In order to work with cats, whether it be as a veterinary assistant in a private practice or at home (or even as a cat trainer), it is important to know a bit about their body language and communication in order to understand them better.
How Cats Communicate
Cats actually have many ways of communication. We are probably most familiar with their voice. Cats have several types of meows, depending on what they are trying to communicate. (Fun fact: Adult cats usually don’t meow at each other. They save it for their humans.) The one we most frequently hear is the “hello” meow! Of course, this is the cat’s way of saying "welcome home," especially if he has been alone for the day. Of course, anyone who’s owned a cat can tell you about the slightly more urgent meow of "food time." Additionally, if you have a cat that goes outside, you will note the longer meow of "please let me in."
When a Cat Yowls
You may note that a previously quiet cat may become more vocal as he ages too. Cats can suffer from cognitive dysfunction and become confused. If you couple this with a bit of elderly loss of hearing, your senior cat may yowl! This yowl will be made loudly to seek reassurance from his owners.
Other Cat Noises
Along with meows, cats have a wide repertoire of chirps, growls, hisses and purrs. Cats will frequently chirp or chatter when highly excited. For example, they can become excited when they are hunting and have spotted prey (or if they are indoor cats, when they have an interactive toy that they are “hunting”).
Growls and hissing are usually self-explanatory for both human and other cats. “You’ve caught me off guard, but I’m ready to tussle. Watch out!” is their main motive. Purring is, indeed, an expression of contentment; however, many people may not know that a very stressed cat (say the one in the exam room at the veterinary hospital waiting for vaccinations) may purr as well as an indication of stress.
Understanding a Cat's Body Language
Body language is the main form of communication between cats so this may be very helpful for the veterinary assistant to be able to interpret in a clinical setting. They use their ears, tail and body posturing and even facial expressions. The tail is a wonderful barometer of how the cat is feeling. A tail that is straight up, which may be shaking as well, indicates excitement. The tail that is moving side to side is indicating that this cat is becoming impatient, which could lead to a sudden whipping of the tail! Watch out! That cat is ready to strike! A tail that is hanging down means this cat is relaxed.
Watch a Cat's Facial Expression for Clues
Facial expressions can give you some insight to what kitty is thinking. Ears that are held straight up and forward signal a happy, relaxed cat. Couple that with eyelids that are partially closed and winking a bit means you have one very content kitty! If your cat’s whiskers are positioned forward while his ears are in this position with narrow pupils, but wide eyes means kitty is ready to play (watch your toes!).
A scared cat will have the whiskers positioned very close to the face, ears held flat and eyes wide with dilated pupils. Use slow movements when handling this guy. An angry cat will stare you down with narrow pupils. Those ears will be up a bit, but twisted back.
Reading Body Posture
Cats’ body posturing may be hard to determine, but when you take in other locations of the body, it’s easier to determine their state of mind. A cat that holds his head up high or stretched out along with his back legs fully extended says this is one confident feline. A cat that has slightly bent hind legs and keeps his head down a bit, along with being more compact in the body (crouching, more or less) means the cat is feeling defensive and protective. We are all familiar with the Halloween cat stance - back arched, hind legs fully planted and most of the fur erect - which means this is a very angry cat and needs to be approached with utmost caution.
When working with cats as a veterinary technician or veterinary assistant, it is important to learn to read the cat’s body language. This can mean less stress for the cat and less injury to the staff, which is a win-win experience for all.
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