How to Read and Understand Cat Body Language

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15 Minute Read
Updated September 6, 2022

If cats could talk, what do you think they would say? We may not speak the same language, but cat behaviour and cat body language speak volumes!

In ancient Egypt, cats were worshiped as deities due to their magical nature. They were considered mysterious creatures, and even today, owners find their feline companions mystifying and intriguing. 

It’s hard to know exactly what a kitty thinks because their nature is aloof, and their communication is based almost solely on cat body language. Learning the telltale cat sign language can help you better communicate and coexist with your furry friend.

You might be surprised to discover that cats are wonderfully expressive if you know what to watch for. Cat sign language is very subtle and can be a small movement such as a  tail twitch or the position of the cat’s ears. However, once you learn how to read your cat, then you’ll quickly become a feline communication pro comparable to Dr. Doolittle. 

Cat Behaviour Explained 

Every pet owner wants a happy furry bestie. You’ll find yourself examining your cat’s body language to determine if the animal is content and relaxed. Luckily, once you know cat language, you can tell when your kitty is happy, angry, sad, and more. 

Knowing what your cat is trying to communicate through action and body language can help you anticipate their needs and provide a safe, happy, and appropriate environment and routine for your feline friend. 

We can't read their mind, but cats do their best to let us know what they need, even if it's just instinct. Sometimes their behaviour might seem off or goofy, but that's likely their way of communicating. Keep reading to learn more about cat body language and what your cat is trying to tell you. 

Happy Cat Body Language 

You’ll know easily when your cat is happy by the cat poses and general demure. A happy cat radiates bliss that you’ll easily be able to pick up on regardless of the cat's posture or actions.

    • Upright Tail: When your cat sees you and holds his tail in an upright position while walking towards you, then the feline is happy to see you and says, “hello.” 
    • Slow Blink: The slow blink spells l-o–v-e. Your kitty feels completely relaxed and wants to let you know he loves you. 
    • Soft Eyes: The cat will hold his eyes half closed, which means your cat feels comfortable and relaxed. 
    • Hop Up: Do you ever enter the room, and your cat hops up to meet you and possibly give you a loving head bump? The hop-up is your kitty’s way of greeting and letting you know that the feline is glad to see you. 
    • Rolling Over: When your cat feels happy and relaxed, the kitty might roll onto their back and reveal their furry tummy to you. Showing the abdomen is a sign of complete trust. Your cat is not asking you to rub his tummy (like a dog). If you try to rub your cat’s tummy, the feline might claw or bite. Basically,  just look and don’t touch! If you want to pet your kitty, then rub the pet’s head and ears but steer clear of the tummy. Instead, just be happy your kitty is telling you that he trusts you enough to show you his vulnerable belly.  

Fearful Cat Body Language

Cats often fight with other felines, especially if they start to feel threatened. Your cat can even show signs of feeling threatened by you, especially if you are bringing the cat home for the first time or placing the kitty in a situation where the animal feels unsure. The cat might hiss or swipe with the paw in an effort to claw. 

    • Arching the Back: When your cat becomes scared, then the animal will arch their back in an attempt to look bigger. 
    • Holding the Tail Tensely: As your cat arches his back, his tail starts to tense up and is held in an upright position. The whole body is just stiff and held at the ready. 
    • Puffed Fur:  If your cat feels threatened or afraid, then the pet’s fur will fluff out and stand on end. Even the whiskers point forward. The fluffed-up appearance is believed to make the kitty look big and threatening.

Anxious and Stressed Cat Body Language

Cats are often skittish and stressed out. Any change can catapult your cat into emotional insecurity and fits of worry. Some cats do not like loud noises or changes in their daily routine. If your cat is feeling stressed out or anxious, then try to give the pet time alone to adjust. Do not push physical contact because the kitty could quickly become upset and irritated. 

    • Crouching at Ground Level: If your cat crouches down to the ground level in an effort to kind of flatten the animal’s body, then the feline is probably exhibiting cat signs of stress. 
    • Hiding: When a cat hides, then the pet probably feels unsure, anxious, and stressed. However, if you cannot pinpoint the source of anxiety or stress, then you should contact your veterinarian for a checkup because cats will hide when sick or in pain. 
    • Flattened Ears: A stressed cat will often flatten his ears against his head. 
    • Wide Opened Eyes:  When your cat is worried or unsure about something, then the pet’s eyes will be held wide open, and the pupils will also open up.  

Other Cat Body Language 

Cats use physical actions and a combination of cat posture to communicate their feelings and emotions. All you have to do is take the time to watch and learn your cat’s personality.  No words need to be spoken to carry on a conversation with your feline buddy.

    • Rubbing:  Your cat naturally rubs against things to scent mark. The glands are located on their paw pads, lips, cheeks, tail, forehead, flanks and either side of the rectum. Cats are very territorial, and leaving behind their unique scent by rubbing on things lets other felines know their boundaries. A cat will rub on you to claim you and to show other cats that you are a part of their territory. It is a show of affection. 
    • Kneading: Many cats will need your clothing, skin, pillows, and other surfaces with their paws. They will flex their toes and claws rhythmically on surfaces. This cat behaviour mimics the actions of a kitten kneading on the mother cat while nursing to work the milk out of the mammary gland. The kneading is a sign of love and comfort. 
    • Vocalizing: Some cats are more vocal than others. May meow only when they are hungry and want attention, but others will carry on a conversation with you. Siamese cats are known as very vocal kitties. Many owners even come to decipher the styles of meows to learn if their cat is hungry, wants affection, is afraid, or is just chatty. 

 

Illness and Your Cat’s Body Language  

sick-cat-relaxing-under-a-blanket

Some cat body language is easier to read than others, such as angry cat body language. You intuitively know your kitty is mad when he puffs out, arches his back, straightens his tail and hisses. However, other cat postures can indicate signs of illness. 

If your cat’s body language suddenly changes, then it could be a red flag that there is a health problem. Many cats will lie down in a crouched position when sick. The pet might not want you to touch him. His eyes might look glassy or dull. The ears could droop on the cat’s head. Some kitties even hide when not feeling well.

If you observe your cat acting odd, then you might want to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for a full physical exam.  

Cat Body Language Basics 

Here is a simple breakdown of the four most common cat emotions and the body language cues you can look for. 

Happy Relaxed Cat 

Body 

Relaxed, loose, and curved

Eyes 

Round or silver shaped 

Whiskers 

Held in a neutral, relaxed position 

Tail 

Held loosely, either curved forward or held slightly down 

 

Cat Love Signs 

Body 

Rolls onto back and kneads with paws 

Eyes 

Blinks slowly might fall asleep 

Whiskers

Held in a neutral, relaxed position. Some cats also start to drool a little when relaxed and happy. 

Tail 

Held loosely, either curved forward or held slightly down

 

Playful and Excited Cat

Body 

Loose and relaxed 

Eyes 

Dilated pupils and held wide open 

Whiskers

Positioned forward in a splayed-out form 

Tail 

Held in an upright position. The tip might quiver. May hold the tail lower and start to swish it back and forth when wanting to play. 

 

Angry Cat Body Language 

Body 

Arched back, tense, fur puffed out

Eyes 

Held flat against head 

Whiskers 

Flatted back against face 

Tail 

Tucked up, puffed out, swishing and, in some cases, tucked under the cat’s body. 

 

Common Cat Behaviours and What They Mean

cat-rubbing-against-person-legs

Cats are very expressive in their behaviour, so sometimes even the most normal or common of actions can be a way of your cat hinting at their emotions. Take a look at some common cat behaviours that you might not know have a deeper meaning. 

Cat Kisses 

Most people know that a cat has an independent nature, but even though they might not seek out your affection like a dog, a cat is actually very loving. When your cat lays across the room and looks at you, take a moment to stare back at the cat. 

You’ll be surprised to learn that your cat can give kisses with his eyes. When your cat stares at you and then gives you a long, terribly slow blink, then most feline owners will tell you that the kitty is giving you kisses with his eyes. If you want to tell your cat you love him too, then return the action by blinking back at the kitty slowly.

Cat Rubbing Against You

One of the cutest cat behaviours you might see in your cat is when they brush up against your leg. Some cats gently graze you, while others practically body-check you. But what does it mean? Well, it could be a few things. More often than not, it's your cat's adorable way of greeting you. 

Other reasons could be that they are marking you with their scent to that other animals know you are their human, or maybe she is trying to get your attention.  

Cat Tail Language

Cat tails are wonderfully expressive. Even if you don't pay any attention to the cat’s face or body, you can still decode the pet’s emotions based strictly on the actions of the feline’s tail. 

Tail Held High 

Is your cat holding his tail high in the air? A straight cat tale indicates that your cat is happy and ready to play or interact with you. You’ll notice this behaviour a lot at food times. Your cat’s tail will shoot up into a straight position as the kitty anxiously waits for you to fill the food bowl. 

Tense Tail

When a cat holds his tail straight in the air and fluffs it out, then the cat is probably uncertain and facing a threat, such as when meeting another cat or a new pet. The tail indicates that the cat is ready for action if necessary. Many speculate that the cat’s tail becomes fluffy because the kitty is trying to make the cat look bigger by puffing out the fur on the tail. 

Tail Quivering and Held High 

A cat’s tail will quiver when the kitty is overly excited. Unaltered males and females will back up to a surface, quiver their tails and then spray or urinate to mark the animal’s territory and advertise for a mate. 

Held Low and Tucked 

If your cat is afraid, then the kitty will hold the tail low and might even tuck it between its back legs in an effort to look tiny. It makes them less of a target and appear less threatening to an aggressor.

Flicking Tail Back and Forth Rhythmically 

When your cat starts to flick his tail back and forth, then he is serious. The kitty is agitated and wants to be left alone. If you continue to mess with the cat, then the kitty might claw you. 

Cat Signs When Hunting 

Cats are natural predators, and they enjoy hunting, even if it’s just a game of play with toys. A young kitten will regularly play hunt games with you. The cat will crouch, shake its butt, flick its tail, and launch at the object. You’ll swear that your house kitty has become a lion in the jungle. 

    • Scratching: Your cat might scratch you in play. Cat behaviour is natural, even if it is unpleasant, and it's usually just done in play. 
    • Biting: Yes, cats enjoy biting your hands, feet and toys when playing. 
    • Ankle ambush: Your kitty might lay in wait, hiding under something and then catapult his body at your ankles and feet when you walk by. The game is always carried out in good spirits, but the kitty can bite and scratch without realizing he is hurting you.
    • Vocalizing: A cat might start to chirp at birds in the window or other prey animals in excitement. Some cats actually chatter by clicking their teeth. 

Hunting is normal and instinctual behaviour. Unless you want your cat to hunt you or your family, it's a good idea to give your cat plenty of safe hunting opportunities, like toys and games. 

The Many Meanings of a Purr

When examining cat body language, you need to consider the purr. Cats are famous for their soothing purr, which sounds like a little motorboat. When learning how to read your cat, the purr is a key to many emotions. 

When your cat is content, he will purr. He might purr when you are petting him, brushing his fur, or when he is simply laying alone looking out the window. A mother cat and her kittens will purr to each other. Some cats also purr when they are hungry. Many cats also purr as a soothing mechanism, such as when the animal is in pain or feeling some form of discomfort. 

Purring by itself isn't a clear indicator of emotion or intent, but when paired with other body languages, purring can help you read your cat a little better. 

Other cat sounds

cat-trilling-out-window

We often don't think about how vocal our cats can be. Cats actually have a really wide range of sounds that can indicate their current state of mind. Purring is often considered a positive cat noise but isn't always. Here are a few more cat sounds you might find familiar and a few that you've probably heard but didn't know there was a name for!

Meow

This one is pretty obvious, but what you might not know is that adult cats often only meow for our benefit. Beyond kittenhood, most cats stop meowing at each other, as there are many other more efficient forms of communication between cats, both verbal and non-verbal. 

Most of the meows you hear from an adult cat are mimicking human communication behaviours. This happens in a very basic sense, but you may even find that your cat's tone when meowing can be a clue to what they need, want, or are feeling. 

Chatter

If your cat likes to sit in the window and bird watch, then you've probably heard this odd sound. Chattering sounds like a short burst of clicking sounds coming from your cat's open mouth. If you watch closely, you can see their jaw quiver as they chatter. This sound is meant to mimic the sound of birds and other prey, almost like a siren's song. 

Hiss

Hissing is probably the cat sound that most people know how to respond to. Back away and give the cat some space. What you might not know is that hissing doesn't always mean that the cat is angry. Hissing is a warning sign that a cat is uncomfortable. 

This could mean that your cat feels threatened, they could be feeling anxious, or they could just be frustrated. Scared and anxious cats could be prepared to attack or defend, while cats that are frustrated are likely to be more bark than bite. 

Think of an older cat that is fed up with a rambunctious puppy running circles around him. He's just letting that pup know that he's over the annoying behaviour, and it's time to back off. 

Growl

Another audible warning from a cat is a growl. Growls are a little less abrasive and attention-grabbing than a hiss, so you will likely hear a low growl before a hiss. Again, a growl doesn't always mean angry or aggressive; it just means "back off" or "I'm not ready."

Trill

We saved the best for last when it comes to cat noises. It's the best because it's absolutely the cutest. A trill is a high pitch rolled meow that your cat will do through his nose. This adorable and nasally sound is almost exclusively a greeting or acknowledgment. 

You might hear this sound when you get home or enter a room when you pick up a cat toy or tasty treat. This one is also a common sound when waking up your cat from a nap. The slight startle is sometimes followed up by a sound indicating that they are happy to see you. 

 

How to Use Cat Body Language for Training

cat-being-treat-trained

When it comes to their training and behaviour, understanding cat body language is one of the most important tools you have in your arsenal. Reading their subtle communications can help you find fun ways to train your cat and encourage cat exercises that will help her stay engaged and interested and rule out the systems that your cat doesn't respond well to. 

This can come in handy for situations like introducing a new pet, where your cat's behaviour changes will help you determine how your cat is handling the new family member. Or you could monitor cat behaviour for signs of illness or cat anxiety

Deciphering cat body language will help your bond with your kitten. Spend as much time as you can observing your cat’s reactions and emotions to learn his unique cat sign language. Why not invest in cat treats and cat toys to encourage interactions, so you learn even more about how your cat speaks volumes to you without saying a word?

What are some of the cutest, funniest, and most curious ways that your cat communicates with you? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by

Homes Alive Pets

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