, but they will only act if their personal space, in which they feel safe, is invaded. Here’s a tip to spot cat’s emotions: his back legs come forward whilst his front paws move back so they’re almost touching the back paws under the body. 

Fear 

A scared cat curls up and does the opposite of an aggressive cat, he makes himself as small as possible. His ears are flat on his head and his pupils are dilated. 

Ready to surrender, he crouches, his tail flat along the body, which does not allow him to attack but only to defend himself or to submit by rolling on his back.

Defensive position 

This precedes either the aggressive or fearful attitude: a cat that expresses this behaviour is debating whether to attack or submit. 

He is tense, hissing and baring his teeth, ready to defend himself, but he is equally ready to retreat and avoid conflict. 

This is a commonly witnessed behaviour among cats that do not have any behavioural problems. 

Yawning or “flehmening” 

This is a characteristic of mammals and felines in particular. It’s the use of the Jacobson’s sensory organ which is located between the mouth and nasal cavity, above the hard palate, to detect pheromones and particular smells. 

Around the scent of urine from other cats, adult cats exhibit this behaviour. After having smelt and then licked the urine, they strike their palate several times with the tip of their tongue; they put their heads back and open their mouths, and lick their noses. This behaviour is used to transmit the smell of urine to Jacobson's organ. Cats probably use this organ to identify the gender of the cat that urinated.

This particular form of yawning does not occur in kittens less than 5 to 7 weeks old.

There are many other behaviours that demonstrate the personalities of cats. Through observation, you will come to identify them all, which will give you a better understanding of your cat.

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