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Does Your Cat “Flip You Off”?

Cats use many gestures and behaviors to communicate their disgust -- I accidentally triggered one when I improvised a holiday song.

Catherine Holm  |  Dec 23rd 2014


We’re silly at home sometimes. Recently, I was involved in a community holiday choir. When I do music, it runs and runs through my head. Sometimes, out of silliness, I will insert a cat’s name into the lyrics of a song. (Admit it — I bet a lot of you do the same thing.)

A song we sang was a really cool, snappy rendition of the spiritual “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.” So naturally (and quite unconsciously) I often sang it around the house. And also, quite unconsciously, I began inserting Kieran’s name in place of “shepherd.” I thought it sounded pretty cool.

When you love music, sometimes you (or I, anyway) will break into song spontaneously. One evening, sitting on the couch next to my husband, the cats were relaxing in front of the fireplace and Kieran was in full view on the cats’ favorite chair. I broke into “Rise up! Rise up! Rise up, Kieran, and follow!”

Kieran flicked his ear once, in perfect time to the music.

“He just flipped you off!” laughed my husband.

I hadn’t thought of it before, but maybe he’s right. How many times has a cat flipped you off, and you may not have even known it? Kieran’s was one of several behaviors or gestures I believe cats send our way to tell us they’re displeased. Here are the signs to watch for.

The subtle twitch of the ear

With cats, subtlety is worth a billion words. The aware cat owner must be really aware to catch these here-then-gone movements. A flick of the ear could mean nothing, but we know better. Kieran IS a very musical cat, so it makes sense that his flip-off gesture would be perfectly timed. Of course, he could be simply indicating that he liked his name in the song, but we think it’s more fun to consider that he might have been giving us the bird.

The slitted eyes

Here, you need to be careful that your cat is not giving you the contented slitty-eyed look. That’s a different experience. But if your cat ever narrows his eyes and has a slightly annoyed or pissed-off look while doing so — that could be a subtle flip off. Consider the context of the situation, too. If you’ve given your cat a reason to want to flip you off, well, maybe that’s what’s happening.

The view of the back

Why would a cat deliberately turn his back on you? It’s got to be flip-off behavior. Some cats do this more than others, and some cats seem wired for this. Years ago when we first spotted Karma in our yard (scared, stray, and on her way to becoming feral), we’d watch her and attempt to get her closer to the house by offering food. She did come close and eat the food, but she spent a lot of time within full view of us, and it seemed she was deliberately turning her back to us. We noticed this when she was in the front of the house as well as the back of the house. She was aware, I believe, that we were watching her out the window. Why would she be flipping us off? Who knows! As it turns out, she was about as sweet as kitties come, and she soon tamed easily and came right into the house. Maybe she was just playing coy. It can be confusing!

The leg in the air

This is the classic rebuff. You’re in the middle of telling the cat something, and he suddenly stops what he’s doing, sits down, lifts a rear leg, and begins cleaning. If there’s a better form of being flipping off, I don’t know what it is.

The view of the butt

A cat deliberately offers you a view of her butt. Is this friendship? Could be, but perhaps there’s underhanded flipping-off involved. We will never know for sure, until we humans learn to speak cat.

The status quo

This is the cat’s best tactic and best defense. It takes little effort on the cat’s part and is highly effective. Example:

Zorro sits on a counter (I know, bad me in the first place, for letting him up there), and innocently paws at a coffee cup. Ah, so fascinating! The cup slides, edging ever so slowly toward the edge of the counter.

Crash! Down goes cup, and coffee, all over the place.

“Zorro!” I yell. “Bad bad boy!”

Zorro gives me the most disinterested look in the world, jumps down, and walks away without a care in the world.

Been there? Probably. How does your cat flip you off? In humor, or seriousness, what are the signs?

More by Catherine Holm:

About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of two short story collections. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.