Cats, Partially Explained

Cats: Mysterious. Antisocial. Low-maintenance...Or none of the above? The Dog Trainer shares a few things you might not have known about that "other" animal living in your house.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #217

As longtime readers and listeners know, The Dog Trainer steps out with other species from time to time, notably that other species our dogs and us often live with. No, I don’t mean our spouses! I mean cats. Like many of us, I grew up with cats, and so I always thought I knew all there was to know about them. When my wife and I had to consult a veterinary behaviorist to help us with our cats’ behavior problems, I learned I was wrong, wrong, wrong. This week, some facts about cat body language and behavior that might just be new to you..

Fact #1: Kitty Lying on One Side = Not Always Friendly

A cat who’s lying on her side may be relaxed and sleepy. But context is all. Is Kittychai lying on her side with her legs extended in a doorway, and is her housemate cat crouched a few feet away with his ears pinned, looking longingly at the room beyond? In that scenario, you can be pretty confident that Kittychai’s message to her housemate is “See these legs? These legs have claws on the end of them, and if you try to walk by, you will learn what the claws can do.” Think about distracting Kittychai and her opponent with play, or putting down some catnip to get the cats high and happy.

Fact #2: Cat Tails and Dog Tails Tell Different Stories

A dog who’s coming at you fast with his tail held high and tight over his back is probably not looking to make friends.  But a cat trotting toward you with tail held high, maybe with the tip crooked, is saying a joyous hello. Dogs’ tail wags communicate everything from joy to the extreme tension that can predict a bite. Kitty wags, on the other hand, communicate alertness, tension, more tension, and “I’ma get you.”

Twitching at the tip of the tail can signify that your cat is just alert, but may well mean she’s annoyed or frustrated. Leave her be. If Kitty’s wagging her tail fast, beat a swift retreat, because if you touch her she will nail you. That’s in sharp contrast to a fast-wagging dog, who’s usually wiggling his butt as well and, in general, saying “Howdy, friend!”

As for a puffed-up cat tail, you probably know that cat is angry and scared.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).