What Your Cat's Behaviors, Body Language, and Sounds Mean
What Is My Cat Trying to Say?
Your cat speaks to you in so many different ways that sometimes it’s hard to know what they are saying. To know where your cat is coming from, the first thing you should know is that your cat considers you to be their human, belonging to them in every respect—and all of their actions are based on that fact. So when your cat does something that angers you, keep in mind that they may be trying to tell you something.
This article will break down a whole bunch of commonly asked questions relating to why cats do what they do, what their body language indicates, and what they might be trying to communicate to you when they speak. Read on to finally figure out what your trusted feline friend might be trying to say to you.
What Is Normal Cat Behavior?
Here are a handful of common questions relating to cats and their often puzzling behaviors, along with some answers that should help shed some light why they do what they do:
Why is my cat peeing or pooping in the house?
Overly full litter boxes can make your cat upset enough to leave smelly presents on your pillow or favorite chair as a hint—meaning it has been too long between cleanings and you need to step up to the plate. Cats like themselves and their environment to be clean. That’s why they are always cleaning themselves. Imagine how you would feel if you were a perfectionist about cleaning and had to walk over your own waste in order to relieve yourself. "Yuck" is putting it mildly.
Why does my cat clean itself right after I've pet it or picked it up?
If your cat cleans itself right after you pet it or pick it up, it could be due to a few reasons. They might be annoyed that you touched them, for whatever reason, and they are cleaning off the scent—in most instances, that is an insult to you.
It is also possible that you have a scent on you that they do not like. The scent could be perfume, lotion, or even another cat you might have petted. Be aware that strong smells of perfumed items can actually anger a cat. If they ingest a lot of it, it could also make them sick. So if you have cats, keep your arsenal of perfumed items for those special nights and be sure to wash them off before cuddling Fluffy.
Why does my cat lie down all over my stuff?
Your cat might purposely lie down in your way for attention. They might sit on something they know is off-limits to gain your attention. Or, maybe, they might reach for you with a paw, claws in or out, to indicate a desire for attention. Cats like their attention, but they also like their toys. If you don't give them several, they might use you or your things instead.
Why has my cat's behavior suddenly changed after many years?
As cats get older, sometimes their personalities change. Some cats that start out rambunctious and generally averse to snuggling eventually soften up over the years and turn into super cuddly lap animals that want to be around you all the time. These kinds of gradual changes are totally natural and not all that different from the sorts of changes that humans experience throughout their lives.
If such a shift happens very suddenly and in a fairly unexpected way, however, that might point to a deeper problem with your feline friend. For instance, if they are generally an independent kind of cat but then out of nowhere want to be by your side at all times, that could indicate that they are sick and fearful of being left alone in their weakened state. If you notice a change that seems curiously abrupt and bizarre, it's best to take them into the vet for a check-up to see if anything is wrong.
Sudden Changes May Indicate Something's Wrong
If you notice that your cat is suddenly behaving suspiciously out of character and acting strange, you may want to have them checked out by a vet. Gradual changes are totally normal, but drastic shifts in behavior or personality can sometimes point to bigger problems.
Why is my cat extending its claws?
A cat will extend its claws for many different things, such as to kneed. (When they are content, they might put their paws out, claws extended, and then pull them in rhythmically, which is how they get their mother’s milk to flow.)
A cat might also extend its claws in anger or fear. Claws are also extended for cleaning purposes or scratching, which can mean several things, such as ownership, sharpening claws for a fight, or dominance. Claws can be removed, but please try to refrain from doing this. Instead, you can set up a weekly routine of trimming their claws, and give them plenty of things to scratch.
Why does my cat rub up against me?
Cats will touch you and your things, pee on you or your things (otherwise known as marking), or rub against you or something you own in order to let other cats in the area know that you are theirs. Yup, when they lovingly rub their face against your face, they are leaving their scent all over you. Cats will generally mark a new home to override the scent of another cat. Fixed cats may also mark if the scent is strong or reeks of a full male. Those cat nostrils are so strong that they can pick up a scent from miles away—just like a hound dog, only with less noise.
You also assume a similar answer to the related question of: "Why does my cat put its paw on me?" That is, it's usually just another way of communicating affection. While it isn't always that simple, when your cat does this, it is more often than not displaying its level of comfortability with you.
Cat Behavior Explained
Pees or poops in your house (despite being litter trained)
Its litter may be full, and it wants you to clean it. Also done to mark its territory and communicate ownership to other cats.
Cleans itself after you pet it
You may have a scent on you (perfumes/other cats) that it wants to remove from its body.
Lies down on your stuff while you're trying to do something
It wants attention and is tired of being ignored.
Extends its claws
It could just be for kneading. It could also be out of fear or anger. Or a more practical reason like for scratching or cleaning.
Rubs up against you
It's rubbing its scent on you and marking you as its own. Also sometimes done to demand attention.
Brings you dead animals
Done as a gift to you, since it sees itself as your owner. Also done to display strength and hunting prowess.
Looks at you before it goes to sleep
Checking to make sure you're looking out for it, as it will soon be vulnerable and seeks your protection while sleeping.
Why does my cat bring me dead animals?
Cats, remember, believe that they own you. And to do a proper job, they must feed you. That is why outside cats will often kill an animal and leave it as a gift on your window or doorstep. As horrid as this may seem to you, it is perfectly natural for your cat.
Another reason for leaving little "gifts" is to show you that they are strong and capable. I have seen cats leave snakes, rats, and even squirrels as gifts. Oh, and just so you know, if you throw the gift away, your cat may be hurt by your actions. If you must—and most of us do—place it in several bags and then bury it in the trash can.
Why does my cat look at me a bunch of times before it goes to sleep?
Your cat is most likely checking to make sure you're still there. It's trying to indicate to you that it's about to sleep and thus will be vulnerable to attack. It wants to make sure you know to protect it and keep an eye out for any predators.
How Do You Tell If a Cat Likes You?
Here's some useful information to help explain what some of your cat's body language might indicate:
What do my cat's tail movements mean?
When a cat walks with their tail straight up, it means that they are relaxed, confident, and want to be noticed. If you don’t notice fast enough, they might get directly underfoot and swirl from one leg to the other. Of course, it is worse if you have something they want, like canned food or milk. They will start to yell if you aren't forthcoming or fast enough for them.
When a cat walks with their tail between their legs, it is a sign that they are afraid of something or might be submitting to a more dominant cat or human. They might also roll over and offer their belly to a dominant cat to show that they are not contesting the dominance. If a cat offers their belly to you, they are telling you that they submit to your dominance. But don’t let that fool you, because they still believe they own you.
If a cat walks with its tail down and dragging, it is trying to be hidden or unnoticed. If that behavior lasts for longer than a day, you might want to take the cat to the vet for a bit of a check-up. A cat might also lay its tail on something showing possession, or flick its tail at something that angers it. They often flick their tail to warn you that you are getting on their nerves, and you probably should stop—or the claws will come out.
A cat that is upset will not only hiss, but their tail will become the biggest bristled bottle brush you have ever seen. Be wary and don't attempt to comfort your cat when they are upset. An upset cat doesn't know the difference and might bite or scratch you in "defense."
Cat Tail Movements Explained
Tail straight up
Relaxed, confident, looking for attention.
Tail between its legs
Afraid, cautious, submissive.
Tail down and dragging
Trying to be hidden and unnoticed. (Could indicate pain or other discomfort. See a vet if this persists.)
Tail bristled and flicking
Upset, aggressive, and potentially about to attack.
What do my cat's ear movements mean?
When a cat lays back its ears, it usually means that it's upset and might attack. When they cock one ear to the side, it’s like someone raising an eyebrow or looking at you like you have three heads. When they bring both ears hard forward, they are trying to hear what is being said to them or perhaps trying to make out a distant sound (or another cat in the area).
But if your cat's ears are forward but relaxed, then it is at ease, potentially aware of its surroundings but not necessarily on alert or scared.
What do my cat's eye movements mean?
You can actually tell a good amount about how your cat is feeling by watching their eyes. If their eyes are barely open or fully closed, they are relaxed and either preparing to sleep or just enjoying your company and a good lounge. In fact, that familiar sight of seeing your cat look at you and slowly blink its eyes is a clear sign of affection and often referred to as "kitty kisses."
If their eyes are narrowed but not in a lazy way, they are most likely alert and focused. They may even be scared or aggressive. So look out for other body language clues to help further indicate how they're feeling.
But if their eyes are fully open and wide, they are almost certainly on high alert and potentially trying to find out if they are in danger. Similarly, wide pupils can also indicate high interest and focus or excitement, potentially pointing to them being fearful or aggressive. Look for other clues to help decipher what they're thinking.
What Is My Cat Trying to Tell Me?
Here are a few explanations for some of the sounds your cat might make for you and what they might be trying to tell you:
Why does my cat meow at me?
Did you know that when your cat meows at you, it is really just calling your attention to something? Perhaps you forgot breakfast or the litter box is full. Or they might just be calling another cat to play. Though since cats rarely meow at other cats, if you hear yours making distinct meows in your general direction, those sounds are probably intended for your ears.
They might meow to go out or to come in. They might meow to tell you that you need a lap cat today, or they might be thinking that you have been working too hard and need a break. (Cats have a way of insinuating themselves in such a way as to coax you into believing that you actually came up with a particular idea.)
Note: If your cat is meowing at you more than usual (and perhaps in a slightly louder or more aggressive tone), it's a good idea to follow them and see if they lead you somewhere. This repeated meowing can help them let you know that they need more food, that the litter is full and needs to be cleaned, or sometimes even more drastic matters, such as the fact that maybe they just had kittens and want you to help protect them.
Cat Verbal Communication Explained
Usually done to communicate it wants you to notice something, such as an empty food bowl, a full litter, or something it wants you to see (in which case, you should try following it).
An involuntary response that indicates comfort and affection. A good sign that it's pleased with whatever you're doing.
Indicates fear or aggression. You should probably take a step back when they do this.
Why does my cat purr at me?
When cats are happy with you, they purr when you pet them or cuddle them. A cat's purr is involuntary. They hear their mother purring when she is feeding and cleaning them and soon add their own voice when they are happy or content.
Oh, and don't get upset if your cat is purring but also simultaneously trying to get away from you. Generally, it means that they like you and want to be petted, but they were busy and you interrupted them.
Note: If you want to communicate back to your cat that you love them, then petting them on the head or on the cheeks is a good way to do so. Similarly, when a cat touches the top of their head to you, they are saying they love and trust you.
Why does my cat hiss at me?
Naturally, hissing indicates fear or aggression. The cat is essentially demanding that you back away and leave it alone. Even cats that deeply love you can do this from time to time, sometimes just because they want some space to themselves for a while. Or perhaps you pet them in a spot where they're sore and they want you to stop doing so.
Unsurprisingly, hissing is such a clear message that it actually works both ways. So if you want your cat to stop doing something—like biting you too hard, for instance—you can hiss at them a little. They'll most likely get the message.
Does Your Cat Feel Insulted?
When a cat turns its back on you and flicks its tail, watch out! It's ticked off and ready to fight if you persist in whatever it is you’re doing. Under most instances, they will walk away feeling their message has been understood. However, they might just decide that this is the last straw and decide to fight back.
What's the best way to end an agitated cat attack? Stop and cry out—loudly. In cat language, an attack between two generally friendly participants ends immediately after one of them cries out in pain. Also, by holding still until they let go, you are saving yourself long deep cuts that could occur through pulling away from them.
It's also worth noting that a cat can feel insulted for many different reasons, including:
- You took their chair.
- You are sitting on their blanket.
- You splashed them while washing your hands.
- You have bought the generic food again.
- You gave them a bath.
- You took them to the vet.
- You left them with a bunch of kids.
- You didn't get the good litter.
- You forgot to greet them when you came in the house.
- You didn't go looking for them if they weren't at the door waiting for you.
- You didn't change the water today.
- You put glassware on their favorite shelf, and it fell off when they tried to lie down.
- You had the nerve to bring in fish and then hide it behind a solid wall.
Note: Cats can also be insulted even if you didn't do anything that you can understand. They are quite fickle that way.
Signs That Your Cat Might Be Sick
In general, your cats' behaviors—as puzzling as they might sometimes be to you—are often just part of who they are and how they express themselves, and thus shouldn't be cause of too much worry on your part. There are, however, a few indicators that might point to your poor feline potentially feeling a bit under the weather and/or in need of some medical attention.
Here are some important signs to watch out for:
- Excessive licking, chewing, or scratching: Of course, these are all part of normal cat behavior and critical parts of their totally healthy self-maintenance. But if you notice that your cat has been doing one or more of these at an alarmingly higher rate than usual, it could mean that they are suffering from ticks, fleas, or parasites. So it would be a good idea to check to see if you can spot any of them in your feline's fur. Additionally, if you notice any significant hair loss or breaking of the skin, have them get checked out by a vet.
- Vomiting or diarrhea: This is another one that does unfortunately happen periodically and isn't always a cause for concern. But if your cat begins doing it a lot in a short amount of time, it could mean that they've ingested something toxic or are experiencing other digestion problems. If it lasts for more than a day—or if abdominal swelling and pain are apparent—take them in to see a vet right away.
- Different, strong odors: If you notice any new, pungent odors coming from your cat, it might be a good idea to take them in to get checked out. Often times, strange new smells indicate infections, ulcers, and other ailments that need to be treated as soon as possible. Even odors that aren't necessarily "bad"—such as a sweet, fruity smell—can occasionally be warning signs of serious illnesses like diabetes. So if you notice any weird new smells coming from your cat that you can't identify, it's probably best to have a veterinary professional take a look.
- Cat flu: Much like humans, cats can occasionally contract a form of that pesky flu virus. This typically results familiar flu symptoms like watery eyes, a runny nose, and profuse sneezing. If you notice these symptoms, you can attempt to help your cat feel better by cleaning the mucus off their eyes and nose with a cotton ball or damp washcloth, making sure they eat enough food, and repeatedly checking to ensure that they are breathing normally. If you find the latter to be strained and/or they don't seem to be getting better, take them in to a vet to be checked out.
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Pay Attention to the Signals Your Cat Is Sending You
They might be trying to tell you something, and it might be important—or at least it is to them. Learn the unique ways your cat communicates with you. Each cat is different and has its own personality, so their communication might be different. Keep this in mind, and they will eventually let you know.
If you're looking for additional information on what your cat might be trying to tell you, consider checking out these other great PetHelpful articles:
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.
Questions & Answers
My cat is meowing at me constantly, and then she grabs some part of my hand and drags me to a closet. When I looked, there was nothing in there. This has been going on for almost a week. What is she trying to tell me?
Your cat may be trying to tell you that she is going to have kittens, and that is her choice spot, so get it fixed up for her. If she is fixed, then that is obviously not the case. Or, she may be trying to tell you that an outside creature has been napping in there - check for feces or urine in the area. She might just be trying to tell you she wants to have access because it is her favorite spot. Try leaving the door open to see if she sleeps in there a lot.Helpful 83
When my cat is lying down to sleep, he always turns his head and looks at me. Then he'll go back to sleep for a few seconds and look at me again. This happens at least four times before he falls asleep. What does this mean?
Cats like to know they are safe and secure. Your cat may be just trying to ensure you are still near him so he can be safe while sleeping. He might also be checking to see if you have moved and thus changed the 'playing field.' It is nothing to worry about, unless you think his eccentricity is dangerous (I wouldn't).Helpful 32
When I come home, my cat is on the couch, so I pet her. She starts purring, but then she bites me for no reason at all. Do you know why?
Often when you pet your cat, you will reach the 'peak' point, and the cat will purr and often 'love' bite you. If the bites are gentle and don't break the skin, they probably are love bites. However, if the bites are hard, there may be a sore spot that your cat does not want you to touch anymore. Try altering where you pet the cat to see if you get a different response.Helpful 10
My cat wakes me up by biting my hair. What does this mean?
Some cats like to bite hair, and some do not. I have a cat that will bite my hair, then scratch it out across the bed so he can sleep on it. It is just his way.Helpful 3
My cat has always been anti-social, generally hating everyone. In the last six months, she wants attention and to be in my lap. Why now?
This could be for several reasons. Sometimes it is simply that the cat now feels safe and thus wants attention from you. If the cat was abused in the past, this might explain the behavior. Something changed in those six months to make your cat feel more comfortable. Think about what may have changed.Helpful 1
© 2011 Cheryl Simonds