The Complete Guide To Cat Body Language


Cat behavior is a complete mystery to some owners but it doesn’t have to be. The key to living harmoniously with your feline friend is in understanding its feelings. You may be thinking, “But how can I get inside my cat’s head?” Well, it’s a lot easier if you know how to interpret its body language.

A cat’s body can be divided into five message zones and each of these relays important messages about its state of mind and feelings. This complete guide to cat body language explains how you can learn to translate what your cat’s sounds and actions really means. By the end, you will be in tune with your cat’s state of mind, feelings, and desires.

The Message Zones of a Cat

A cat uses five areas of its body to communicate: body, tail, ears, eyes, and mouth. Here’s how …

cat body language

Body Talk

Kitten crouching low
  1. Stretched out on one side – this is an indication that your cat is content and relaxed. It feels safe and is not particularly alert. Cats often adopt this position when in a deep sleep.
  2. Laying in an upright position with all four legs tucked under – another happy position often referred to as loafing. The head is usually upright with eyes open, just watching whatever’s going on around it.
  3. Body close to the ground, legs coiled beneath, head forward, eyes focussed – this is a cat who is stalking its prey (albeit a toy or something alive). In this position, it is ready to pounce.
  4. Crouched low and wide-eyed – this is a sign of anxiety. A cat in this position is trying to make itself look smaller and less noticeable. Something has given it a fright.
  5. Laying still on its back with front paws curled – a cat that adopts this laid-back stance is confident and relaxed. It shows a deep trust of you as it exposing its vulnerable belly. Those paws are ready for action though, so beware of attempting a tickle.
  6. Wiggling on its side and back whilst looking at you – this is often a sign of a feisty, playful mood. Grab a toy and have some fun with your cat. Don’t use your hands!
  7. Back arched high and fur standing on end – this is a sign that a cat is afraid of something. It is so trying to look bigger to ward of the perceived threat.
  8. Standing with front legs stretched far out in front, chest low and bottom high – the classic cat stretch which could be likened to the yoga pose called Down Dog. This stretch is sometimes performed on waking from a long sleep but is also used to release tension after a fraught moment. A cat may do this as you enter a room or when it is thinking about playing.
  9. Curled in a ball asleep or awake– cats spend half of every day in this position, as long as they are relaxed and happy.
Maine Coon on its back

Tail Tales

black and white Maine Coon kitten

A cat’s tail is a very good indicator of how it is feeling.

  1. Tail straight up – the sign of a happy, confident cat with no worries.
  2. Straight up and vibrating – the sign of a cat who is very happy to see you. Some people think a cat doing this is spraying urine as it is a similar action.
  3. Tail hanging down straight – usually a sign a cat is scared or perceives something to be a threat.
  4. Tail down between back legs – anxious cats hold their tails in this position
  5. Slowly wagging – when a cat is not sure about something it will wag its tail slowly as it assesses the situation. If you are petting it, stop an leave it to settle down.
  6. A wildly wagging tail – this is a sure sign of a highly agitated cat. Don’t intervene or irritate a cat in this state. Give it some alone time.
  7. Tail parallel to the ground – a nosey cat on a mission to inspect something of interest holds its tail like this.
  8. Tail Straight up with a bent tip – this cat is unsure of you is optimistic that you can be friends.
  9. Tail up straight and puffed out like a bottle brush – this is a clear sign of anger.
Siamese kitten

Ear’s What I Mean

As well as being sensitive to sound (I love the way just one ear can turn towards the slightest sound even when apparently sound asleep), a cat’s ear positions can tell you a fair amount about its mood.

cat with ears sideways

Look out for these five different ear appearances:

  1. Turned forward – if a cat’s ears are facing forward it is content and could even be in the mood to play.
  2. Ears straight up – when something alerts them, such as a sudden noise, a cat will hold its ears bolt upright.
  3. Ears out sideways – when a cat’s ears turn sideways like the wings of an airplane, it’s a sign of nervousness or anxiety.
  4. Ears turned backward – if its ears turn backward then a cat is irritated at something. If you overstimulate your cat with play you might notice this happen. If so it’s time to take a break.
  5. Flat against head – when a cat’s ears go flat back against its head it is angry or scared. Be careful not to make things any worse.

Eye Just Want To Say …

Russian Blue cat with big eyes

A cat’s eyes are one of its most attractive features. They are its windows to the world and full of expression. Though you may be tempted to just gaze into a cat’s eyes forever you actually shouldn’t. You’ll see why in a moment.

  1. The Dilated Pupil Stare – you may think your cat is trying to stare you out but don’t be tempted to try to win such a competition. Your cat is in a challenging mood. Be the adult and back down! If you stare back your cat will take this as a sign of aggression.
  2. Other Dilated Pupil Messages – If a cat is crouched low with dilated pupils, it is stressed. If it is rolling on its side and wiggling around with its paws up, it is in a playful mood. Of course, it could just be dark and your cat’s pupils have enlarged to let in more light.
  3. The Slow Blink – When a cat slowly opens and closes its eyes in your direction it is being affectionate towards you. This is the equivalent of giving you kisses. Feel honored and slow blink back as your cat is indicating how much it trusts you.
  4. Half closed eyes – your cat may look tired to you but it is actually a sign that it trusts you and feels relaxed in your company.
  5. Pupils Almost Invisible – A cat’s pupils restrict in bright light but this can also be an indicator of feeling a bit tense about something or even aggression surfacing.
Black Kitten

Listen to What I’m Saying

Did you know a cat only meows to communicate with humans? It’s not a language they use to speak to each other. A cat’s various meow sounds can be interpreted as follows:

  1. A clear meow – When a cat makes a classic meow sound it usually wants you to feed it. If you don’t take the hint, this meow gets louder and more urgent
  2. A one-syllable squeak such as meh or eh – this is a bit like a hello, good morning or good evening.
  3. Rrruh – difficult to spell but like a rolled r, ending with uh and rising in pitch. This is the way a mother cat communicates with her kittens. You may occasionally hear cats who live in the same house make this sound at each other, especially siblings.
  4. Urgent and loud mow or ow – this can be a call to you to come and see what your cat as caught. Sometimes it’s uttered with prey still in the cat’s mouth and sounds muffled for that reason. It can occasionally be a where are you call.
  5. A delicate mew – usually the cute sound made by a kitten but from an adult is a sign of distress
  6. A deep rumbling growl – definitely the sound of an angry cat, You’re annoying it or it’s spotted an unwelcome visitor through a window
  7. The purr – mostly a sound of contentment, occasionally a cat will leap up on your lap or bed and purr in the hope you’ll feed it or give it some attention, This often happens early in the morning.
Angry cat

Summary

Cats are intelligent, communicative creatures. You could say they know exactly how to manipulate us. Now you know exactly what your cat is telling you with its body language and its voice you can bothe live together in perfect harmony.

Further Reading

Looking deeper into the ways of a cat, you might like our post that explains 15 Weird Cat Behaviors

Jane

I'm Jane Pettitt, co-owner of Pets Knowledge Base with my husband, Matt. I have a grand total of 50 years’ experience as a pet owner. It all started with a guinea pig called Percy when I was 5 years old and since then I’ve lived with two more guinea pigs, a hamster, mice, a rabbit, a tortoise, a dog, and 11 cats. I’ve learned so much about pet care during this time and many of my articles are based on my personal experiences plus those of my family and friends.

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