Sherry grew up watching her uncle raise turtles, fish, goats and sheep in his backyard. She lives with a tabby and her three kittens.
It is fascinating how the body language of cats can almost perfectly describe their moods and emotions. If you learn the basics and spend some time studying your cat and others, you will start to understand your kitty’s behaviour. However, body language should be interpreted only after being aware of the situation that the cat is in at the time and taking into account the voices it makes.
Visual signals from the face, such as ears, eyes, tongue and whiskers, are best read together with body posture and tail position to conclude a cat’s mood.
Did you know that the ears of a cat can move independently of each other to detect sounds? The musculature of the cat’s outer ear also allows for a wide range of movements that can be altered rapidly. These abilities in addition to the large size make ears ideal for visual signalling.
- Upright and pointing forwards: Ears facing forward indicate relaxation and alertness. It might rarely indicate aggression which you can tell by looking at the rest of the body.
- Flattened sideways: Indicate fear and alertness. The more fearful a cat is the, more flattened the ears appear.
- Rotated backward: Points to a state of frustration and/or anger. According to an interesting study, the right ear appears to be more rotated than the left ear in case of frustration or anger.
- Back and flat against the head: Indicates anxiousness, defensiveness and submission. Lowered ears are a sign of fearfulness. The more flat the ears, the more anxious or fearful the cat is. You want to stay away from her. However, ears laid back but pointing forward are a sign of alertness.
- One ear flattened/rotated: Cats sometimes swivel only one ear indicating confusion. The cat is unsure of how to deal with the situation.
A look can simply mean a look but sometimes it does not. Besides dilating and contracting pupils in response to the amount of light around, cats appear to dilate and contract their pupils to indicate mood.
A slow blink involving direct eye contact (aka kitty kisses) can be a friendly gesture indicating that the cat trusts you. Some owners use this cat language to tell their cat that they are not threatening and thus the cat can relax. Slow blinking should go with relaxed body posture and purring. On the other hand, rapid blinking signifies fear and a strategy to avoid direct eye contact in potential conflict situations. Moreover, recent research suggested that fearful cats show half-blinking and left gaze before a head turn in frightening situations.
In cases other than as a reaction to reduced light indicates aggression, excitement, pain or apprehension- basically any type of arousal. The signal, therefore, is very unclear and careful reading of the entire body language should be helpful.
Narrowed and Slit Eyes
Indicates self-assurance or anger or that she is sleepy. Cats often sleep with outstretched ears and half-shut eyes. This shows that the cat is sleepy but on high alert. She may wake up at the feeblest of sounds.
Staring at Another Cat
Indicates confrontation. Cats like to settle even the largest of disputes by staring each other down and yelling.
- Tail held almost parallel to the ground: A hunting or stalking cat holds her tail nearly horizontal. On the other hand, a slightly drooping tail would indicate that the cat is relaxed, confident or alert.
- Twitching tail: Twitching at the base of a resting tail indicates that the cat that looks at rest is interested in doing or looking at something. Slight twitching might point at how hard the cat is trying to concentrate.
- Flagpole tail: When cats meet other friendly cats or humans they like, they tend to hold their tail up like a flagpole to convey friendly greetings. Sometimes, the entire tail would quiver and the cat would chirp at the same time. Many owners call this “feather dancing”.
- Upright and hooked: This position is pretty similar to the flagpole tail and conveys the same meaning. However, the hooked tip of the tail indicates uncertainty and caution among cats.
- Upright and quivering: A spraying cat often keeps his tail up while quivering and appears as if he is dancing with his hind feet, in an attempt to lift the rump higher.
- Thrashing and swishing tail: Slapping the tail on the ground while sitting or lying down might indicate irritation, frustration or anger. These movements are often followed by aggressive behaviour.
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- Head stretched forward: It indicates friendliness. Cats do this to encourage their owner or other cats to touch. Another instance when cats stretch their head forward is when they are trying to see the facial expression of their owner or other cats.
- Head held to the side: Usually, a cat crouches and holds her head sideways when she is being defensive. You can also notice her ears pointing backward when she appears frustrated and angry.
- Raised head: During the conflict, a confident cat will keep her head raised. On the other hand, an inferior cat that is defensively aggressive will also keep the head lifted but this will be meant to indicate assertion. However, a submissive cat may also keep her head lowered and express aggression.
- Head rub: A head rub between cats is a friendly gesture. For two individuals who have not met before, this gesture is an invitation for social bonding. Cats approaching each other usually raise their tail upright. Sometimes you may notice that only one of the cats raises its tail while approaching the other cat. This means that the other cat is less interested in bonding. In such cases, the latter may not reciprocate at all or might only rub briefly. Cats also show mutual rubbing of cheeks and flanks.
Interestingly, male species tend to bond through nose bumps rather than head rubs. Nose touching and sniffing are some of the ways through which a cat tries to determine the identity of another cat and whether it is a member of the social group.
The movements of the tongue can be confusing and general. For instance, a cat may lick its lips when served with food to sniff what is on offer, like after eating to clean the debris off the mouth. It is worth noting that cats also lick their tongues just before they are about to vomit.
- Tongue flick: When a cat flicks her tongue, she is uncertain and is going through an emotional conflict, anxiety or anticipation. This should not be confused with the normal lip-licking where the tongue wipes around the mouth. A tongue flick is a ‘flick’ up towards the tip of the nose.
- Tongue stuck out lightly: Indicates contentment, relaxation or that the cat has been interested.
- Tongue held out: When a cat yawns it sticks out the tongue and it appears as if the entire face is slit open. A more specific sign is the hook at the end of the tongue that occurs more commonly with yawns than with aggressive gestures.
Movements made with the mouth may decipher mood and circumstances too.
Cats open their mouth several times a day making this gesture a more general one thereon. Even so, close observation may unfold something the cat wants to tell. An open-mouthed yawn is not a threatening signal but an open mouth accompanied by hissing or snarling sounds might indicate that the cat feels threatened and is defensive.
One of the fascinating features of a cat is its mobile whiskers.
- Whiskers that are open wide and pointing forward indicate alertness, interest and playful mood.
- Whiskers relaxed and slightly forward indicate positive and friendly encounters.
- In fearful situations, whiskers are held back against the face to indicate that the cat is non-threatening. Moreover, during a potential conflict, the whiskers are tilted backward.
Cats knead on blankets, other cats and humans as a habit that they have brought on from a young age. Kittens knead their mother to help her led down her milk. Adult cat kneading indicates that they are comfortable and relaxed. Naturally, kneading is accompanied by purring.
Socially bonded cats like to rub their heads, cheeks and flanks while also raising tails sometimes. This is a means of communicating a friendly greeting.
Cats wrap their tail around other cats or persons who they consider friends. This may occur between two cats, each wrapping its tail around the other’s tail. Like other friendly gestures, this is usually followed by raised tail approach.
Scratching or Clawing
Cats seem to scratch wooden posts or trees to leave a visual signal of the cat’s presence. While doing this they release a scent message with secretions from the glands between the pads on the underside of their paws. Cats that are dominant or those who feel themselves as one will scratch in the presence of the other, intending to control the area.
As we know from other behaviours, cats seem to rub their scent on objects, other cats and people. Although humans cannot smell anything, other cats will be interested in these spots. For instance, a cat would like to use scents to mark his/her territory. Female cats leave their scents in the breeding season.
Understanding Your Cat
Although reading the body language of a cat is an excellent way to understand your fur companion, it is important to be aware of the surroundings. A cat that is yawning may also have her pupils narrowed and ears flattened backward. Though the signals indicate fearfulness, it might be a wide yawn.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Sherry Haynes