Understanding Cat Behavior and Body Language
While many people believe that cats are the ultimate mysterious creatures who keep to themselves, cat parents know that, just like everyone else, cats not only have feelings, moods, and desires but frequently express them too. Our feline companions use various signals, including body postures and shapes, vocalizations and even facial expressions, to communicate their thoughts and avoid undesirable confrontations. By learning how to read your pet’s body language, you can deepen your friendship and prevent misunderstandings too.
Understanding Cat Behavior
Cats express themselves using a variety of signals, including:
- Body directions and posturing
- Their eyes, ears and tail
- Various vocalizations, including meows, purrs, hisses, etc.
So, to understand your pet’s behavior, you have to learn to interpret these and other signs. And while it may seem like a lot of cover, we promise you it’s all pretty easy because it’s logical! Understanding your cat’s behavior will become almost instinctive once you learn how to tune in to their cues and messages.
Feline Body Language
Let’s start with the most obvious and easy to interpret signs of cat communication: body language. Whether silent and strong or chatty and affectionate, all cats use their ears, eyes, and tails to convey important messages and intentions. Learning how to make sense of these signs will put you on the path of becoming a true feline whisperer!
The way your cat positions their ears can tell you a lot about their mood and desires. Here is ear language you may want to pay attention to:
- Normal forward ears: this is considered the natural ear position for cats that indicates your kitty is feeling relaxed and confident, sometimes even playful.
- Ears straight up: this position is a sign of alertness; hearing a bird, seeing a fly or perhaps a mouse toy, whatever it is, it has your cat’s attention!
- Ears turned back: your kitty is feeling angry, irritated or fearful. This is a good time to leave them alone for a while (unless they got scared by something and run to you for protection, of course!).
- Ears turned sideways: a sign that your pet is feeling nervous or anxious about something. If you’re playing with your cat and they turn their ears sideways, keep your face away from their sharp claws!
- Ears pinned back, flat against the head: your cat is angry, very angry and is getting into defensive mode. Sometimes, a cat will flatten their ears to protect themselves, in which case they’re afraid of something. Either way, you want to be really careful around this cat (and not provoke it!).
For cats, the tail is a barometer of confidence and trust. Besides body posturing, cats communicate best using their tail: by keeping it high, down, tucked beneath, flicking it and more. So, if you wish to understand your cat’s behavior, look at their tail carefully.
- Tail up: a cheerful cat that is at ease will keep their tail up. This is considered the “friendly” tail position that indicates the cat is approachable.
- Tail down: a cat with a low or down-turned tail is feeling anxious, fearful or threatened. It’s best not to disturb them.
- High, puffed up tail: this can indicate that your cat is feeling intimidated and is trying to make itself look bigger to scare off the “enemies”. Sometimes, cats can puff up their tails when playing with their owners, and although they still do it to “intimidate” the human, they’re doing in a playful manner.
- Tail tucked between the legs: scared and very fearful cats often tuck their tail between their legs to appear smaller to their aggressors (a.k.a. “I am a small target you need not fear; please don’t attack me!”).
- Tail moving back and forth: this can have two meanings – if he cat is moving their tail rapidly, it’s likely they’re agitated or upset, in which case, it’s best to back off for a while. But if the cat is moving their tail slowly, it’s likely they’re trying to decide how they feel about the situation. Sometimes, a cat will slowly move their tail back and forth as a response to acknowledging their talking owner.
“Eyes are the windows to the soul”, only in this case, they’re a window into a cat’s soul, or rather, their feelings, moods, and desires. All felines use their eyes to convey important messages to other felines, animals, and yes, humans.
- Slow blinking: also known as “cat kisses”, slow blinks from your cat signify affection and trust. A cat that slow blinks at you from across the room says they feel comfortable and that they love you.
- Half-closed eyes: a cat with half-closed eyes is similar to a cat that slow blinks at their owner – it’s a sign of trust and affection, as well as relaxation.
- Stare: this is usually a form of a dare, especially if you and your kitty have been previously playing.
- Dilated pupils: this is a sign your kitty is either feeling excited or surprised about something. Often, a cat’s pupils will dilate when they’re in the mood to play and hunt.
- Constricted pupils: on the other side of the spectrum, we have constricted pupils as a sign of tension or aggression. Of course, context matters – if there is a bright light shining into your cat’s face, of course, their pupils will constrict!
Body Direction and Posturing
How to read cat body language? Believe it or not, it can be as easy as paying attention to where your kitty is pointing their body to. Normally, cats convey their intentions by pointing their body in the direction or person they want to go to. For example, if your pet is pointing their body towards you, with their head held high, ears normally erect and tail lifted high in the air – it means they like you and are open to communication with you. However, what matters most is always the context – although a tail held high can mean that a cat feels confident and is open to interaction, it can also mean they want to intimidate or ward off a stranger – usually another cat in their territory.
When it comes to body direction, things are pretty simple because they’re perfectly logical: a cat facing someone or something is interested in it or them. If a cat is facing you looking normal (not afraid or aggressive), it means they are receptive to your advances. Posturing, on the other hand, can be open to interpretation.
Cats communicate via a variety of signs and signals, and posturing is definitely one of them. Here are common body shapes and postures your kitty may be using to communicate with you and other people or animals.
- Arched back: when a cat arches their back trying to make themselves look bigger, they’re fearful or angry. By arching their back, they are trying to intimidate someone (usually another cat).
- Crouched down: a cat that is crouched down, trying to appear smaller, is fearful or anxious about something. At the same time, this body position allows the cat to jump and run away quickly, should hey feel the need to do so.
- Stretching out: although cats arch their back when stretching, a relaxed stretch is very different from scared or angry body posturing. A relaxed stretch in your presence, or when a cat voluntarily exposes themselves, means that they trust you.
- Curled up: a curled up cat is comfortable, calm and ready to sleep. Sometimes though, cats will curl up while relaxing because they’re cold.
- Wiggling their butt: if you catch your kitty wiggling their butt while playing, it’s because they’re thinking of you or the toy you’re holding as prey! Pay attention to how the situation develops next time, because we can guarantee you, whenever and whatever your cat is wiggling their butt at, they’re about to pounce it!
- Rubbing against you: although most people believe that when a cat is rubbing against things or them, it is feeling affectionate, the reality is, the cat is marking their territory! This is especially true if the kitty is rubbing their cheeks at things/people because their oil glands, which release special pheromones, are located there. On the bright side, if your cat is trying to mark you as their own, it means they love you!
- Lying on their back: similar to the stretched-out body pose, this pose too indicates that your cat trusts you. Lying on their back, with their belly exposed, cats communicate not only trust but comfort too – they’re comfortable enough around you to allow themselves to be vulnerable. However, a word of caution: not all cats appreciate being touched on their belly even if they expose it themselves! Yes, tummy displays are typically reserved for special people, but sometimes, a cat that is ready to fight either through play or for real– will lie on their back because this position allows them to keep their claws at the ready.
Although not body language per se, cat noises like meows, growls, and purrs, can tell you a lot about your kitty’s mood and needs. Interestingly, there is research showing that cats have evolved to use their meows to get what they want from humans; in other words, so they can better manipulate us. But don’t worry, this “manipulation” business is much less sinister than it sounds!
According to the Scientific American, cats are not that different from babies because they depend on us for food and survival (at least indoor kitties do). As such, they will do everything in their power to get what they need, including changing the tone of their purr, meowing in a slightly higher pitch than usual, or doing figure eights between your feet. But what’s most interesting is that cats usually add this high-pitched signal to their meows and purrs because – and brace yourself for this – they sound more like helpless babies. That’s right, when hungry, your kitty’s purrs and meows are quite different from their usual noises (they sound more urgent and intense) because they’re trying to manipulate your sensory activities and make you give them what they want as fast as possible! The bright side of this manipulation technique? It’s a reflection of how well your cat knows you – your pet has learned what works with you and what doesn’t, and that is a mark of true friendship!
So, if you’re looking to understand cat behavior, it’s important to properly interpret feline vocalizations. Yes, some can be a result of your cat wanting something (usually food), but others can be a sign of discomfort, fear, and even pain.
- Normal meow: this could be considered an all-purpose word in cat language. By meowing normally (not too high- or too low-pitched), a cat could be saying all kinds of things, including asking questions (“Hey human, how are you today”), commanding (“I want to be placed on a window”), announcing (“Here is that mouse toy”) and more. Sometimes, cats will even meow to themselves just like some people talk to themselves.
- Soft, high-pitched meow: this is your cat trying to plead with you, or more bluntly, trying to manipulate you to get what they want. Usually, cats meow in a soft, high-pitched way when they want to eat.
- Low, drawn-out meow: this is the opposite of the soft, soliciting meow. It’s a way a cat expresses frustration with something or someone, although sometimes, cats can draw their meows out of boredom too.
- Chirping and chattering: typically, cats chirp and chatter when there is a prey they’re interested in but cannot get to. For instance, many felines chirp at the window because there is a bird or bug they would love to attack but cannot because of the screen.
- Trilling: trilling is a lovely sound that cats use to communicate with other cats, especially their kittens, and sometimes, humans too. Mother cats trill to talk with their kittens and to tell them to follow her. If your kitty trills at you, it means they consider you a part of the family.
- Purring: usually a sign of happiness and that a cat loves the person holding or petting them. Sometimes though, cats purr when they’re sick to comfort themselves.
- Hissing or growling: this is always a sign that a cat is either furious or frightened. So, if you see your pet hissing and/or growling and they’re not in pain, back away.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know about cat behavior covered and explained. Still, remember that context matters and that your kitty’s body language and vocalization should be looked at as a part of a bigger picture.