Cat Body Language

If you share your life with a cat you probably already know more about cat body language than you think you do.

Do you instinctively know when your cat is feeling angry, fearful, upset, contented or at ease?

Well, it may not be instinct as such, but a subconscious reading of your cat's body signals.

When you arrive home and your cat greets you with her tail upright and quivering, you know that she is telling you that she is pleased to see you.

You don't look at the tail and say to yourself " The tail in that position means a friendly welcome."

You just understand what your cat is telling you.

If on the other hand you came home to find your cat with her tail upright and bristling, perhaps also with the hair on her back standing on end, you would know something was wrong.

You may not immediately get that she is being defensively aggressive, but you would not take it as her usual friendly greeting.

Facts About Cat Body Language

Body language is but one means of communication for domestic cats. They also communicate with each other by way of scent, and particularly as kittens, with the use of vocal sounds.

As adult cats they do not communicate vocally with each other so much, this is because they can rely upon non-vocal signals.

tabby cat with green eyesThe staring eyes might be taken as an aggressive signal but in this instance it is probably curious about the camera. The cat is calm, non-defensive and happy to accept petting.
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Getting a message home to a human is a different kettle of fish however.

Humans are not so well attuned to understanding cat body language so cats also use a variety of miaows to speak to their humans.

A cat usually uses the whole of her body to convey a message.

The tail is a strong indicator of the mood of a cat but observing the position of the tail on its own can often be misleading because the ears, face, coat, legs and even the eyes play their part in communicating the message.

Much cat body language is used when cats are at play, with humans or with other cats.

Cat body signals are very much in evidence when two males meet, perhaps vying over a female or a territorial dispute; the body signals are used to avert physical conflict.

Both cats know that a fight could result in serious injury even for the victor.

The Language of the Tail

When upright the tail is highly visible, and is used to communicate friendliness, contentment etc. As noted above, if the tail is also quivering it signals that the cat is very pleased to see whoever it is greeting.

As also noted, an upright tail with the hairs bristling with anger is a highly visible signal that the feline is enraged.

A tail held half way up shows that the cat is friendly but not completely confident about the cat or human it is approaching.

Likewise a tail held aloft with the end crooked is communicating that the cat is not threatening you but is unsure about your intent.

A feline with its tail sticking straight out for a few inches and the rest hanging down is using body language to show that it is in defensive mode but ready to protect itself, a defensive aggression.

The tail between the rear legs, perhaps curled inwards, shows submission.

You are likely to see this if you scold your cat. Your cat is likely to slink away, glancing back at you, literally with its tail between its legs.

The tail swishing from side to side indicates that the cat is at the least irritated and with a violently swishing tail signifies anger, be wary. If the end of the tail is just twitching however, the cat body language denotes that your cat is interested in something, perhaps a bird outside the window.

You may have seen your cat with her tail upright and kitty gives a little flick with just the end of the tail.

This signal means that your cat has seen you and is acknowledging you, but also telling you that she has more important things to do than bother with you at the moment. 

The Ears - Cat Body Language Semaphore

Good hearing is part of a cat's defense system. Ever observed your Slumbering Cat's ear prick up at a faint sound?

Your cat is in that semi-sleep state that cats spend an awful lot of time in. It's ears detect a sound, perhaps one ear cups and turns toward the noise. Instantly computing that it is not the sound of an approaching predator, your mouser remains peacefully snoozing.

 interpreting body language of cats
The tail hanging down is showing the cat to be defensive mode. The arched back and ruffled fur may be an indication that it is observing something that it is unsure of. Cat body language shows that the cat’s ready to protect itself, a defensive aggression.

Cats can turn each ear independently of the other and move them up and down.

These radar scanner like ears are not only perfect for detecting prey and predators, they are also an important part of the cat body language system.

Ears that are upright and pointing forward signal that the cat is alert but relaxed.

Sideways pointing ears show that the cat is attentive to what is going on around it but may be unsure about it. Not so relaxed.

The ears upright and pointing back and the cat is perturbed by something and may become aggressive.

If the cat's ears are pointing back and are flat against the side of her head she is fearful and submissive but prone to become aggressive.

An enraged cat will show aggression by flattening the ears sideways (and will be giving other cat body language warning signals.) Don't go near that cat!

The Cats Eyes Have It

In the world of cats, sustained eye contact (staring) is assertive and threatening.

Two cats with a territorial dispute may stare at each other until one signals by its body language that it will, on this occasion, be submissive.

Alternatively two cats meeting may have no conflict with each other; one may break up the stare by blinking, this reassures the other that there is no dispute.

You may misinterpret your cat if you try to glean a message from her eyes alone. But read in conjunction with the rest of your cat's body language, her eyes can tell you something of her thoughts.

Dilated (enlarged) pupils could be signaling fear, pain, aggression or just excitement.

Narrow, slit like pupils could mean that your cat is angry but self-assured. On the other hand if the eyelids are also half-closed or fluttering it could mean that your cat is sleepy.

If your cat looks at you eyelids fluttering and drooping, it's an indication of her trust in you.

By A Whisker . . .

You probably know that a cat uses her whiskers to judge whether or not she can fit through an opening. If the whiskers fit through, the rest of the cat will. Thus larger cats have longer whiskers.

Cats also use their whiskers to aid their night vision, these very sensitive bristles can detect even the smallest changes in air currents and so help the cat detect objects in front of them, or help pin point the location of moving prey.

Here’s the thing. A cat’s whiskers are yet another tool in her body language communication kit.

Once again, it is not much help in judging your cat’s mood by just observing the position of her whiskers, they have to be read in conjunction with her other body signals.

black and white cat with whiskers
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If your cat’s whiskers are straight out and perhaps slightly to the side, this indicates she is relaxed and probably comfortable with her company and surroundings.

Held forwards and fanned out shows your cat is fully alert and excited about something.

If you’ve ever watched your cat stalking prey, you likely noticed her whiskers in this position. Could also be taken as a sign of aggression but only if other body signals indicate this.

Whiskers pulled back against the side of the cat’s face imply timidness  or fearful submission.

If your cat is facing an aggressive cat that she does not want to challenge, the whiskers in this position make her face look smaller which says “ I’m only a little bitty cat, no threat to you.”

Head and Mouth Signals

An aggressive cat will hold its head low and with its eyes firmly fixed upon its mark (the assertive stare.)

The cat will move in on the mark with its head shifting from side to side.

A defensive feline will often hold its head to the side and give sidelong glances rather than looking directly at the aggressor.

The defensive cat will back off if it can. Often the cat will Hiss and Spit, but it does not want to fight, although will if cornered, it would sooner run from the aggressive cat.

When two friendly cats meet they will often engage in head rubbing and sometimes gentle head bumping. It's a cheery hello, or the cat equivalent of a handshake.

If your cat uses her head to greet you in this manner she is employing cat body language to tell you that she is pleased to see you. A wet nose kiss from your cat is also a very good sign that she loves and trusts you.

Licking you is another indication that your feline has confidence in your company and feels affection for you. It is her way of grooming you and naturally cats only groom other cats that they are friendly with.

What does it mean if your cat sniffs you? It is just a little reassurance that you really are you, the human that she loves, and not some imposter.

Cats sometimes, but not often, give a hiss or a snarl with an open mouth clearly communicating defensive aggression.

If you see your cat appearing to grimace with teeth bared, perhaps staring into the distance, she is not using threatening language but analyzing pheromone scent signals in the air.

Stress in Cats

Like humans, cats get stressed for many different reasons. But most of the reasons for stress in cats can be classified with one word - change.

Related Pages

Cat Body Language.