Cats aren’t shy about expressing themselves, but it might not always be obvious what they’re trying to say. Knowing how your cat communicates pleasure and discomfort is vital to a successful relationship. Learn how to read your cat’s body language signals so you can better understand how they’re feeling.
Why Is Learning Cat Body Language Important?
When you understand what’s motivating your cat’s behavior you’re better able to support their needs, which can improve your cat’s overall health. Being able to read your cat’s emotions can also make training and behavior management easier. And when your cat feels understood they’ll trust you more, strengthening your bond.
Always consider the context of the situation when reading your cat’s body language, and be patient as you learn. Cat body language can be subtle and complex, but with practice you’ll pick up on your cat’s unique communication style!
Tails Tell A Lot
A cat’s tail says a lot about their mood. From in the air to low and tucked, here’s what a cat’s tail has to say:
- Tail high in the air and relaxed (not stick-straight, may have a curl at the top). This position indicates that your cat is happy and ready to play if you’re up for it.
- Tail high in the air and tense (often with bristled fur). This tail position shows that your cat feels potentially threatened and is ready to fight if necessary.
- Tail high in the air and quivering. A tail quiver can mean your cat is super excited, and may spray or urinate as marking behavior. A high, quivering tail can also be a sign of positive excitement.
- Tail low and tucked. A tail held down or tucked means your cat is feeling afraid and is trying to make itself as small as possible to hide from the situation.
- Tail flicking back and forth. This fierce tail movement shows your cat is agitated and wants to be left alone. A flicking tail could also mean your cat is on high alert, as in hunting mode.
- Tail slowly moving back and forth. A slowly swaying tail means your cat is highly focused on something, and may be getting ready to pounce.
- Curling tail around people or other cats. When your cat curls their tail around you or another cat (such as intertwined tails) it’s a sign of affection, willingness to interact, and bonding.
- Sitting with tail curled around their own feet. A cat with its tail curled around its paws has a self-protective posture, like when humans cross their arms. This could mean the cat feels anxious or simply content, but does not want to be disturbed. It can also mean cold paws!
When a cat’s tail fur is bristled (in any position) it’s a sign of fear or agitation, so give them some space.
Stances Are Signals
The way your cat stands, sits or lies down is a clue to how they’re feeling. Here’s what the most common cat stances usually mean:
- Arched back with bristled fur. This combination is a sign of aggression and means your cat is alarmed and feeling threatened.
- Standing sideways. When a cat stands or crouches sideways to you it shows they’re ready to run if needed, meaning that they’re feeling fearful or uncertain.
- Facing head on. Cats tend to orient themselves towards their object of interest, so a cat pointing their body and head your way indicates that your cat is feeling confident, positive, and open to interaction.
- Facing away. A cat facing away from you is a sign they trust you and feel comfortable around you.
- Crouched and alert. When your cat is crouched with wide eyes and a flicking tail they’re feeling anxious and are prepared to leap out of harm’s way.
- Crouched with a wiggly butt. This means your cat is getting ready to jump or pounce on something. Cats wiggle their rear ends back and forth before pouncing to test their balance and plant their rear paws.
- Showing their belly. A cat showing you its belly is a big sign of trust. This means that your cat feels secure and relaxed, which we all want. But an exposed belly probably isn’t an invitation for belly rubs! Some cats may tolerate belly rubs (up to a point), while others hate it. Learn what your cat prefers and respect their boundaries.
- Standing still or frozen. When your cat freezes in place (whether sitting or standing) it means they’re assessing an uncomfortable situation. Freezing is a sign of fear, like a deer in headlights.
Look At Their Face
Another important part of understanding cat body language is looking at your cat’s face. Their eyes, ears and whiskers can all be clues to a cat’s mood.
- Tall and erect ears. When your cat’s ears are facing forward and pointing straight up it means your cat is on high alert for prey or a potential threat.
- Forward and relaxed ears. Ears forward but relaxed in a neutral position means your cat feels calm and isn’t being bothered.
- Flattened ears. When your cat flattens their ears back or to the sides it’s a sign that your feline is not enjoying themself. Whether it’s anger or fear, this body language indicates that your cat wants to leave.
- Whiskers forward and fanned out. A cat’s whiskers extend like this when they’re engaged in hunting behavior.
- Drooping whiskers. Relaxed whiskers indicate a relaxed cat!
- Flattened whiskers. When a cat’s whiskers are pulled back flat against their face it means they feel afraid or threatened.
- Face rubbing. Cats rub their faces and heads on things (including you!) to mark their territory and show affection. Scent glands around their cheeks, chin, and top of the head deposit pheromones. Cats also rub their faces on things to pick up scents.
- The slow blink. When a cat gazes at you and gives you a slow blink, it means they feel safe and are receptive to attention.
- The unblinking stare. Staring without blinking or looking away means your cat is trying to assert dominance. They may feel threatened or just want to be on top. You can break the stare to help your cat feel more comfortable. If your cat breaks the stare, they’ve decided they’re comfortable around you and the current situation.
- Cat pupils are another important mood signal. Dilated pupils mean your cat is stimulated: it could be excitement, fear, or anger. Narrowed pupils improve focus and depth perception, which is helpful when stalking prey, assessing a threat, or simply paying attention.
Hear ‘Em Out
Cats also communicate using a wide range of vocalizations. Here’s what your cat wants you to hear:
- Constant meowing. This shows that your cat is trying to tell yousomething. Your cat could be meowing a lot to express hunger, fear, illness, or loneliness. The situation, type of meow, and your cat’s body language can help you figure it out.
- Chirping like a bird. Cats can chirp or trill as a greeting, a way to get your attention, or when excited by a toy (or birds outside the window).
- Purring. Most often cats purr when they’re feeling content and happy. But cats also purr to soothe themselves when they’re hurt, sick, or nervous. You may also hear your cat purring around mealtime when they want you to feed them.
- Growling. Cats growl when feeling annoyed, aggressive, or protective. You may hear your cat growl to establish that something is theirs, like their favorite toy or food.
- Hissing. A hissing cat is afraid, uncomfortable, or stressed out. So whatever you’re doing to or with them when they hiss, stop! Never hiss back at your cat, which they can interpret as a threat. You may also want to avoid giving your cat a name with strong ‘ss’ sound (like ‘Miss’ or ‘Puss’) or using sounds like “Psst” to get your cat’s attention.
- Yowling/Caterwauling. Yowling can be a sign your cat is stressed, ill, or otherwise expressing a complaint they want you to be aware of. Female cats in heat (and male cats responding) also use caterwauling as a mating call. In senior cats, yowling can be a sign of cognitive dysfunction. When there isn’t a clear reason for your cat’s persistent caterwauling (at any age), you should get a vet to rule out medical causes.
Using Body Language to Read Your Cat’s Mood
Cat’s don’t pick and choose which body language signals they use—they express themselves from nose to tail! Learn how to identify your cat’s current state by putting it all together.
- Cat may look sleepy or relaxed
- Ears neutral & still
- Sitting with a straight back (not crouched) or lying on side
- Tail relaxed
- Crouched down
- If standing, rear part of body is lower than front, legs are bent
- Ears might be flattened or pivoting around
- Wide eyes with dilated pupils
- Tail high and rigid, or curled around body
- Breathing may be faster
- Eyes squinted or shut
- Whiskers drawn back
- Head down or tilted
- Sitting hunched over
- Withdrawn, clingy, or cranky (depends on the cat!)
- Stalking you or a toy
- Ears pricked forward
- Dilated pupils & watchful eyes
- Crouched low with wiggly rear end
- Flicking tail
On the Prowl
- Ears pricked forward
- Eyes focused with narrow pupils
- Semi-crouched with rear legs ready to spring
- Tail low, may be flicking
- Body & head oriented toward ‘prey’
- Loitering where food is stored or served
- Following you closely, weaving around your legs, or head-butting you near food area
- Insistent meowing or purring
- Pawing food bowl
Cats also use body language and vocalizations to talk to each other. If you’re a parent to two or more cats, learning more about their body language can help you better understand their relationship.
Signs that cats like each other:
- Gentle head-butting
- Boops (touching noses)
- Grooming each other
- Napping together
- Playing together
- Intertwining tails, or a tail draped over the other cat
Signs that cats aren’t getting along:
- Avoiding each other
- Hissing or growling
- Tense body language around each other (flattened ears/whiskers, bristled fur)
- Not using the litter box
- Unwilling to share playtime
- One-sided play aggression
Cats are very territorial, so making sure each cat has its own food, water, and litter box, with plenty of access to toys and perches, can go a long way toward keeping the peace. Working with a cat behaviorist can also help.
Can Cats & Dogs Communicate With Each Other?
While cats and dogs both use body language, there can be differences in specific signals, and misinterpretation can cause conflict. Above all, it’s the personality of each animal that will determine how well they get along together.
These common body language signals among cats and dogs are all a positive sign your pair is in harmony:
Slow blinking. Both dogs and cats use a slow blink to communicate they’re comfortable and open to interaction.
Snuggling up. Dogs and cats with a history of positive interactions may cuddle together or even sleep in the same space.
Grooming each other. This is a solid sign of affection and helps cement the relationship.
Learn more about reading dog body language for more insight into canine communication.
LEARN MORE ABOUT CATS WITH STELLA & CHEWY’S
It’s important to be aware of your cat’s body language, including how much your cat is sleeping every day. Not only will understanding their body language help you get to know your cat better, but it will also ensure that you’re better equipped to handle their unique behaviors in specific situations. To learn more about all things cat, check out our variety of cat blogs by visiting Our Blog: For the Pet Obsessed.