If you are a cat owner or are thinking about getting a cat, you will want to learn how to read cat body language.
Cats are independent creatures who tend to be more reserved and cautious around humans. Unfortunately, this has given them the misunderstood reputation of being bad-tempered or indifferent to humans.
Cat lovers and owners know that cats are capable of being affectionate and they will often show it, though in more subtle ways than dogs or other popular pets.
Interpreting cat body language is helpful in having the best relationship with your pet. It will allow you to respond appropriately if your cat is feeling content, playful, stressed, or fearful.
We will talk about several cat body language clues as well as unusual behaviors that may reveal a little bit about a cat’s mood.
Your cat can be telling you a lot with its facial expressions, which are a big part of understanding cat body language. Just like people, cats can have different moods and emotions depending on the circumstances. They may feel angry, playful, scared, anxious, contented, or defensive.
Here are some of the signs to pay attention to if you are trying to read your cat’s mind.
A cat that blinks its eyes slowly is often relaxed and happy. Blinking their eyes means that they feel comfortable enough to let their guard down for a second. In contrast, if they are very stressed or frightened, their eyes will dilate. The saucer size eyes may seem cute on a meme, but your fur baby is probably feeling traumatized if you see them.
If eyes are narrowed to slits, it could mean aggression, as if they were hunting. It is also good to note that cats often use direct eye contact to intimidate or show assertiveness (think of the staring contests). For this reason, your cat may feel uncomfortable if you look directly at them and especially if you make eye contact.
When a cat’s ears are up and erect, they are alert, perhaps slightly anxious or curious. If their ears are forward, they are feeling relaxed and confident. Ears flattened to the head are almost always an indicator that the cat is fearful or angry.
If a cat’s mouth is open and their lips are curled back and appear to be panting, they may be trying to smell something better. Cats have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth which allows them to process scent. They will open their mouth to allow air to pass in so they can get a bigger whiff of something they are curious about. Yawning can also be a sign of relaxation and contentment.
Though a subtle change, the whiskers may move slightly toward their face if a cat is feeling threatened, making their profile a little smaller.
A cat’s nose may not be able to tell you much about their behavior, but a warm, dry nose can sometimes be an indication that your cat is sick. The good news is that unless your cat is showing other symptoms, this is not a huge cause to worry.
Aside from their facial features, your cat can also give you clues about their mood with other parts of their body or with full-body movements.
A cat that is stretching and opening itself up probably feels comfortable and is not worried about being bothered.
If a cat is frightened or stress, it will try to make itself look bigger by arching its back and standing slightly sideways to the person, animal, or situation that is frightening them.
A cat may also arch its back while stretching though so look for multiple clues and consider the situation around to best understand what your pet is feeling. If frightened or defensive, the hair will also stand on end, contributing to them look bigger.
If a cat is stressed, it will try to make itself look smaller and be less of a target. It will do so by crouching down, tucking its limbs and head in. Ears and whiskers will be pressed to their face.
If your cat is raising their paw to you, they could be anticipating something like a treat or a scratch on the head. They are probably looking for a little extra attention. Better grab the opportunity!
The tail can also give you an idea about how your precious cat is feeling. If its tail is held up straight, it is feeling confident and happy. It might decide to allow you to be affectionate with it. The tail may even seem to vibrate if happy.
Tail twitching however can be a sign of aggression and you might want to back off or look for what might be frustrating your cat. If very frightened and trying to make itself look smaller, the tail will be held down, close to the body, or maybe even between their hind legs. If a cat does not have a tail, there are still plenty of other cues to tip you off to their mood.
Cats have scent glands on their faces. If they like you and want to show affection, they will rub their face on you, whether your face or another part of your body like your leg or arm. If you want to make a good impression on a cat, you can put your finger down close to their face for them to smell and rub against if they feel comfortable. If the cat feels really comfortable around you, they may even butt their head into you.
You may observe your cat using its paws in a “kneading” action. This stems from behavior kittens would use when nursing to get milk from their mother. Adult cats may still “knead” occasionally. If they do it on you or while in your lap, this is a sign of affection.
Rolling on their back
A cat may roll on the ground or even lay on its back. This one can be tricky because similar behavior in a dog or other pet might indicate they want a belly rub. This is usually not the case for a cat.
If the cat is on the ground with its belly exposed it is probably a good sign that they feel contented and safe. However, they still may dig in with their claws and teeth if you want to risk your hand tickling their soft belly.
Hissing usually indicates stress and frustration so you should pay attention to this vocalization.
Raising their back during petting
If a cat raises its backend during petting, this is usually a good sign. They are pushing up in order to get the full tactile pleasure of the experience. However, be aware of other signs of stress that might accompany the back arching such as raised hair, flattened ears, or a twitching tail so you don’t get scratched.
Chasing and grabbing
If your cat occasionally chases you and pounces on your leg, this is playful and is a modified hunting instinct that has been appropriately adapted. However, if the chasing and grabbing end in an attack of a person or another animal, that is a problem. The cat likely does not have enough stimulation. They can benefit from toys, not only simple toys like a catnip mouse but more challenging puzzle toys or toys that will move to simulate a real hunt experience.
This is another behavior that you’ll need to consider in context with other signs. While scratching good be a sign of aggression or that your cat is feeling threatened, they may just be playing and showing affection. If your cat is scratching during play, make sure they have plenty of stimulating toys. If they scratch you during play, stop playing and even leave the room to show them playtime stops if they scratch.
If the scratching stems from aggression, you may want to look for signs of stress or anxiety in your cat. You can also talk to the vet about what you can do to help. Don’t appear to threaten or punish your cat for scratching as this will make them more aggressive and could mean more scratching.
If your cat is happy, it will be evident through their body language and behavior. It will appear well-groomed and relaxed. It will be confident and comfortable enough to lay down and relax and stretch without fear. Its ears will be up, but not tense and it will hold its tail up while walking.
Just like humans, cats can also be stressed by their environment. A cat dealing with a lot of stress will shed more than usual and groom excessively, licking or even biting themselves.
They may also have gastrointestinal issues or accidents even if they are already well trained to use a litter box.
They might also communicate their stress in loud meowing or in more aggression than usual, scratching if they feel threatened. They will probably become more withdrawn, particularly around strangers and you may have to play hide and seek for the cat if you do need to check upon them.
Unfortunately, it is possible for cats to be sad or even depressed for a variety of reasons. It could be because of illness or the absence or addition of a human or pet in the household. You should look for some of the body language clues we have already addressed including flat ears, trying to make itself look small, dilated eyes, etc.
Some behaviors that might accompany cat depression include excessive scratching, loss of appetite, sleeping more than usual, or not grooming themselves. There may often be vocal cues, such as low mournful purring, especially in a cat that is usually quiet. On the other hand, a usually vocal cat may become more quiet than usual.
Essentially, you are looking for an unusual change in behavior. Some cats will become clingier when depressed where others may be more fearful and avoid humans even if they are usually social.
One behavior that is particularly annoying to humans is when cats spray or urinate in inappropriate areas to leave their scent. The scent can be comforting to a depressed cat but is obviously a problem for the humans who live there.
If your cat is showing signs of depression, it is best to see a vet as the cause may be physical pain or illness.
Your cat may leave messages for other cats and animals, especially in the form of urinating on a vertical surface to mark their territory. This is primarily sexual and having your cat spayed or neutered will greatly decrease this behavior.
However, it may occur for other reasons as well, such as indicating a urinary tract infection, communicating stress, etc.
Scratching or rubbing something also marks their territory which is why they will rub their face on you if they like you. They may scratch your couch up if another cat seems to be getting comfortable there. First, check for medical reasons for the marking behavior.
If those causes have been eliminated, try to show your cat affection in the areas it is marking such as the couch for instance. This will help it feel more confident, so it won’t need to mark those areas anymore.
In order to interpret cat body language, you will have to watch your cat carefully and spend time trying to make sense of the different cues. The effort that you put into it will be well worth it in the long run and strengthen the bond and understanding between you and your pet.
Let us know how your cat communicates with you and any tips that you have based on your own personal experience.
Check out this video on cat body language before you leave.