by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
We’ve looked at the head position, ears and eyes; the front of the face adds to the signals.
Whiskers are sensory organs. Apart from measuring distances they also pick up air movements and can detect variations in temperature. In this way they can indicate another being coming, moving in front of them, or walking away. The whiskers may help to direct air currents towards the nose and mouth for closer investigation.
There are two sets of whiskers around the mouth; the long sensory whiskers and shorter whiskers around the mouth. The sensory whiskers are embedded in the whisker pad at the front of the cheeks. This pad controls the movement of the sensory whiskers as one unit. The whisker pads on either side may move independently.
The position on the sensory whiskers indicates mood. Positioned slightly to the side and relaxed indicates a neutral cat; whiskers pointed forward shows curiosity or the need to gather more information, while whiskers pulled back against the cheeks to make the cat look smaller indicate a fearful, non-threatening cat.
Smell is the most important sense for a cat as it tells them almost everything they need to know about their environment and the situation. While cats do smell with their noses they have an extra organ above the roof of the mouth, the Jacobson’s organ, where they process smells they are in direct contact with. To do this they will open their mouths slightly, usually with the upper lip retracted, and inhale the smell. The information from this is added to that from the nose to give a better picture.
A cat licking his nose and lips could be indicating anxiety or anticipation, refreshing his nose after a particularly strong smell, or cleaning up after a meal. Cleaning up after a meal is important so that predators or other cats don’t pick up on the smell of his meal.
Yawning can be an indication that he has just woken up, or as a calming signal to indicate that he is peaceful and not threatening. Interestingly, yawning appears to be contagious; some cats will yawn back if you yawn a few times!
Panting is a sign of stress or the inability to breathe, while leaving the tip of the tongue sticking out indicates a contented and relaxed cat. Yawning often occurs after sleeping, but can also be used to reassure others that he has no intention to harm – unless he is threatened or attacked.
When running their faces, especially the cheeks and top of head, cats are laying their scent on the recipient. This can be to link family members or as a calming gesture towards the other cat, animal or person.
Cats that know each other may sniff noses; this is actually to read the scent glands around the whiskers for information on the state of the other cat.