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How to Understand Cat Language

Updated on May 26, 2016
annerivendell profile image

Anne has a BSc Hons in Applied Psychology (including animal psychology) and has owned and trained several pets over a period of 30 +years.


Joined: 4 years agoFollowers: 185Articles: 35
"I love you"
"I love you" | Source
Sound
Meaning
Alternative Meaning
Ever more persistent meow
“I’m hungry””
"Let me in" or "let me out"
Low toned long grumble
“Where have you been?”
 
Deep throated meow
Fear and distress
 
Rhythmic deep throated yowl
“Warning! Keep away!”
 
Purring
Happy and contented
Frightened

What does it mean with a cat meows?

Cats talk to us in all sorts of ways and not just with their voice. But we’re all familiar with the meowing sound and any cat owner will tell you there are several types of meowing:

Is my cat hungry?

There’s the “I’m hungry, feed me” meowing, an ever more persistent sound that is designed by nature to be impossible to ignore. This can also be extended to "let me in" or "let me out", sometimes one immediately after the other! There’s the lower toned and long grumble of “you left me out all night” that greets you when you open the door in the morning. This despite the fact that you called and called the night before but Kitty remained resolutely staring at you from underneath the car.


Interesting fact about a cat's mew

In the wild, kittens who are still dependent on their mother mew when they want milk or are in trouble. Adult cats never make that pitiful mewing sound to one another, or to other animals. They only do it to humans. According to Desmond Morris, author of Cat Watching, that's because to our pet cat, we are their mother. Whatever way they may behave outdoors with other cats or animals, whenever we are around,they revert to being kittens.

Is my cat in trouble?

Then there’s the more serious deep throated meow that communicates fear and distress. This is the one I often get when Kitty is in her cage in the car on the way to the vet, and is usually moments before she defecates. The defecating is involuntary and is the ultimate sign of distress. Poor Kitty! A rhythmic deep throated yowling often indicates that there is a threat around, usually in the form of another cat. It is a warning to the other cat to “keep away, this is my territory”. Cats will only fight as a last resort, however, it might be best to intervene and separate the cats just in case.

Does purring always means happy?

Most people know that cats purr when they are contented, but not many non-cat-owners know that cats also purr when they are frightened. This is their way of trying to fool you that all is well and they’re not really frightened at all. A bit like whistling in the dark to pretend you’re not really afraid

Position or Appearance of Tail
Meaning
Tail straight up
All is well
Tail up with slight curve
Curious
Very bushy tail up with curve
Curious and excited
Wagging from side to side
Angry, or unsure and conflicted
Thumping on the ground
About to pounce
Tail Talk
Tail up and curved...hmm this white stuff is interesting...
Tail up and curved...hmm this white stuff is interesting... | Source
Bushy Tail means interested and excited!
Bushy Tail means interested and excited! | Source

What does a cat's tail say?

But as mentioned, cats don’t just talk with their voice. Tails are also an excellent tool of communication: When Kitty’s cat is straight up, then all is well in her world. When it’s up, but slightly curved (a bit like a question mark!) then she’s curious. If she’s very curious and excited by her surroundings, which is usually when she’s exploring new territory, then the tail goes all bushy and looks almost like a fox’s tail! When it’s wagging from side to side, then Kitty is unsure or confused and conflicted, or she’s angry. If she’s crouching down and thumps her tail on the ground, then she’s just about to pounce! If Kitty’s tail is tucked under and between her legs, she’s frightened.

Position of ears
Meaning
Facing forward
All is well. Interested and alert
Pointing in different directions
Listening to an unexpected or unfamiliar sound
Pointing sideward
Trying to avoid an unpleasant sound
Ears flat against the head
Fear or aggression
Ear Talk
Ears to the side = What's that sound?
Ears to the side = What's that sound? | Source

Cats talk with their ears

Observing Kitty’s ears are also a good way of knowing what she’s thinking. If they’re facing forward, then she’s interested and alert, but contented. If she hears something unfamiliar or unexpected, then her ears will point toward the sound. An unpleasant sound will cause her to turn her ears sideward. And if Kitty is really frightened or threatened, she will flatten her ears against her head. This is often a sign of imminent attack so be warned!

Body Position or attitude
Meaning
Wide open eyes
Challenging (though not necessarily aggressive)
Half closed eyelids
Affection or friendliness
Head Butting
Affection
Slowing and Rhythmically clawing your lap
Affection
Tilting head slightly at you
Affection
Cat Body Language
Half closed eyelids show affection
Half closed eyelids show affection | Source

Other cat body language

Sly or affectionate?

Many people who don’t know cats label them as “sly” because of the way they look at you with those half closed eyes. In fact if a cat stares at you wide-eyed, then she’s challenging you and you must stare them down if you want to be Top Cat. The first to look away is the loser! A friendly cat will half close their eyes and blink at you, showing affection. Head butting is also a way of showing affection, as is slowly rhythmically clawing your lap. This is because a kitten claws the mother’s teat to stimulate the flow of milk and this action stays with them into adulthood as a show of comfort and affection. Kitty will also often tilt her head slightly, with half closed eyes, as an affectionate greeting from across the room.

Cats or Dogs?

Some people are cat lovers, some are dog lovers. Which are you?

See results

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    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      Hi Anne Rivendell! Cats really are wonderful communicators, although more subtle than dogs. I really enjoyed this hub, your observations, and great information. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lizam1 profile image

      Lizam1 4 years ago from Victoria BC

      Lovely hub about my favourite animals. The two cats pictured with the are coloured just like ours - a grey and white senior cat with a black one year old. Nicely done.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you Cat on a Soapbox (what a great username!) and Lizam 1. The two cats in the picture were the same age, about one year old, when that was taken. Sadly the grey and white (Charlie) has since gone AWOL. We get a lot of hunters up here in the mountains... :-(

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Miss my cat terribly sometimes and this is useful hub that reminds me of all the things she used to do.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Very interesting and useful information for any cat owners. Well done !

    • annerivendell profile image
      Author

      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Aw I'm so sorry to hear that, Glimmer Twin Fan. They become so much a part of our life that there is a hole left when the go, isn't there? Thank you for the comment.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, kashmir56

    • Leah Vanessa profile image

      Leah Vanessa 4 years ago

      Congratulations on your Hub of the Day! :)

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Congratulations on hub of the day. This is one of my favorite topics. Over the years there have been over twenty five cats who have lived with me and my family. My daughter worked for a vet and she often brought home orphaned cats which we would provide a halfway house for till new homes were available. We learned 'cat language' on a grand scale.

      One of my favorite things is head butting. I so love that. My kitty, Honeybee, is quite demonstrative.

      She will dance around and dance around and talk to me if her food dish is not just so. Another thing she does that I adore is that she winds her body in and out between my legs when I am standing doing dishes or outside pulling tall weeds or trimming tree branches. I guess I am just easily amused and she knows it!!

      If I let her in and I go out, she comes out and gets me to come in and keep her company. You gotta' love your kitties.

      Thanks for sharing this with those who may not be aware.

    • dghbrh profile image

      deergha 4 years ago from ...... a place beyond now and beyond here !!!

      Many congratulations for hub of the day.

      Keep it up.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Congratulations on your hub of the day! I laughed in recognition at your description of the early morning grumble when the cat has hidden under a car at night. One of our cats gets "wet food" once a day (no more on vet's orders) and if she thinks it isn't coming fast enough she has a way of sounding really cross.

      I also learned quite a lot here as I didn't know half-closed eyes were a sign of friendliness. Very useful.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      I chuckled at the 'you left me out all night grumble, to which could be added the 'you just stepped on me' glare after the cat has suddenly crossed the path beneath my feet!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 4 years ago from America

      Congratulations on your hub of the day! We have three cats. Each one is different. One talks all the time. The other two don't get a chance to talk. Voted uP!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      A neat read here! Cats are amazing, especially if they are raised in a loving environment. They seem aloof to people who don't know them, but nothing could be less true. Congrats on your interesting Hub of the Day!

    • LindaSmith1 profile image

      LindaSmith1 4 years ago from USA

      My cat is a whiner. She also pats me on the arm when she wants attention, and if that doesn't work, she head butts me.

    • tobint44 profile image

      Tyler Tobin 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Great Hub, I love cats and always have. My cat Nala, matches your charts very accurately.

      Tyler

    • breathing profile image

      Sajib 4 years ago from Bangladesh

      I have a white colored Cat name “MINI”. She is beautiful like yours. It is very much important for pet loving people to understand their (pet's) symbol because they cannot speak like us. I had no idea about those tail symbols before read this very important article that you have shared with us. Now it will be easier for me to handle MINI. It is very a good hub and congratulation to you for the “HUB of the Day”.

    • coffeegginmyrice profile image

      Marites Mabugat-Simbajon 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

      This is a very informative hub about a Cat's language, Anne. Though I don't have a cat this time, only my dog, I did have 2 cats before. They both just went away and never came back. Sharing your hub!!

    • ftclick profile image

      ftclick 4 years ago

      Really good stuff. I live learning about tendencies of animals and what they are sensing. Although, unlike a NY guy I don't "need to be one with the animal".

    • kathleenkat profile image

      kathleenkat 4 years ago from Bellingham, WA

      I love cats. They all have their own little personalities. I also know what you mean about fearful purring; mine often do that along with shaking.

    • Deb Welch 4 years ago

      Great Hub on cats. I wonder if you ever heard a Bengal. Very loud and vocal - amazing animal.

      Congratulations.

    • Robin-Jones profile image

      Robin-Jones 4 years ago

      Thanks for such specific and interesting explanations! : )

    • Laurel Brunvoll profile image

      Laurel Brunvoll 4 years ago

      Very interesting and informative info on our feline friends!

    • Nadene Seiters profile image

      Nadene Seiters 4 years ago from Elverson, PA

      Cute hub!

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Great hub! And if we really know our cat, we know instantly what he or she wants -- when we hear the tiny little meow -- or the irritated meow because we're taking too long to do something that has been asked quite politely of us. I'm actually more of a bird person and then a dog person, but my cat does tend to rule the home.

      I like the part where you say we have to stare down our cat if we want to be the Top Cat in the house. I'm on top of the dog etiquette so that I'm the leader, but the cat -- I just let her think she's in charge most of the time. I like to spoil her and there aren't serious ramifications from it because I trained her in her youth. lol

      Voting up, useful and sharing.

    • Relationshipc profile image

      Kari 4 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Yep, didn't know that they purred when scared. That is really interesting that cats can bluff.

      My dad has two cats and he knows every look and movement they make, and what it means, yet he can't read other peoples body language. I guess he pays more attention to the cats and what their body language is saying, than to people.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Leah-I'm thrilled!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for sharing your cats! Yes, headbutting is so sweet. My cat, Harry, loves to jump on my knee in the evenings and we head but one another. My other cat, Cyril, who just arrived on our doorstep one day two years ago (we live in a remote part of the Dublin mountains so I assume someone abandoned him-their loss, our gain), sits on the back of my legs whenever I'm kneeling at the flowerbed. If I were to sit back I'd sit on him!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congrats on HOTD! A very well-done article. We have 6 cats--oh--no--not quite right--we just acquired #7, a foster kitten who, at 6 months of age, did not find a home, and the last adoption inquiry fell through. He was so stressed from being taken back and forth to the adoption events, that we finally decided he thought he'd already found his forever home, and would feel betrayed if we gave him away at this point.

      They certainly do have many ways of communicating...and the purr is not only a 'whistle in the dark,' but also a biofeedback mechanism if they are in pain. I heard it from one of our girls after her spay surgery...when the dumb vet gave her pain meds before the operation, instead of sending them home for afterwards! She hid under a table, and the sound was definitely a purr--but a very different frequency than her normal purr--much deeper, and almost a cross between a purr and a growl.

      (You might want to check your second capsule--you seem to have duplicated the paragraph...)

      I voted for 'love both' in your poll...even though our current physical condition no longer allows us to keep up with a dog's needs....so we are just cat people now...

      Well done, voted up, awesome, useful interesting and shared.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, dghbr. I intend to try!

    • annerivendell profile image
      Author

      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Melovy. Whenever I look at a cat, particularly one who doesn't know me, I always half-close my own eyes so they know I'm a friend.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Yes! Lol. We have a stray that was abandoned, and my husband is convinced that his previous owner was an elderly person whom the cat killed! (He's partly joking-I think...) and that's why he was abandoned because he does that all the time. We have to watch out for him if we're carrying anything with both hands.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Hahaha! I know some people like that too. Thank you.

    • kathleenkat profile image

      kathleenkat 4 years ago from Bellingham, WA

      Why is it that cats always seem to stand right behind your ankles, or walk between your feet, or step right in front of you? This is especially true when carrying large objects which obstruct your view of the floor.

      I have not had a cat that hasn't tried to trip me multiple times!

    • annerivendell profile image
      Author

      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you! Yes, you really do have to take them on their own terms. I saw a great picture last week on facebook, of a cat with its paw on a $20 bill. The caption read-"You want cuddles on demand? Go buy a dog!" lol

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      She's talking, not whining! Lol. Thanks for your comment.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Tyler. Cats ARE cool! :-)

    • annerivendell profile image
      Author

      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, breathing. And regards to the beautiful MINI!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Oh, I am sorry to hear that, Coffeegginmyrice. It has happened to us too! I don't believe a cat will ever voluntarily leave a loving home., but that something or someone has prevented them from returning. I love dogs too, they are just different from cats, but no less lovable!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you ftclick. You're right, it's not necessary to be at one with the animal in order to understand and love them.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I can see you love cats from you profile pic, kathleenkat (not to mention your username!) Both are great. Thank your for your comment.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Deb. I have-but only at cat shows which we used to attend when our children were small. (They used to enter their cats in the "moggy" section as we never "owned" a pedigree). They are loud, and so beautiful.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Rogin-Jones.:-)

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Laurel. It was fun to write!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you. :-)

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Pamela. Yes, the cats do rule in our house too-even though they don't jump on furniture or worktops or go into the bedrooms...that is whenever we're not around!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Relationshipc. In fairness to your dad, I think people are way more complicated than cats! Lol

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Great, thanks for this hub with insights into the feline world. Living with a 3 legged cat (accident with a trap some years ago - survived somehow) it is fascinating to watch how her moods change - you detail the body language behind these behavioural patterns, from the familiar head butts to the challenging paw strikes and confrontation. What an energy the cat has! Phenomenal speed! Then deep relaxation and contentment.

      Votes for this hub.

    • CCahill profile image

      CCahill 4 years ago from England

      I once heard that scientists put electrodes onto their heads and it turned out every single noise they made translated to "Feed me you stupid ape!"

    • toiledejouy profile image

      toiledejouy 4 years ago from Canada

      You certainly know how to read cats very well. I have had a couple of cats that used to pout when they were unhappy with something. They would sit with their backs to you and look around occasionally to make sure you noticed...!

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

      Congratulations on Hub of the day anne! Hubbers love their cats, so it is a win win page you've shared. I have heard every sound imaginable come out of a cat, they have a remarkable vocabulary, that's for sure. The distressed and muffled 'meow' I heard the other day from 'Lickey' was impossible to ignore as she approached me with a bird in her mouth! I reacted with a loud 'get out!' and she dropped the bird, and luckily the door was open and that clever bird managed to right itself and flew right out the door. A happy ending for all.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Vicki L Hodges 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      With five cats, I've seen most of these. I love both cats and dogs, having one dog, too. I like the tables you created. Well done. Congrats on hub of the day.

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 4 years ago

      Congratulations, Anne! Super Hub on learning to understand cat language. I like the way you posted the story adjacent to the language charts. I wonder how many people intuitively understand their cats, without needing to learn all these signs? Blessings, Debby

    • breathe2travel profile image

      breathe2travel 4 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

      Sharing on my FB wall for all of my feline-loving friends!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      How very interesting. I don't have a cat right now, but my mother does. She just loves her, and I want to go "observe" her for all these interesting communications. Congrats on HOTD!

    • catfish33 profile image

      Jeffrey Yelton 4 years ago from Maryland

      Very nice hub!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you everyone for your comments. I did try to answer each one individually but they seem to have got mixed up! I love the stories that so many of you have shared about your own cats. They are such interesting and charming animals. I'm babysitting my daughter's cat right now (my grandcat, lol), she's part feral and quite feisty, but I've just sat down to check my Hubs and she's on my lap and head butting my computer as I type...

    • klanguedoc profile image

      Kevin Languedoc 4 years ago from Canada

      Great advice. We just got two kittens in July and we are still learning each other. Our kittens usually climb up my leg in the morning as soon as I get up, followed by some gentle meowing to let me know that they are hungry.

      I am voting up

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Klanguedoc. That habit of climbing up your leg could become quite painful as your kittens get older! :-) Thank you for your vote and your comment.

    • Dancing Water profile image

      Dancing Water 4 years ago

      A lovely, lovely hub! I was aware of most of the content here, but it bears reminding us who have kitties in our households. I so appreciate the clarity and flow of your writing__and the superb organization! The charts are very helpful as well for quick reference. Our fur babies are so very precious, and deserve our attention and study so that we may understand__and treat__them with supreme dignity and affection. Again, thank you for a wonderful hub, Anne!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you, Dancing Water, for such a lovely comment. All living creatures deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, would you agree? (But particularly cats and dogs! ;-) Lol)

    • KenWu profile image

      KenWu 4 years ago from Malaysia

      I'm a cat lover and owns two cats, what you have said are absolutely true. :)

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for you comment, KenWu. :-)

    • vibesites profile image

      vibesites 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks for decoding cat language! And I love that pic of cats hugging each other... it's priceless! :)

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thanks vibesites. I had fun writing the hub. Love that pic too. :-)

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 4 years ago from Cape Cod

      Purrty interesting. I have had several cats and one of them (Ozzie) actually spoke our language. His best word, which he intoned with great authority, was "Out". His out request, spoken clearly with accent on the 'ow', made it impossible to ignore him. Ozzie also went on nightly walks with Samantha (80 pound Rot-shep mix) and me. He'd usually remain out of sight. But as soon as we would stop, he would appear.

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Great story, Billrrr! I once knew a highland terrier who could say "sausages" quite distinctly. Most of our cats have come walkies with us, and I assumed this was the same with all cats until recently, when I met someone who rescues cats and can have up to 20 at a time. He's never known a cat to go walking with their owners!

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 4 years ago from Southern Arizona

      Anne, I just loved this in-depth look at cat language. I'm pretty up on my dog language skills and now your Hub has given me some insight into cat behavior and feline-speak. The information, presentation and photos are great! Congrats on your HOTD!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you :-) dog language is so different from cat language, isn't it? It's no wonder there are so many 'misunderstandings' between them.

    • nArchuleta profile image

      Nadia Archuleta 3 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      What a very interesting Hub. I love reading about cat behavior. Have you ever heard that a slow blink actually means "I love you"? Also that exposing the stomach is equated with trust? I like your explanation of cats purring when they are afraid, "like whistling in the dark." Thanks for posting this Hub!

    • annerivendell profile image
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      annerivendell 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for your kind comments, nArdchuleta. Yes, the slow blink is also what I was referring to when I mentioned the half-closed eyes. Exposing the stomach is often misinterpreted by dog owners as asking for a belly rub! Quite the opposite in cats, as you say, it's a show of trust that you won't touch that vulnerable area!

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