Domestic cats have a far greater need for social communication and signalling than their wild counterparts. However, they are still genetically and behaviourally very similar to their asocial ancestors, so their ability to communicate socially is thought to be somewhat limited. In effect, domestic cats only have a restricted number of signals to ‘choose from’ when communicating, so often the same behaviour can mean very different things in a given context.
Whilst wildcats are highly skilled predators, they are also prey for larger carnivores and must, therefore, hide signs of being hurt or injured, to avoid seeming an easy target for predators. Domestic cats are very similar in this regard, and are equally good at hiding signs of pam and stress; any signs they do display can be very subtle (although there are exceptions!) and easily misinterpreted. This could be why cats are notoriously difficult to ‘read’, and in many ways remain a bit of an enigma.
Tail up — Your cat raising his tail vertically in the air is a good example of a behaviour which originally bad only a very functional purpose, but is now also used as a social greeting. Many species of cat raise their tails when spraying urine, but today’s domestic cats also do this when approaching another cat or a person, usually also rubbing against them.
In this context, it is thought that the ‘tail up’ is used to send a clear signal of friendly or positive intentions, even at a distance – a bit like waving a white flag. If a cat approaches you with his tail held vertically, it means he sees you as a friend rather than foe, and will probably enjoy a bit of a fuss.
Rubbing — When your cat rubs against you, this is often combined with purring and kneading and may suggest he wants to interact with you or be stroked. However, cats can also rub for a variety of other social and non-social reasons. Cats have several different scent glands on their faces, and may rub against objects to deposit this scent. When investigating an environment for the first time, in particular, cats rub against prominent features to make them smell more familiar and reassuring.
On the other hand, unneutered females also rob objects to signal to males they are ready to mate. Entire males rub prominent environmental features to advertise their presence to other cats in a territorial display. When two cats rub against each other, they could be making a communal smell that helps to create a sense of familiarity and maintain a stable social group.
With humans, whilst cats often rub against us to encourage us to stroke or interact with them, sometimes they may simply want to make us smell more familiar, perhaps to create a communal scent, or even to advertise to other cats that we are part of their ‘territory’.
What’s important is to pay attention to the behaviour and body language of your cat to gauge whether he actually wants you to stroke him or not.
Signs of conflict
Cats may experience a state of conflict when they feel stressed or uncomfortable and aren’t sure what to do next. This could happen after an aggressive encounter with another cat, but interestingly, we also see many of these conflict behaviours during or just after interactions with humans, suggesting the cat is perhaps not comfortable with the interaction itself.
In these situations, some cats may behave aggressively (sending a very clear signal!) but others may display more subtle signs that are harder to pick up on, although they are just as informative. Some signs of conflict include:
- Brief shaking of the head or body.
- A short, sudden burst of self-grooming or scratching.
- Quickly flicking his tongue over his nose (also known as a ‘lip lick’).
- Tense posture — his legs and tail will usually be in contact with the floor and may be held close to the body. He may look ‘hunched’ or ‘crouched’.
- Flattened ears (usually both at once) towards his whiskers. His head and body may lower towards the ground too, suggesting he’s frightened or worried.
- One ear (or both) rotating towards the back of his head, suggesting your cat dislikes or is frustrated or annoyed by something.
His tail (normally touching or held close to the ground) twitching or swishing vigorously, or lifting up and then thumping on the ground.