Cat Body Language

Published on by Clyde Mendes



Cats communicate a variety of messages using cat body language. Examples include arching their backs as a signal of fear or aggression, and slowly blinking to signal relaxation. As is the case with dogs, the tail is often used as a signaling mechanism. A twitch can indicate minor irritation, and a tail held high suggests confidence. In addition, a cat's tail may "wag" or move rapidly to express a state of conflict. A cat who chooses to lie with its stomach and chest exposed conveys happiness, trust, and comfort (this is also typical of overweight cats, as it is more comfortable for them); however, a cat may also roll on its side/back to be able to defend itself with all four sets of claws. Usually other signs (like ears and whiskers folded backwards) give an indication of the cat's overall humour. A cat with tail held high and twitching shows excitement, but this is often mistaken for anger. Flattened ears mean that the cat feels threatened, and may attack. Mouth open and no teeth exposed suggests a feeling of playfulness.

Some common interpretations of cats' actions

  • Disgust or Irritation - Ears pulled back, tail swishing to from one side to another. Maybe even a low growl when he is being tormented. 
  • Aggression - Hissing and growling. Hair on back raised and tail fluffed out. Arched back. 
  • Contentedness - Kneading with the paws on a person or, for example, a favorite blanket or sleeping spot. Kittens knead their mother's nipples to stimulate the feeding reflex in her so that her milk flows for them to suckle. Extended kneading is sometimes interpreted by people as a sign of discomfort or restlessness, but it is more likely the cat is happy. Most cats will demonstrate this for about ten minutes at the longest. During this time the cat may purr, although that depends from one animal to the next. Ears are relaxed and facing forward, tail is quiet. Eyes barely open or closed completely. 
  • Relaxation - Sleeping or resting in a vulnerable position, such as on his side on back, or with feet tucked under his chest. 
  • Greeting - A particular sort of vocalization, such as a low meow or chirp, possibly with simultaneous purring. Often the cats will rub up against your legs, walk along with you and in between your feet. In approaching you, they can point their tails straight up at a 90 degree angle as a friendly gesture. 
  • Affection - A pressing of the face or top of the head against a person's body, leaving a scent as a marking of territory. Some cats will cuddle on your lap or in the crook of your arms. Purring and kneading also commonly occur. 
  • Submission - When faced with your anger, or another cat or animal it is submissive to, it will crouch down, ears back, and often raise hairs on its back. Eyes wide. This animal could fight or try to escape if required to. 
  • Anger - Swishing of the tail. Ears pulled back. If faced with another cat or animal, hissing and possibly clawing with the front claws. If a fight ensues, cats will bite each other, vocalise loudly, kick at each other.

Female behaviour
When in season, some unspayed queens will vocalise to attract males. When a queen has been impregnated, her nipples will start to enlarge, and the hair around them will fall out to allow ease of access to the kittens. When she is close to term, she will appear restless, and poke her head into closets and spaces to find a birthing spot. She may even choose to birth her kittens near humans, and may follow one around in order to do so.

Male behaviour
Males will explore their neighbourhoods, and each area has its alpha male. He will protect all the females in his domain and fight with any other males who wants to intrude. Male cats often have other male companions, often another male he has grown up with or a brother. Males often go looking for females in season, and they often end up in harm's way. Neutering them reduces this need.

Male cats spray urine on objects in their domain to mark their territory. Whole males urine smells much stronger than neutered males. Neutered males often don't spray at all. When a female in season is in his neighbourhood, he will seek her out by scent, and yowl and call to her until such time he has secured her in mating or she goes out of season. Third Eyelid with Happy Eyes
You can tell a lot about your cat’s mood by her eyes. An unblinking stare suggests a challenge or a feeling of defensiveness. Round pupils signify interest, excitement, or fear, while narrowed eyes with dilated pupils indicate that the cat is ready to launch an attack. If the cat allows her eyelids to droop or slowly closes her eyes, she is relaxed and trusting.  On the other hand, the third eyelid will often show when a cat is very contented, or very sleepy, or both. Evinrude here, is enjoying some "lovies" from his human, and the circumstances indicate that he is very happy, rather than sick. This is a convincing argument for knowing your cat's normal disposition, behavior, and observing his body language during various daily events. You'll be better equipped to quickly access and respond, when something goes amiss with your cats.
Intense Interest: Predatory?
Cats display interest with a number of body signals. Their ears will tilt forward to better hear. Whiskers direct forward and their eyes will widen. In this picture, Coco displays more of a predatory interest. One can almost hear Coco chittering at the noisy woodpecker just outside her window. Her slightly "curled" upper lip and open mouth indicate that she is most likely displaying the flehman response to the temptation of the bird. Her crouched posture and slightly turned-back ears, as she schemes toward catching it are also a dead giveaway to her emotions.
Cautious Interest in New Cat
The way integration of a new cat to existing cats in a household lays the groundwork for their future social hierarchy. Ronron, the cat on the right, appears to be displeased with the intrusion of Philo (perhaps Philo is sitting in her bed). Ronron has one cautious paw raised and her head is pulled back slightly, indicating "defensive aggression," and both cats are staring intently at each other (an attempt at intimidation.) However, as Rachel pointed out, Ronron's ears are still directed in Philo's direction, so we can tell her curiosity is stronger than her fear.
Active/Passive Competition
These two cats are playing a familiar game, and the winner remains to be seen. Yesrie, the human caregiver to these ebony companions, describes the scene best:

To be honest, I'm not totally sure on this one, but I say MinJa (on the right) is winning. Sure, Veto has possession, but MinJa is crouching higher and staring him down; Veto is NOT meeting her gaze (the equivalent of "La-la-la-la, I can't hear you!"), hoping she'll go away.
Fight or Flight?
It is uncertain whether Mr.Cat is in a flight or fight mode. His puffed up tail, arched back, and sideways position are indicitive of both, depending on the circumstances. Cats will assume this posture when frightened, but also when they are preparing to do battle, whether it be for real or in play fighting. Have you ever watched two young kittens play-fighting? They will face off in this position, then one will launch himself sideways onto the back of the other, and their rough-housing will begin.
Trouble Brewing
This is a favorite perch on the porch for viewing the bird feeder which can be seen in the background. George's expression: ears slightly lowered to the side, indirect eye contact, and erect posture, indicate that he's not pleased that Bandit is taking up the entire space, and some form of physical resolution to the situation may be forthcoming. Bandit is attempting to make eye contact and reading George's signals, although he really doesn't seem too concerned. He was there first. "Bring it on, big boy."
Gus shows possessiveness with his feather duster, whether against another cat or a human pursuer. Laid-back whiskers and ears, slightly crouched body position, and lowered tail make it very clear that no one, whether cat or human, had better try to take away his feather duster.
Cat Fight
This picture is a priceless scene of an innocent victim caught in between two cats who are duking it out. The aggressiveness of the two combatants is unmistakeable, while poor Buzzbomb, caught in the middle, wants to be anywhere but here.
Dominance and Resignation
Bubba (the gray cat) is a 17+ YO alpha cat in retirement. He has willingly turned over his legacy to Jaspurr, three years old. Whether intentional or not, even at sleep, Jaspurr has asserted his dominance over Bubba with his back leg thrown over Bubba's neck. Bubba, in turn, gazes inward in apparent resignation. It should be noted that shortly after this photo was taken, they were engaging in mutual grooming, evidence that Bubba still retains control at times.
 Cat Body Language Phrasebook: 100 Ways to Read Their Signals
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