Life would sometimes be easier if we could speak the same language as our pets. I could ask my dog how she felt about the idea of having a dog sibling and explain to my cat that I’m very sorry to disappoint her, but the can she just heard me open is actually coconut milk and not cat food. Our pets can tell us lots of different things: from “I’m hungry” to “I’m happy” to “Don’t mess with me.” But the one thing they tell us, over and over in so many ways, is “I love you.” The subtle art of speaking cat is so obvious once you know the telltale signs. Here are some ways to recognize those moments of kitty cat sweetness and even return the sentiment.
Dream weaver: “I’m happy to see you!”
Dogs in general have no chill, especially when greeting someone they know and like. They jump, wiggle, lick, and practically vibrate with joy. There’s no mistaking that body language. Cats can be a bit more inscrutable, but they still communicate with you. The side rub- weaving around your ankles or hands and winding their tail around you- is their way of saying “Hello, friend. I’m glad you’re back.” According to cat behaviorist Sharon Cromwell-Davis, feral or wild cats often display the same behavior with members of their family groups when they return from hunting- like a “hello” hug!
The belly expo: “I trust you.”
If you’re speaking to someone in English, the word “gift” means a present- something nice to give to someone. But if you’re speaking German, it means “poison.” In Swedish, it means “married.” And don’t even get me started on the “Fart Kontrol” signs all over Denmark. It’s the same with dogs and cats- something that seems very similar can mean completely different things depending on the language you’re speaking. A tail wag from a dog usually means “yaaaaay!” whereas the same thing from a cat is more like “get out of my face or you’ll lose an eye.”
For both dogs and cats, though, lying on their back and showing their belly is a sign of trust. Exposing their vulnerable bellies signals that they’re comfortable and feel safe around you. Relaxing or sleeping belly-up just takes it a step further!
Choose your response carefully based on species. Dogs often don’t mind having their exposed bellies petted or scratched (although some do). With cats, exposing their belly is a sign that they trust you not to take advantage of their vulnerability. It’s not an invitation to touch it. Return their affection by scratching them on the head or ears and leaving their belly alone.
Give it a sniff: “You belong to me.”
Cats and dogs have very sensitive senses of smell and use smell and scent marking to communicate all kinds of things with each other. They use urine to mark territory, sniff each other’s butts as a greeting, and rub their cheeks against things to scent mark.
Has your cat ever stuck their butt in your face? I mean, that’s not the kind of behavior I would accept from my human friends, but my cat is actually just trying to be polite. According to Discovery, cats share all kinds of scents and can learn a lot about each other by sniffing butts. Your cat is just offering you that same opportunity. It’s not their fault our noses are woefully underdeveloped.
Both cats and dogs have scent glands in their cheeks and can deposit scents by rubbing their faces on things (or people). We can’t smell them, but other animals can and it’s sort of your pet’s way of letting other animals know that they “claim” you.
The eyes have it: “I love you.”
Ah, the slow blink. You may never have noticed it, but if you have a cat or spend time around cats, pay attention!
For both dogs and cats, a direct stare can signal a challenge or threat. In fact… it’s kind of that way for humans, too, right? Having someone stare at you can range from uncomfortable to downright scary and sometimes, it depends on who is doing the staring. It might be tempting to gaze lovingly into your pet’s gorgeous peepers, but it makes them uncomfortable.
When cats make eye contact, they often want to communicate, “Hey, we’re friends. I’m not a threat to you and you’re not a threat to me. Everything is relaxed and safe here.” That’s where the slow blink comes in.
One great thing about the slow blink is that you can actually do it back to your cat! Try it when your cat is relaxed- catch their eye and then slowly close and open your eyes. There’s a good chance they’ll respond with the same gesture. There- you’re speaking cat!
Turn it around: “You’ve got my back”
Cats are carnivores. They’re killing machines. They’ve got sharp bits all over the place. And also? They’re just widdle itty bitty babies. Cats face a lot of dangers, both natural and man-made and the ones who survive out in the world are often the ones who know how to be on their guard.
When your cat turns their back on you, it might feel like a rejection. In fact, it’s just the opposite!
A cat who faces away from you is telling you they trust you. You won’t hurt them- in fact, you’ll protect them from anything sneaking up behind them. So if your cat prefers to be the little spoon, it may be a show of their faith in you.
The sweetest little obstacles: “I want your attention!”
Is everything you do at home a team effort? Two hands and four paws? Can you not go to the bathroom alone, make the bed alone, or read a book in peace? Is there a frequent little pointy-eared guest photobombing your Zoom meetings? Well, it’s not just because they want to be a nuisance. It’s because they want to be around you! Cats may be curious about what you’re doing or they may simply want your time and attention.
A cat who loves their human wants more than plentiful food and water and a soft bed and toys. They want YOU! They want to hang out with you, interact with you, play, snuggle, and communicate. Cats may gravitate toward items you use a lot or pay a lot of attention to (such as a computer) or items that smell like you. It’s because they love you!
Okay, but hang on- does my cat REALLY love me?
Sure, sometimes cats don’t show their affection in obvious ways. They can seem aloof or opportunistic- like if they had a choice between you or a robot butler who could open cans, they’d just shrug and walk away. But studies, such as this one in Current Biology, show that cats do have bonds and attachments to their owners similar to those that babies have to their parents. In other words, yes, your cat loves you! You, specifically!
Show your cat you love them by making sure they’re in the right hands when you can’t be there to take care of them! Our 4-Legged Kids pet sitters are more than robot butlers- they’ve got the slow blink down pat and have definitely mastered the subtle art of speaking cat. Planning a trip? Check out our Pet-Sitting Services page to find a qualified sitter who speaks your pets’ language!
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.