Cat Body Language
Cat Body Language: Each cat has her own set of actions and expressions that are a mirror of how she is feeling. The chart below matches the mood or state of mind with a standard list of body positions and physical signs that apply to all cats. However, each cat is an individual, so your own cat may have only some of these characteristics.
How she expresses or exhibits them may also depend on the circumstances. So while this chart can help you to decipher what your cat may be thinking and feeling, you should make a point of watching your cat and learning her personal quirks so that you can better understand her.
You can use the following chart to identify your cat’s frame of mind by looking at the groups of descriptive phrases and deciding which group she seems to fall into—or by observing some of your cat’s behavioral characteristics and then trying to fit them into one of those categories.
As you can see, there are a variety of possible attitudes that fit each frame-of-mind category, and that is because every cat is a unique individual and every situation varies. So your cat may have just one or even all of the behaviors listed. Even armed with this information, you will still have to do some observing and interpreting to get a clear picture of your own kitty.
Cat Body Language Guide
Cat Body Language which shows relaxed cat:
- Ears pricked slightly forward
- Whiskers stand straight out from the face
- Tail upright or relaxed
- Hair smooth and flat
- Dilated pupils
- Chattering (if feeling playful)
Cat Body Language which shows frightened cat:
- Hair up on back and tail
- Tail lashing or held close to body
- Whiskers flattened against face
- Ears pulled flat against the head, pointed down
- Crouching sideways
- Hissing, growling or spitting
Cat Body Language which shows aggressive cat:
- Direct stare
- Constricted, narrow pupils
- Hair raised on shoulders and tail
- Facing front, butt in air (ready to pounce)
- Tail swishes or thumps the ground
- Lips curled in a snarl
- Hissing or screeching
- Ears flat and rotated backwards
Cat Body Language which shows annoyed cat:
- Tip of tail twitches
- Whiskers pulled back tightly against face
- Ears flat against head
Cat Body Language which shows sick cat:
- Eyes half closed
- Tail between legs
- Whiskers and ears in abnormal positions for long periods
- Loud purring when stroked
Reading Cat Body Language
Learning to read your cat’s body language is an important part of understanding her personality and reactions. But keep in mind that with cats there is rarely an absolutely clear answer; it is only by interpreting the sum of the parts that you can get the whole picture.
It can be confusing or misleading to look at just one aspect of her demeanor and try to figure her out; only by taking into consideration her eyes, ears, tail, whiskers, body posture and voice can you get a complete understanding of what she’s feeling.
The chart below gives you all the ingredients that make up a cat’s full physical expression. It is a checklist to refer to when you can’t quite figure out what’s going on with your cat and you may not have considered all aspects of her body language. It can also help to factor in the circumstances in which your cat finds herself—the things in her environment to which she may be reacting.
Cat Body Language Checklist
- Whole-body position
- Tail position
- Ear position
- Eye shape
(A) Whole-Body Position or Posture
A cat’s posture basically boils down to two possibilities: either she’s indicating that it’s fine to come on over or she’s warning you (or another cat) to stay away. And that attitude can change very quickly, depending on how the other creature is conducting herself.
1.Tail Upright, Trotting Toward You.
This is a confident, trusting cat who expects something positive from the encounter—it’s the way that stray cats come running when a person who brings them food arrives. A cat will also give this greeting to another cat she knows and likes.
2.Arched Back with Hair Standing Up (Piloerection).
This is the opposite of the posture above because it shows that the cat expects the worst, not the best. This classic “Halloween cat” posture can be either offensive or defensive, depending on what the other cat (or person) does. It gives this message to another cat: “Be forewarned, I’m not fooling around.”
3.Stiff-Legged, Hind End Elevated.
This is a purely offensive stance and challenges the other cat or person. Since a cat’s hind legs are naturally longer than her front legs, it’s a natural position for the cat to stand stiff-legged with her rump higher than her front end.
This is a defensive position, with the tail often curled tightly around the body; it protects the tail and gives the impression that the cat is smaller and less threatening to an opponent.
If the crouching cat is frightened, she will flatten her ears back and down; a sign that she is really frightened would be if she is also drooling.
This is the ultimate passive position, indicating to an opponent that she is no threat at all. However, that is not entirely true, since a cat on her back can use her claws and teeth if the opposing cat does not respect her position of subordination and advances on her anyway. It all depends on the individual. A cat may also expose her belly to elicit play or stroking—it depends
(B) Cat Tail Language
- Erect like a flagpole = friendly, confident, content, ready to interact
- Hairs on end (piloerection) = heightened anxiety; passively aggressive
- Wrapped around body = wants to be left alone, possibly fearful
- Inverted U = defensive aggression (but in kittens can signal play)
- Curled under body = threatened
- Arched over back with piloerection = defensive aggression (may lower tail if other cat doesn’t back off)
- Arched over back without piloerection = interested, aroused
- Thumping = conflicted, frustrated, irritated; may attack
- Mild flicking = ambivalence, changing her mind about what she is doing
- Rapid flicking = agitation, anxiety, growing arousal; for some, may be a stress reliever
- Constant flicking = reactive, a commentary on her surroundings
- Lashing = agitation in proportion to vigor of lashing: stay away!
- Puffed up to twice its size = unpredictable, can swing from retreat to attack
- Between legs = submissive
- Lowered = offensive (moving stiffly) or defensive aggression (moving loosely)
- Half down, horizontal = normal relaxed position of tail at rest
(C) Cat Ears Language
- Pointed forward = curious
- Erect = alert, even if dozing
- Erect, forward-facing = alert, interested
- Forward facing and tilted slightly back = friendly, relaxed
- Turned sideways (like airplane wings) = concern/fear over possible threat
- Rotated sideways and downward = defensive aggression, might attack
- Rotated sideways and flattened against head = extreme defensiveness, could attack
- Rotated sideways, flattened and inner ear visible = offensive aggression, will attack
(D) Cat Eye Shape
- Round pupils = excited, interested, fearful or defensive aggression
- Slightly oval pupils = relaxed
- Droopy lids = relaxed, trusting
- Slowly closing eyes = trust, affection
- Constricted pupils = offensive aggression
- Unblinking stare = challenging, defensive threat
- Slow blinking = opposite of stare: feels safe, comfortable and affectionate (some people “answer” by blinking back at their cats and call this interaction “cat kisses”)
- Pointed forward = interest or aggression (if ears are sideways or back this means aggression; if ears are erect this means interest in something she sees)
- Relaxed, pointed to the side = position at rest, relaxed
- Flattened back against cheeks = fear
- Hair erect (piloerection) = defensive
- Fluffed but not fully standing up = uneasy, threatened or defensive
- Chattering = excitement when seeing prey but unable to get to it
- Chirp = when expecting something desirable like a meal or treat; mother cat to kittens
- Growl = offensive or defensive low-pitched sound made with open mouth
- Hiss = openmouthed snakelike sound, usually defensive
- Meow = greeting just for people • Mew = identify and locate another cat
- Moan = a long sad sound made before vomiting, when disoriented (senior cats), or when at door wanting to be let in or out
- Murmur = soft closed-mouth sound, accompanies purring or is a greeting
- Purr = contentment, anxiety (stress relief), or self-soothing when ill or injured
- Shriek = harsh high-pitched sound for pain or highly aggressive meetings
- Snarl = threatening expression with upper lip curled, showing teeth, may go with a growl
- Spit = sudden short popping sound, heard before or after a hiss
- Squeal = raspy high-pitched sound while expecting food; also occurs during play
- Trill = like a chirp but more musical, expressing happiness
(H) The Environment Around the Cat
The circumstances surrounding a cat can influence her frame of mind, which can help you to understand her behavior and predict her reactions. There’s obviously no way to list here what those environmental situations might be, since anything and everything can potentially affect a cat.
A cat’s behavior can be triggered by everything from another cat walking by outside the window to another cat in the house interacting with her, a move to a new house, new furniture or rearranged furniture, the addition or loss of a human or other animal in the household, human stress such as illness or divorce—you name it.
You just need to be aware that each cat has issues in her environment that can affect her mood and behavior. The lists below can help you figure out just what that mood might be.
Cat Body Language you might misunderstand
There are a few classic “cat moves” that people assume they understand—but which in some cases mean something quite different than we think. What follows are a few of these typical physical demonstrations and what the cat is really trying to communicate.
1.Lying Down, Belly Exposed
Doesn’t it look adorable and inviting when your kitty is on her back, feet in the air, waiting for her soft tummy to be rubbed? A cat who exposes her stomach is relaxed, but she is not necessarily “asking” for a belly rub—don’t be fooled, even if she rolls over to expose more of her stomach.
Showing her belly is a sign that a cat feels secure enough to put herself in the ultimate vulnerable position, but it is not always an invitation to touch. Sometimes, rubbing a cat’s stomach can even trigger an automatic aggressive reflex, which can involve pushing you away with her feet and biting.
This would explain all those times you may have thought a cat was “mean,” “aggressive” or “tricky,” when actually you didn’t know cat etiquette or body signals.
2.Sitting with a Closely Wrapped Tail
You know the classic cat pose—the elegant “statue” of the cat sitting close to the ground, her tail wrapped tightly around her feet so she’s tucked into a neat package? The message there is “closed for business.”
This body posture is one that cats may use to keep other cats at a distance; it’s not a hostile posture, just one that establishes she does not want any interaction. Although you may be tempted to go over and stroke a cat because she looks so serene and tranquil in this position, what you’ll actually be doing is interrupting that tranquility by breaking through the invisible visual barrier she has put up by putting herself in this position.
Any resting position in which the cat has all her body parts tucked in sends the message “Give me my space.” The cat would prefer not to be approached or disturbed—think of her as being in her own zone. And don’t be fooled if the cat seems alert and her head is up; if her limbs and tail are all tucked in, her alertness does not mean she’s inviting you over to her.
When a cat’s tail is straight up or even slightly curved over her back, this is a signal that she is ready for you to approach. In general, soft upright tail motions indicate a willingness to interact—in fact, if she raises her tail and waves it like a flag, this is an invitation to other cats (or to you) to come be with her.
4.Touching with Nose
When cats are friendly to one another they greet by touching noses, a gesture that you can approximate with a cat by putting out one finger for her to touch and sniff. When two cats are doing the nose-to-nose greeting, they then share odors by depositing scent on each other.
The cat will rub her cheek glands on you, rub against your leg with her whole body, raise her cheeks for you to scratch them and invite you to stroke her back by arching it. So when a cat comes up to you, extending your finger is the nicest, most catlike way of saying hello.
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