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Feline Body Language: What Is Your Cat Trying to Tell You?

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K S Lane is a student of science. She's the proud mother of two gorgeous cats and is passionate about animal behaviour.

Awww, cute kitten alert! Keep reading for information on how to decode your fur baby's body language.

Awww, cute kitten alert! Keep reading for information on how to decode your fur baby's body language.

How to Understand Cat Body Language

Body language is a fascinating field of study. It’s been found that in human-to-human interaction, 55% of communication is made through postures and movements. Can the same be said for animals? What exactly is Mr. Tibbles trying to tell you when his tail puffs up, or when he headbutts you while you’re trying to sleep? We will review some common cat body language and discuss what it might be indicating about your feline friend’s mood.

Tail Positions

  • A tail held high, sometimes with a kink in the end like a question mark, can mean that your tiny tiger is feeling happy and confident. If your pet is running towards you with their tail in this position, they’re generally excited to see you.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, if your cat’s tail is held high but is fluffed up or bushy, they’re angry. Keep your distance in this situation, because those claws can hurt.
  • If the tail is lowered to the point of being tucked between the cat’s legs they’re scared, and potentially also aggressive. Check to see if there’s anything that’s disturbing your pet or any reason that they might be feeling nervous. Maybe they just need a cuddle and some extra food, or maybe they’ll try to claw your eyes out if you touch them. It can be hard to say for certain.
  • A twitching, swishing tail usually means that your cat is in a predatory mood. In this case, they want to find something and kill it. Offer your pet some wool or a cat toy, otherwise, it could be your feet that they’ll focus their aggression on.
If your cat's tail is in this position it means they're feeling friendly and confident.

If your cat's tail is in this position it means they're feeling friendly and confident.

The Ears

  • When both ears are erect and pointing forward, your cat is alert. Their attention is generally focused on the object or person they’re pointing towards, just like how humans lean towards whatever situation is grabbing their focus.
  • If both ears are back and flattened against your cat’s head, it means that they’re feeling defensive. They believe that there’s a threat nearby, and they want to protect their precious ears from damage.
  • One ear forward and one ear back signals ambivalence. The cat isn’t sure what to feel. Am I in a comfortable situation? Am I in danger? Better go and sink my claws into that human’s arm, just in case.
  • Twitching ears can often signal nervousness, but might also mean that there are bugs around that your cat doesn’t want to let anywhere near its head. Understandable. Sometimes I wish humans could do this too.

The Eyes

The size of your fluffy little monster’s pupils can also hint to what they’re feeling. Cat’s eyes are more sensitive than humans', and they need only one-fifth of the light that we do to see properly. They make full use of this and dilate their pupils at night to let more light in, constricting them when it's bright during the day. This is entirely normal behaviour, but if your cat’s pupils are dilated during the day, it can be an indicator that they’re scared. This is due to an instinctive reaction to a stressor that results in a larger field of vision, just like it does in humans. An angry or dominant cat will do the opposite. Constricting their pupils is a kind of arrogant way of saying, "I don’t even need extra vision to destroy you, human."

Cat pupils dilate in darkened conditions to let more light into the eye and constrict when there's an excess of light, just like in humans.

Cat pupils dilate in darkened conditions to let more light into the eye and constrict when there's an excess of light, just like in humans.

The Whiskers

Pushed forward, the whiskers on your cat’s muzzle can indicate that they’re curious and happy. When they’re pushed back, however, it can indicate aggression. Felines push their whiskers back in this manner when they’re ready for a fight because they want to protect them from injury. Smart, aren’t they? Some cats will also expose their teeth when they’re angry, so watch out for snarls.

The Headbutt

When Mittens rubs his furry little head on you he’s not just trying to catch you off-balance and push you over. He’s marking you as his territory. This might sound a little scary, but it’s actually quite sweet. The process, known as bunting, can be translated as an affectionate gesture. Your cat is telling other felines in the area that you’re his, and they better keep their paws off you. Basically, it serves the same function as a wedding ring.

Real life footage of a cat wedding ceremony. In this moment the cats are claiming each other by bunting. 'Until death do us part.'

Real life footage of a cat wedding ceremony. In this moment the cats are claiming each other by bunting. 'Until death do us part.'

Bonus Facts About Cats!

  • Cats don’t actually have nine lives, but the origins of this myth are pretty interesting. Egyptians worshipped cats and believed that they were akin to Gods. As such, they got a little over-enthusiastic about cats’ ability to escape from tricky situations and fall from massive heights and proclaimed that the creatures had nine lives.
  • Cat vocalisations can also tell you a lot about what they’re feeling. It’s a fascinating subject! If you’re interested, there are lots of books and interest articles that speak at length on the subject.
  • Cats don’t always land on their feet, but they do have an uncanny ability to twist their flexible bodies mid-fall and manage to do so. Many scientists have even studied the way they maneuver themselves while falling. Cat physics!
  • Kittens can’t see or hear at birth and are completely vulnerable and dependent on their mothers. Their eyes are shut tightly for the first few days but will generally open by their second week. They’re also almost painfully cute.
Ahhh, so many cute kittens!

Ahhh, so many cute kittens!

Be a Cat Detective and Get Investigating!

Like humans, cats can often send mixed messages and their body language can be confusing. Sometimes their tail will be held high but they’ll be in a bad mood. Sometimes their whiskers will be drawn back but they’ll be perfectly happy.

This article is a good starting point, but the best way to decode what your cat is saying to you is to watch them carefully and figure out for yourself what body positions are associated with what mood. In addition, studying your cat's vocalisations can also help decode what they're trying to tell you.

Were you paying attention? Take this quiz to find out!

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. In humans, what percentage of interaction is through body language?
    • 20%
    • 62%
    • 55%
    • 43%
  2. What does an upright tail with a curled end mean?
    • I'm sad and scared
    • I'm feeling happy and confident!
    • Roar! I'm a vicious predator!
    • Grrrr, go away!
  3. What does a twitching, swishing tail mean?
    • I'm feeling predatory! Quick, find me something to kill!
    • I'm happy!
    • I'm scared and sad.
    • I'm really mad at you right now, human.
  4. When its ears are erect and pointing forwards your cat is?
    • So happy it can't contain itself
    • Angry and frightened
    • Ambivalent about a situation
    • Alert, with its attention focused on what its ears are pointing towards
  5. What do dialated pupils in a darkened place mean?
    • Nothing- that's completely normal
    • Help, I'm scared!
    • Raaaaar, I'm angry!
    • I'm bored. Play with me, human!
  6. What will an angry or dominant cat's eyes do?
    • Their eyes will widen
    • Their pupils will dilate
    • Their eyes will narrow, like they're glaring
    • Their pupil's will constrict
  7. Whiskers pulled back indicate?
    • Agression
    • Contentment
    • Excitement
    • Boredom
  8. When a cat headbutts something it's also known as?
    • Nothing, it's just a headbutt.
    • Trunting
    • Bunting
    • Funting
  9. Where did the myth that cats have nine lives originate?
    • Medieval Europe
    • Ancient Egypt
    • Ancient China
    • The Ottoman Empire
  10. Kittens eyes have generally opened by what time?
    • A month
    • Two days
    • A week
    • Two weeks

Answer Key

  1. 55%
  2. I'm feeling happy and confident!
  3. I'm feeling predatory! Quick, find me something to kill!
  4. Alert, with its attention focused on what its ears are pointing towards
  5. Nothing- that's completely normal
  6. Their pupil's will constrict
  7. Agression
  8. Bunting
  9. Ancient Egypt
  10. Two weeks

Interpreting Your Score

If you got 10 correct answers: Woah, nice work! You're a cat expert!


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2017 K S Lane


Princess Trubilla on March 02, 2019:

I have been doctoring an upper respitory for 2 montjhs. My large home has become untidy. who has always been my shadow is now staying in one bedroom that is the tidest room on the house. She lives in there 24/7 all the time only comes out to eat and use thr litter box. Should I take her to the vet along with a stiool.sample.

owl_sovushka on February 20, 2018:

Yeah, I'm not afraid to say that cats have their own special and highly developed language. Cats can emit more than 20 sounds, as scientists say. In other words, if we use the linguistic term, the cat language contains more than twenty phonemes. They are not just air shakes, but sounds that carry content: grammatical, syntactic and lexical. This is the language in the full sense. It consists of words, phrases and context.

Watching as my favourite Tasia brings up her kittens, I constantly catch myself on the fact that I clearly distinguishing in her meowing, hissing and other sounds that are not transmitted by the human voice, related sentences. These statements are very short but they have an obvious bearing on the specific situation.

Looking here you will learn much more about the cat language and not just about it.

K S Lane (author) from Melbourne, Australia on December 26, 2017:

She sounds gorgeous, Peggy! My cat is similar; she's relaxed around me but runs away from other people.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 26, 2017:

This is an interesting subject regarding cat body language. We only have one cat now and she is a sweetie. She is a very loving cat and loves her lap time but is wary of strangers and often hides when we have company in our home.