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How to read my cat's body language

How to read my cat's body language

Cats are notorious for hiding their emotions, be it happy, sad, anxious and everything in between. With lockdown coming to an end, our pets are sure to be feeling the shifts in our behaviour and mood. That’s why we have enlisted the expertise of animal behaviourist, Rosie Barclay, to decode all the tell-‘tail’ signs our cats are sending us.

“We hear a lot about dogs experiencing behavioural problems due to lockdown changes but what about our lovely cats? How well are they coping? And how can we tell? This blog takes a look at how we can access the inner feelings of our cats and help reduce any potential stress as we finally get back to some sort of normality.

Cats are territorial solitary hunters, so allowing would-be competitors to work out how they are feeling is not going to be beneficial and they tend to hide any tell-tale signs. After all, they wouldn’t want the neighbouring cat to realise that now might be a good time for a territorial take over. But if they tend to hide their feelings so successfully from other cats, how are we mere mortals expected to know how our cats are feeling?”

Spotting the signs

There are the obvious behavioural signs we can look out for if our cat is feeling ill or stressed. These include not eating, hiding away, crying, vomiting and limping which we are quickly alert to and will call the vet. But there are also more subtle changes in behaviour that might suggest that our cats are struggling.

For instance, our usually active playful cat may not be playing so much anymore. On the side of the coin, our normally laid-back cat suddenly becomes a lot more active or agitated. We might notice that our cat seems to be grooming more than normal or concentrating on one particular place (leaving bare patches or even causing skin damage). Or that our fastidious cat isn’t grooming much at all and is becoming matted.

Toilet behaviour may have changed suddenly. For instance, your cat is missing the tray, toileting more often or going elsewhere in new places. We may notice a strange ammonia smell or that the sofa leg looks more threadbare than usual.

Our normally greedy cat is leaving some of its food or our normally picky cat is asking for lots more. Perhaps our usually affectionate kitten is suddenly not so cuddly anymore and has begun to hiss, scratch or even bite. Our normally stand-offish cat is suddenly allowing us to touch its tummy and pick it up.

Nobody knows our cats better than we do. If we have a niggling feeling that something is not quite right then it probably isn’t, so let’s trust those instincts and speak to our vet.

Why is my cat behaving differently?

To understand why our cat is behaving oddly we can think about what might have changed in their environment. Have we recently introduced any new pets, a new partner or a baby? Have we upgraded our living room or had new carpets fitted? Have our neighbours acquired a new cat, dog or baby or started to build a conservatory? Was there a significant weather or seasonal event that caused our cat to hide away. If so and we feel this may be affecting our cat we can report this information to our vet.

Will lockdown changes affect my cat?

Lockdown changes do seem to be proving problematic for some cats. Cats are control freaks, they like a nice controllable routine. They spent years getting used to our regular weekday and weekend routines of feeding times, playing, hunting and napping. Then all of a sudden it changed and the whole family stayed put 24/7 in various emotional states. Life must have felt very different. Then just as they are getting used to this, we all go and disappear again. To add to all of this disruption we may seem different to our cats. We may not be as relaxed as we once were and our cat won’t have a clue why (as they know nothing about pandemics). All they know is that life is suddenly not as controllable or predictable as it once was and this may cause feelings of anxiety, fear, frustration and even anger.

Of course, it is easier to spot if our cat is feeling angry as they do not try to hide this. Look out for the tail twitch and if it thrashes from side to side then they are really cross. We may notice that their eyes suddenly look black as their pupils have dilated. They may stare at us directly, growl, spit or hiss. Their ears may have flattened or have rotated backwards and their body becomes tense. If any of these signs are spotted, don’t try and argue back by telling them off or spraying them with water and don’t ignore these signals. Cats have pointy teeth and sharp claws, so just calmly stop what you are doing and move away.

We can think about what we were doing or not doing that might have caused our cat to feel threatened, frustrated or angry and try doing something else instead that will put our cat into a more positive emotional state. Such as rattling the treat box, adding catnip powder to a toy or simply leaving our cat alone. And if this angry behaviour is not normal for our cat we should speak to our vet.

The RSPCA has a lovely infographic on feline body language: https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/cats/behaviour/understanding

How can I prepare my cat for lockdown changes?

So, what can we do to help our cat re-adjust to the next lockdown change? Well, we can begin to prepare our cat by gradually getting them used to the next and hopefully last change in routine.

For instance, we could begin to get up and get dressed at the time we would normally. We can feed them at the times we will be feeding them and then leave the house for a few minutes and come back in. Then step by step we can begin to leave them for longer periods alone. We can also begin to leave them quietly to nap during those times when we won’t be there and play with them more during early mornings or evenings when we are. And it probably isn’t a good idea to suddenly invite all our friends and family over for one massive noisy party.

To keep our cat extra happy, we can introduce new fun things over several weeks for them to do. We can offer new places to sleep and to climb up onto as cats feel more secure high up. We can recycle all those cardboard boxes that have arrived over lockdown and leave a few around each day with ping pong balls or a few treats inside. We can let our cat hunt and find its food by hiding some around the home on small plates or inside fun puzzle toys. We can add interesting scratching and rolling stations by sprinkling some catnip powder onto scratch posts and old blankets and leave a few new cat toys around for them to play with. If toys are rotated and washed, they will retain their novelty. They may even appreciate a nice unwashed item of clothing that smells of us to cuddle into.

And as importantly we can react normally when we start our new routine. If we worry and act differently our cat may notice and this may worry them although they will have no idea why.

If after all of this we still have an instinctive feeling that our cat is not behaving normally then we can book an appointment with our vet. There are many medical issues that may result in abnormal behaviour so it’s important that our vet rule these out. They may then refer to a suitably qualified clinical animal behaviourist. A List of Clinical behaviourists can be found here: https://abtc.org.uk

So, let’s get busy and plan for our cat’s stress-free return to normal.

Rosewood products to keep your cat happy & entertained

From games and toys to comforters and catnip, Rosewood has a huge range of products pur-fect for playtime. If it’s boredom your cat is facing, the Petstages Cheese Chase and Tower of Tracks are the perfect products to combine mental and physical stimulation, encouraging curiosity and interactive play.

If your kitty is showing signs of sadness, catnip may be the key for them. Research suggests that catnip targets cat’s ‘happy’ receptors in the brain, and boosting their mood has never been easier. The Jolly Moggy Catnip Tune Chaser Fish is designed to satisfy their hunting instincts, reacting to even the slightest touch with a motion activated sound chip! Yeowww Catnip Bags and My Cat Balls are 100% organically grown nips that cats go crazy for!

It’s no secret that felines are fascinated by moving light and sensory stimuli. The Petstages Swat & Play Quiet Mat combine these elements to supply pet parents and their furry’s with a peaceful night’s rest. With randomly flashing lights which are touch activated, this product quietly blinks and entertains your cat for hours at night - instead of scratching at your furniture!

Written by Rosie Barclay BSc (Hons) MPhil CCAB

Rosie Barclay is a certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist with ASAB – Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour

Past Chair and a full member of the APBC – Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors

Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist with ABTC – Animal Behaviour & Training Council

Fellowship of Animal Behavioural Clinicians FABC

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