Ask Einstein the Cat: Why Don’t Humans “Get” My Body Language?


Dear Einstein,

My new humans are nice to me. (It’s good to be able to eat every day.) But when I try to tell them to clean the litter box or that I don’t want to play anymore or that I’m feeling poopy, they just don’t get it.

Recently the cat across the street came over and marked the front door, so I did a little marking of my own. Humans usually don’t see the writing on the wall, but they did this time. Instead of being flattered that I told the other cat, "This is my home," they got pissed. How can I get them to understand what I’m trying to tell them? They’ve always lived with dogs.

I’m so Confucius

Yo, Confused,

Humans think that cats don’t respond to them and that we’re detached, unemotional, and … well, you fill in the blank. Truth is, we kitties communicate out the tail. Unfortunately most humans don’t understand because the message because it’s spoken in Felinese. And even though humans were smart enough to land on the moon and invent the can opener, when it comes to bispecies communications, they’re no better than dog spit. It’s like Strother Martin said to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

I know a new cat owner who thought her new kitty loved to be groomed because she wagged her tail whenever she’s being brushed. Miss Dorothy had always lived with dogs and translated her cat’s tail "wagging" to mean Miss Kitty was a happy camper. A wagging cat tail means the exact opposite of a wagging dog tail. The cat was trying to tell her owner she was losing her temper and, if this nonsense keeps up, the woman will lose some blood.

This communications gap comes from humans’ two-dimensional thinking. Humans mainly communicate by voice; the word itself and the tone they use to deliver it. Cats, on the other paw, communicate multidimensionally. We use voice, scent, and body language to create a kitty collage of communications. We use every part of our bodies: ears, eyes, whiskers, tail, and even our claws — and sometimes our voices. Unlike humans, we have some extra vowels and consonants in our vocabulary, like scents from the three Ps — pee, poop and pheromones.

Sometimes not getting your point across can simply be an inconvenience, like when you want ocean fish instead of turkey cat food. Occasionally communicating is more critical, like when you’re feeling poopy. But we kitties don’t like to show how bad we are, because in our brains we’re stuck in prehistoric times. A small predator who’s groaning is going to get invited to dinner by a coyote — as the main course.

Since you’re afraid of touring the inside of a coyote’s intestinal tract, you refuse to let your humans know you’re ill. You’ll just put on a happy face until you’re too sick to hide your symptoms. By then, it might be too late for your vet to help you.

Teach your owner to read the signs

If your people notice your third eyelid (find it on the inside corner of your eye) it’s a good bet you’re feeling poopy. They should also keep an eye out if you’re not eating, not peeing at all, trying to go frequently without producing any pee, peeing a lot more than you used to, or missing the litter box altogether.

They should look for glassy eyes, listlessness, vomiting, painfulness when touched, or any change in your routine. If you start acting that way, your folks should contact your veterinarian immediately. Go to the vet if you suddenly drop weight or start packing on the pounds.

Tips on tail position

Your folks need to understand that your tail is like a flag. A flag flown at full staff is confident, and so are you. If the tip of your tail is slightly bent forward, you’re happy to see them.

As I said earlier, a wagging cat tail means something’s bothering you (the exact opposite of a dog’s). As a cat grows more frustrated with the situation, the tail moves more forcefully. A tail tapping the floor means look out. When the motion escalates to thumping, your humans better stop whatever you’re doing to you. And your folks should know when you assume the Halloween cat pose — with the big-hair fluffed-up tail and arched back — it means you’re scared out of your skin. This is another good time to let the fur settle.

Watch the ears

Watching your ears will help the folks turn into a cat psychic. Facing forward and slightly tilted back should tell them that you’re feeling friendly, contented, or relaxed. If they’re forward, but rotating toward sound — you’re alert. It’s a good time to get out the cat toys, because it’s time to kill something small and furry.

They better look out if you develop airplane ears (back and lying flat), ’cause you’re getting ready to take off and hurt someone. Humans (and other critters) should give airplane ears a wide berth.

The eyes have it

Humans are taught that it’s rude not to look at someone when she’s speaking, but in Felinese it’s even worse. Staring is a threat or a sign of dominance.

That’s why in a room full of people vying for your attention, you’ll plant your tail in the lap of the one person who would give a week’s pay to avoid you. Instead of staring at you, the ailurophobe (guy who is afraid of cats) is frantically looking away from you. He’s the only one who is showing good feline manners.

All about meow

Because people put a lot of emphasis on talking (and talking and talking), they’d be surprised to learn that "meow" isn’t something that one adult cat says to another adult cat.

Mom cats "meow" to their kittens. Okay, I confess, we adult kitties also meow to our humans. It probably means something important like, "I’m glad you’re home," "Feed me, now!" or "Little Timmy fell down the well."

The opposite of polite phrases are universally understood gestures like hiss, spit, and growl. These are one-syllable-words to the wise: "Avoid!" When we kitties resort to this, we mean business.

Then there’s the misunderstood purr. Even big cats purr; as a matter of fact, cougars, lions and lynxes all purr. The tiger is the only large cat that doesn’t. People think kitties only purr when they’re happy, but a cat also purrs when she’s anxious, hurt, in labor, or even dying.

King scent

What humans don’t understand is that scent tells it all. Unlike humans, we can say volumes without having to utter a single meow. Your humans got pissed off because you sprayed near the front window. They don’t understand that you were telling the neighborhood hooligan that this is your home. Beat it. Consider it graffiti spray with a non-permanent yellow paint. And scratching the couch is also a marking thing too, except instead of using the pheromone in your pee, you’re marking with the scent gland in your paws.

When we kitties rub against people’s legs or head-butt them, we’re secretly marking them with own personal scent. We’re saying to the world, "Mine, mine, mine. She’s mine!" Head marking shows not just territory (like pee and poop do), but real affection. When she scratches a chair, she’s telling everyone that this is hers (in a friendly, nonthreatening way).

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Got a question for he who knows everything feline? Just Ask Einstein in the comments and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Letters don’t have to be written from the cat’s point of view.) Remember, any change in your cat’s behavior or activities could be a symptom of disease and should be investigated by your vet, even if it unfortunately involves glass tubes and cat posteriors.
About the author: Einstein’s assistant, Dusty Rainbolt ACCBC, is the vice president of the Cat Writers’ Association, editor-in-chief of and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She’s the award-winning author of eight fiction and non-fiction books including her most recent paranormal mystery, Death Under the Crescent Moon.

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