You agonised over their name, you doze together on the sofa, and you know their favourite food, favourite toy and favourite nap spot. But how well do you really know your cat? New research shows that cat owners find it more difficult than dog owners to gauge their pet’s emotions. And that’s no surprise as cats are independent by nature – happy to sleep the day away, before heading outside for the night to explore.

But there are some tell-tale signs that can give away how your cat is feeling – the movement of their ears, where they hide and even the way they blink at you. So, we’ve teamed up with a bunch of cat experts to help you better understand your pet, which, in turn, could help make your cat happier. Here’s what they had to say.

Pay attention to your cat’s body language

A cat’s body language could give its owner clues to how it’s feeling. Dom Burke, behaviour officer for Cats Protection, says: ‘A cat with a tail that’s swishing and flicking might be unhappy and becoming agitated, while a cat that’s scared or in pain may sit down, all hunched up, with his limbs tucked safely under him.' 

Owners should pay attention to their cat’s eyes and mouth too. Dr Jane Tyson, a scientific officer for the companion animals department at the RSPCA, explains that if a cat is unhappy, ‘their pupils will be dilated and limbs held tight and close to their body. They might draw their head back and roll their body slightly over to one side, and their mouth may be open and tense with their teeth showing.'

Understanding your cat's feelings with body language

Even a cat’s ears could provide evidence of their emotions. ‘A happy cat will have ears facing forward, perked upright,’ explains Burke. ‘Whereas a cat that’s showing signs of stress will rotate their ears to the side often, listening intently to its surrounding. A cat with its ears flat on its head is feeling extremely fearful, and should be left alone and given opportunities to hide.’

Understanding your cat's feelings with affection

Recognise when cats are showing affection

All cat lovers are familiar with their pets rubbing their heads and bodies against them but, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t just your cat looking for attention. The real reason is far more scientific.

Burke explains: ‘When cats rub against people or objects, they’re leaving behind a chemical message called a pheromone, which tells them that an area is safe and that they feel comfortable there. It’s a sign that they’re happy to see you!’

And have you ever noticed that your cat sometimes blinks at you? That’s another sign that they’re happy in your company. ‘When a cat “slow blinks”, they’re communicating the fact that they’re comfortable with you; this could be seen as a greeting,’ explains Burke. ‘The great thing about a slow blink is that we can do the same back to our cats. Just glance at your cat, slowly close your eyes, then turn away and open them. You might find that your cat repeats the action back at you.’ Definitely worth a try.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that not all cats want attention from their humans. ‘Unfortunately, not all cats like to receive affection in the way we, as humans, typically like to show it,’ says Burke. ‘We often want to pick up our cats and give them a cuddle, but this is usually quite scary for the cat as they don’t feel in control.’ 

Look out for potential signs of depression

If you’re worried about your cat’s health and happiness, it’s tempting to consult the internet in the first instance. However, all of the experts we spoke to urged cat owners to seek professional advice from a vet if they have any concerns. There are many myths on the internet – like, for example, a cat staring at a wall being a sure sign of depression – that could delay the help your pet may potentially need.

Anita Kelsey is a cat behaviour consultant with a degree in feline behaviour and psychology. She runs a vet referral service dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of cat behavioural problems. Her advice is to pay attention to your cat as an individual. ‘Any behaviour that is out of character needs to be investigated,’ explains Kelsey. ‘If a cat has only just started to stare at a wall or rest its head against a wall, then this indicates something is not quite right and a vet should be sought. Other signs of depression can be lack of socialising when normally the cat would be social, and a reduction in eating.’

Understanding your cat's emotions by watching out for depression

Burke agrees: ‘A cat that appears to be shy certainly doesn’t mean it’s unhappy. Cats are all individuals.’ Gaining an understanding of your cat’s background could help you understand whether it’s happy. ‘Cats learn what’s safe and normal during their socialisation period as a kitten – between the ages of two to eight weeks. During this time, if a kitten has frequent positive experiences with different humans, they’ll grow up to become far more confident around people. Similarly, if a kitten has none or very few positive interactions with humans, they’ll appear timid and nervous,’ explains Burke.

Understanding your cat's feelings with hiding places

Pay attention to their hiding places

Does your cat love to hide in boxes, cupboards or under the bed? There’s a reason for that. All cats need access to hiding places in order to feel safe and, by extension, happy. Their independent nature means that they need constant access to these places in order to feel in control.

Dr Tyson explains: ‘Hiding is normal behaviour for cats and they need constant access to safe places where they can escape to if they’re feeling worried or stressed. However, if your cat is spending more time hiding than usual, this can be a cause for concern and it would be worthwhile talking this through with your vet.’

Burke recommends ensuring that your cat has access to secret spots. ‘Provide lots of hiding places for your cat or high vantage points for them to sit. Even the boldest cat will experience stress at some point and cats like to deal with stress by finding a place to hide, or somewhere up high to sit where they have a clear view of their surroundings.’

Keep an eye on their personal hygiene

Dr Tyson believes that persistent overgrooming in a cat could potentially be a sign that something’s wrong. Litter trays also require more attention than you may think.

‘Cats like to have fresh, clean litter trays,’ explains Dr Tyson, ‘so as well as cleaning out any mess at least once a day, it might be worth adding a second litter tray somewhere else in your home. This way your cat has a choice of where to go to the toilet.’

Every cat owner has a story about when their pet has decided to ignore their litter tray, but if this behaviour is persistent then your cat may be trying to tell you that something’s wrong. ‘There are multiple reasons why a cat may be toileting outside of the tray, including both medical and behavioural,’ explains Burke. ‘The first thing to do would be to take your cat to the vet to ensure there are no medical causes. Cystitis is a very common cause of inappropriate urination, for example, and cats with arthritis may find high-sided litter trays painful to get into.’

Understanding your cat's feelings with their hygiene

Access to food and water is important too. ‘Keep food and water bowls away from each other, as cats prefer these separate, and also away from the litter tray. If you have multiple cats, they should all have their own food and water bowls,’ says Burke. 

Finally, don’t forget that it’s important for a cat’s owner to be happy too, so give yourself peace of mind by researching your pet insurance options to find a deal that’s right for you – and your cat. Please note that not all pet insurance policies cover depression, so be sure to check the terms and conditions of individual policies if this is something you’d like cover for. 

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