Cats, like human-beings, reveal their inner states through their body language. Tuft and Paw has both a cat behaviorist and a veterinarian on our team, so we have a lot of insight into why cats behave a certain way.
For this guide, we sat down with Feline Behavior Expert Marci Koski to figure out exactly how to tell the difference between a cat that’s anxious, fearful, or angry and one that’s friendly and comfortable. We’ll also share some fun stories that will help you understand some common cat body language quirks.
Side note, take our cat body language quiz in facebook messenger to win a free cat toy.
The first step in reading a cat's body language is understanding the context.
There are many physical cues of a cat's mood, but their meaning can vary depending on the context. For example, one of the most reliable signs of a confident cat is a tail that’s lifted vertically, high in the air. Most of the time, this tail position indicates that the cat feels comfortable and open to interaction. However, in certain contexts – like warding off a strange cat in his own territory – a high tail can also indicate a willingness to attack.
The high tail can represent a confident cat or a potentially aggressive cat depending on the scenario.
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, which is the approach we'll be following in this guide.
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.
One should always consider whether the situation feels safe for the cat or might be causing them fear or anxiety. A dark, confined environment that a cat can’t easily escape from produces more stress than a wide open comfortable room where surroundings can be seen. If the cat is familiar with you and everyone else in the environment, a cat will likely feel safer and you can assume more comfort. All sensory inputs – sights, sounds, smells – should be taken into account to provide the most accurate idea of how a cat might feel.
When gauging a cat’s mood, take in the big picture first. If you’re still unsure, you can look to individual components of the cat’s body language and put the pieces together to figure out what your cat might be feeling.
Without any further ado, let’s look at the most significant component of a cat’s body language: posture.
Posture/Body Position: Open or Closed?
It’s helpful to remember that as animals, cats evolved as both predators and prey. When cats encounter threatening circumstances, they feel like prey and become scared. When scared, cats are likely to try and protect their body as much as possible by scrunching up into a small, less exposed shape.
When a cat stretches out, they’re voluntarily exposing themselves – this shows that they don’t feel threatened. On the other hand, a ball-shaped cat is usually not feeling open to advances. A cat that’s feeling anxious or worried might also crouch down, low to the ground. If they stop and freeze when they see you, you can be sure they’re not feeling comfortable.
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 – a cat with their back arched in this position is telling you they're terrified.
When a cat’s back is arched, their hair often stands up too. (The term for hair standing up in this way is piloerection.) Both behaviors make the cat look bigger and more intimidating. A cat exhibiting these behaviors might be ready to stand their ground and fight.
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.
A cat on it’s back – AKA, “the Venus Cat Trap”
Remember, no single sign or indicator of body language is guaranteed, so caution when interacting with cats is usually the best policy. For proof of this, you can ask anyone that’s ever been a victim of the Venus Cat Trap. 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. Many people have touched a cat’s stomach only to have its owner instantly seize-up, latching onto their hand with claws and teeth.
The Venus Cat Trap can be avoided with some care and sensitivity to context. 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.
Abbey often appears relaxed with her belly exposed, but don’t be fooled! If you go to pet her stomach, you’ll become her prey very quickly
Samantha, on the other hand, loves tummy rubs
The more you know about a cat’s personality, the more you can understand their perspective, and so the context of the situation. Knowing the different preferences of Abbey and Oliver, for example, will help you avoid the Venus Cat Trap.
The Tail: A Barometer of Confidence
A cat’s tail is one of the first places to look for signs of their mood. As mentioned earlier, a high, vertical tail indicates a cat that’s feeling confident, comfortable, happy, and friendly, and a low tail indicates a cat that’s feeling fearful or anxious.
It’s helpful to think about the shape a cat is making and how it relates to the overall situation. 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. And a high, puffed-out tail might indicate a cat trying to make itself bigger to intimidate potential foes.
Why do cats flick their tails?
Two other actions a cat’s tail can exhibit are vibration and flicking. When a cat’s tail quivers, it can be a sign of happy excitement. This may appear similar to the vibrating movement a cat’s tail makes before it spray-marks something with urine. Again, however, context is everything – if a cat greets you with this gesture she is excited to see you.
Flicking, on the other hand, is a sign of agitation or alertness. Abbey, who can be moody and sometimes even a Venus Cat Trap, will also show her lack of receptivity by flicking her tail. When she 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.
Ears: For Hearing and for Showing
Ear position is another place to look for clues about a cat’s mood. Normal, forward ears indicate a cat that’s feeling confident, relaxed, or engaged. As always, however, context is essential for understanding. When a cat’s ears stand straight up, the cat is increasing their exposure, and you may be fooled into thinking it’s at ease; instead, 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. (Some people will refer to ears in this position as “airplane ears.”)
Dharma is a cat that likes to hang out in her owner’s closet. A former feral cat, Dharma is now more comfortable and confident. She still needs a place in which she can rest and hide from the world, though, and she chooses the closet. When new people come looking for her in the closet, she can feel threatened. When a person enters the closet, Dharma makes herself as small as possible, and that includes her ears. Dharma’s ears get so flat on her head, they look like they’ve been plastered there.
Eyes: The Windows to the Mood
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.
A cat’s pupils are another good way to tell how relaxed or stimulated it is. 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
Stimulation is not necessarily good or bad. 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.
The famous cat slow blink
Cats blink slowly to show affection and relaxation. If a cat blinks slowly at you, they are not threatened by you – in fact, they trust you. To bond with a cat that blinks slowly at you, you can return their gesture by blinking slowly back at them. This is a great way to communicate with your cats.
If you’ve taken in all the other signs and you still want more information, check out a cat’s whiskers. Compared to a cat’s posture, tail, ears, and eyes, the whiskers aren’t going to tell you as much, but they may provide a helpful hint.
Fearful cats bring the whiskers close to the face
This action is yet another example of a fearful cat’s tendency to try and make itself smaller. Confident cats, by contrast, might push their whiskers forward.
Vocalization: Cat Noises
Although not “body language” per se, the noises a cat makes – their vocalizations – are a cat’s most overt ways of telling you its feelings.
What makes a cat purr?
Most people understand that purring is a good sign, but, in fact, like most other indicators, it’s not guaranteed. Purring is a sign of pleasure – it’s the most obvious way to tell when a cat is happy. However, cats may also purr when they’re in pain! Many veterinarians report that cats purr when they’re injured or feeling sick.
The Fear/Aggression Vocalization Series
When a cat wants you to understand that they’re feeling threatened, they may go through a series of vocalizations, increasing in intensity as their discomfort increases. First comes the growl. A growling cat is warning you to back off. Next is the hiss: Why do cats hiss? Hissing indicates that a cat is feeling threatened and may be getting ready to fight or flee; hissing is also a very effective way of showing a potential aggressor that the cat is armed with sharp fangs. The yowl usually comes after the hiss. Finally, a cat that’s shrieking feels that they’re out of options and is about to make their stand or retreat.
Chirping and Chattering – What Does it Mean?
Chirping and chattering are two vocalizations that are expressed for the same reason. A cat will chirp and chatter if there is potential prey nearby that it cannot attack. For example, if your cat is chirping at the window, they may see a bug that they would love to capture – but that is safe behind a screen. Chirping and chattering indicate excitement tempered by frustration.
What is trilling?
Trilling sounds a bit like purring but has a much higher pitch - almost like a bell on a bicycle. Mother cats trill to communicate with their kittens. When a cat trills, it’s probably feeling friendly and familial. Cats often trill to their owners to greet them.
Why is my cat constantly meowing?
Meowing is one of the most ambiguous types of cat vocalizations because a cat meows for many reasons. Meowing could mean almost anything, from hunger to simple chattiness. Like most other body language signs and behaviors that cats exhibit, meowing should be analyzed as a part of the cat’s larger context.
Constant meowing, however, may indicate that something is wrong. If a cat won’t stop meowing and seems to be in pain, it’s time for a trip to the vet. If they meow every day, even after eating, maybe your cat is just chatty – some cats, and breeds, are more vocal than others.
Putting it All Together
Cats have earned a reputation for being hard to read, but it’s not their fault – they just communicate differently than humans. With their posture, tails, ears, eyes, whiskers, and vocalizations, they’ll tell you whether they’re comfortable or not. The main takeaway is that a cat’s body language and behaviors should be looked at as a part of single big picture. By using the context of the entire situation, trying to see the situation from the cat’s point of view, and looking for subtle cues in body language, you’ll have an excellent chance at understanding your feline friends.