Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language: The Whiskers & Mouth
In December, I wrote about how a cat’s claws were considered the “Swiss Army knife of the feline toolbox.” Well, watch out claws, because you have some competition.
While looking into the body language behind a cat’s whiskers, I read that they could also be considered “Swiss Army knife of [a cat’s] sensory and communications tool kit.” Basically, like a cat’s claws, a cat’s whiskers are incredibly versatile.
In addition to the large dozen or so whiskers on either side of a cat’s nose, there are also shorter whiskers above her eyes, on her chin, and even on the backs of her lower front legs.
All of those whiskers, which are rooted much more deeply in a cat’s skin than fur, are quite sensitive. So sensitive that they can detect even the slightest change in the direction of a breeze. Consequently, some actions, like eating out of a small food bowl that pushes back on their whiskers can actually be painful.
Here’s a look at how to analyze your cat’s whiskers:
Normal / neutral / relaxed / friendly: When a cat is in a good mood, the whiskers will be held straight and slightly to the side. This could be a friendly sign, or even a sign of indifference.
Interested / excited / alert: As a cat becomes interested in something, his whiskers will come forward and fan out, ultimately extending past their muzzle. As this happens, the cheek pads also appear to puff up as the muscles pull the whiskers forward. Expect fanned out whiskers when your cat is playing intensely. Cats will also push their whiskers forward when they’re hunting prey.
Fearful / timid / shy: Like with his ears, a cat will pull his whiskers back against the sides of his face. This is a non-threatening sign that makes the cat’s face look smaller.
Now a cat’s mouth is a bit of a different story, and a little easier to understand.
Nearly all of us (I hope!) understand the powerful negative emotions behind a hiss or bared teeth, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, an open-mouthed yawn can signal contentment.
You may also notice your cat sniffing with his mouth open. This is called flehmening, and it’s a way for your to smell something more clearly. It may look like a grimace, but don’t worry, there’s nothing to fear!
Some cats also get into the habit of letting their tongue stick out a bit. While it may make them look silly, it can be a sign of relaxation or that your cat is interested in something. Cats may also lick their lips as a signal of anticipation or anxiety, depending on the situation. Take a look at what’s going on around your cat to get a better idea of what he may be feeling.
Along those lines, some say a cat’s lips may also be indicative of a cat’s mood. For example, if the mouth is slightly open and the nose is barely wrinkled, this could be a sign of displeasure or disgust. Another lip gesture signals embarrassment: The lips are drawn back and not too far upward, the nose isn’t wrinkled, and the head will swing from side to side. This is supposed to be a friendly rejection to other cats, so they leave the cat alone.
Like with all body language, looking at the whole picture can help you better understand what your cat is feeling.
Is your cat especially expressive with his or her whiskers or mouth? Please share your stories in the comments!