Learn to Speak Cat - A Guide to Cat Body Language
Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Cats, like human-beings, reveal their inner states through their body language.
For this guide, we will explain how to tell the difference between a cat that’s anxious, fearful, or angry and one that’s friendly and comfortable.
The first step in reading a cat's body language is understanding the context.
When considering context, it’s important to try to see things from your cat’s perspective. People often approach cats with good intentions, get scratched or bitten, and then blame the cat for being mean-tempered. What’s missing is an assessment of how the cat might have perceived the gesture.
So, when it comes to reading cat body language, the key is to pay attention not only to physical cues, but also the situation in which they take place.
Posture is the most significant component of a cat’s body language.
When scared, cats are likely to try and protect their body as much as possible by scrunching up into a small, less exposed shape. A ball-shaped cat is usually not feeling open to advances.
A cat that’s feeling anxious or worried might crouch down, low to the ground. If they stop and freeze when they see you, you can be sure they’re not feeling comfortable.
When a cat stretches out, they’re voluntarily exposing themselves – this shows that they don’t feel threatened. There’s a big difference, however, between a cat stretching out in relaxation and a cat making itself bigger as a form of defense.
When a cat is fearful or angry to the point of being willing to fight, they'll often make themselves as big as possible in various ways. A classic example is when a cat puts its back all the way up and stands sideways to the threat.
Body orientation also important to consider. Cats forecast their intentions and next moves by pointing their body in the direction they are likely to go.
If a cat is standing sideways to you, they might be feeling shy and considering escape. With a sideways body position, the cat has the advantage of being able to take off fast if a chase occurs.
The crouched-down body position enables the cat to spring off and start running quickly, should they feel the need.
If a cat is pointing their body and head toward you, they may be interested in you and receptive to your advances.
A cat who faces away from you may not necessarily be disinterested, however – their letting their guard down around you can also signal comfort and willing to be touched – so get a feel for the context.
Many people, after they learn that a cat exposing itself feels comfortable, may see a cat with its belly up and think that it’s safe to rub or pet the cat’s belly. The exposed belly is a sign of comfort and trust, but it is not necessarily an invitation for a belly rub.
In one context, a cat laying on its back and exposing its belly is expressing relaxation, trust, and security. In a different context, the cat is indicating that it’s ready to fight off an aggressor, since this position allows for the claws to be ready and defensively effective.
Many people have touched a cat’s stomach only to have the cat instantly seize-up and latch onto their hand with claws and teeth. This situation can be avoided with some care and sensitivity to context.
A cat’s tail is one of the first places to look for signs of their mood.
A high, vertical tail indicates a cat that’s feeling confident, comfortable, happy, and friendly.
A low tail indicates a cat that’s feeling fearful or anxious.
A very fearful cat might not only keep its tail down, but tuck it between its legs; this is done to present a target that’s as small as possible to aggressors.
A high, puffed-out tail might indicate a cat trying to make itself bigger to intimidate potential foes.
When a cat’s tail quivers, it can be a sign of happy excitement. If a cat greets you with this gesture she is excited to see you.
A flicking tail is a sign of agitation or alertness.
For example, when a moody cat receives attention and pets, she’ll often go from excited and happy to simply tolerant and then to upset. Her body language gives clues at each stage, and when she flicks her tail, it’s time to back off.
Ear position is another place to look for clues about a cat’s mood. As always, however, context is essential for understanding.
Normal, forward ears indicate a cat that’s feeling confident, relaxed, or engaged.
When a cat’s ears stand straight up, the cat is increasing their exposure. Sometimes the high, erect ear position indicates alertness or a desire to play.
A cat with ears turned back is usually a good sign that a cat is feeling angry or fearful.
When a cat protects their ears by flattening them to the side, you can almost always be sure that they’re feeling afraid.
A cat’s posture, tail, and ears will probably tell you what you need to know, but if you’re still unsure, take a look at their eyes.
When a cat trusts you and feels comfortable around you, they might blink at you slowly. A slowly blinking cat is usually a comfortable one.
Relaxed eyes usually belong on a cat that’s feeling comfortable.
When a cat’s pupils are large and dilated, that means it’s stimulated.
A cat that’s feeling playful will often have dilated pupils. However, dilated pupils can also indicate fear, excitement, or anger. Consider the context to decide.