If only my sisters and I had been more feline savvy in our youth, we would have heeded Tiger's twitching tail and ears. Instead, we proceeded to stuff our neighbor's tabby into a baby bonnet and doll carriage, and paid the price with ribbons of stinging scratches on our arms. Thankfully, your and your kids can avoid mishaps like this by learning to read a cat's meows and body language.
Before you tackle translation, it's important for parents need to set the proper tone. "Teach your kids that most cats can only take affection in small doses," notes Tracie Hotchner, author of The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know (Gotham, 2007). "If you cuddle or stroke them past their limit, they may bite or scratch."
It's also helpful to understand that cats are big snoozers. It's perfectly normal for them to spend 70 percent of a 24-hour period napping, which can help you explain to your kids that your cat may not always be in the mood for playing or cuddling.
With these premises in mind, it's easy to watch for tell-tale signals that cats send with body language and posture. If your cat exhibits any of the following three signs, back off and leave her alone:
- A tail that swishes, particularly at the tip. "This is equivalent to a growl in dogs," notes Hotchner.
- Flattened ears
- A body that becomes suddenly stiff or rigid.
In addition, it's helpful to learn to read other common cat postures. With the classic arched-back Halloween pose, your cat is telegraphing fear and saying "back off." A cat that crouches low with narrowed eyes, and possibly bared teeth and a hiss is ready to lunge and attack. On the flip side, a cat that approaches you with a meow and rubs or brushes against your leg is greeting you warmly, and inviting your affection.
Cats also rely on voice to communicate, though more so with humans than with other cats. You will soon start to differentiate between her various meows for hunger, affection, and so on. Keep in mind that though purring typically signals contentment, it may also mean your cat is injured or sick (more on this in a moment). Growling, grumbling, or hissing, however, always mean your cat feels threatened or scared, and should be heeded as a warning to give the cat room.
After your cat has been part of the family for a month or so, you'll have a good sense of his normal behavior and personality. This is particularly important in the event that your cat becomes sick or injured. "Cats have not been domesticated for very long, and so they mask signs of illness, often until it's too late," notes Karen Halligan, D.V.M., a consultant for Animal Planet's Cats 101 and author of Doc Halligan's What Every Pet Owner Should Know (Collins, 2008). The key is to be alert for unusual behavior. If your cat typically snoozes on the couch but suddenly hides under a bed for hours, or is generally quiet and then inexplicably meows nonstop mean it's wise to call the vet right away.