How to Read the Body Language of Cats


By Julia Williams

We’ve discussed the body language of dogs many times on this blog, and it’s a popular topic on other websites and in print. Responsible dog owners know how important it is to learn to “read” the various signals of their canine companion, and to act accordingly. Not much is said about the body language of cats, but understanding a feline’s nonverbal communication is equally important – especially if you don’t want to be bitten or scratched. A cat’s body language can also tell you things about their health and how they feel.

I’ve heard people say that their cat “just attacked them without warning.” While this may be true in some cases, I’m convinced that most of the time the cat gave ample warning it wanted to be left alone. However, if you aren’t familiar with the body language of cats, you can easily misread their nonverbal signals, which might make it seem like your normally friendly cat suddenly went psycho on you.

Although a cat may hiss and growl when it wants you to stop petting them and leave them alone, they may also use tail twitching. This can be confusing to those who think a cat’s swishing tail is similar to the wagging tail of a happy dog. It is the exact opposite; moreover, you can use the speed of the twitching tail to gauge just how ticked off the cat is with your behavior. If they are only mildly annoyed, their tail will swish slowly back and forth, like a pendulum. As they get more irritated with you, the speed and ferocity of their tail movement increases until it is eventually thrashing like an out-of-control whip. If it has progressed to this “whip” stage, a wise human will immediately leave the cat alone, because a bite or scratch is imminent.

To further complicate matters, a cat will sometimes use slow tail twitching to signal that they’re feeling playful. Thus, it can be difficult for even the most astute cat whisperer to distinguish between the annoyed slow twitch and the playful slow twitch. One difference worth noting is that the “I’m ready to play” tail twitch typically occurs when the cat is not in contact with you, such as when they are lying on their side or sitting on the floor, away from you.

Cats also use their tail to communicate other emotions. When a cat’s tail is standing straight up, it means they are happy to see you, they feel safe, and all is well in their world. When their tail is upright and quivering, they are ecstatic. A puffed up tail that resembles a bottle brush indicates a fearful, defensive and emotionally charged cat. It’s usually accompanied by an arched back and fur that’s standing up – the message here is “I want to appear much bigger than I actually am.” Cats will also assume this posture when preparing to “play fight” with another cat. They will face each other and “puff up” before one launches himself sideways onto the other, signaling the start of their roughhousing.

Cats show possessiveness with flattened ears, laid-back whiskers, a lowered tail and slightly crouched body position. You’ll see this posture when your cat or kitten has a toy (especially one with feathers or fur, which resembles prey) and you try to take it away from them. Cats display interest in something by tilting their ears forward to hear better, directing their whiskers forward, and widening their eyes.

Staring directly at a cat is interpreted as aggression. And if they stare straight at you or another cat, this is meant as a challenge. A cat who exhibits a “bug eyed” look is frightened. Cats also communicate with their eyes by blinking, which is said to be a form of greeting and an indication that they like you. There is a “blinking experiment” you can try with your cat, wherein you sit with them when they are relaxed and then slowly open and close your eyes. Many times, the cat will do it along with you. When I heard about this my initial reaction was “Yeah, right.” But I tried it with my cats and was surprised to learn that they actually will blink back at me. Of course, felines being the independent creatures they are, they don’t do it all of the time.

A confident and content cat will hold their head high and assume an upright posture. A cat who lowers her head and turns it sideways to avoid eye contact indicates lack of interest or passiveness. When a cat feels relaxed in her surroundings, she will lie on her side or back and show you her belly. Unless the cat trusts you completely, they won’t assume this posture in your presence.

Learning how to read the body language of your cat can tell you a great deal about how they are feeling. Their tail, ears, eyes, whiskers and legs are all trying to communicate with you – don’t you want to know what they are saying?

Read more articles by Julia Williams

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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One thought on “How to Read the Body Language of Cats

  1. This is an interesting post, Julia. Thanks for pointing me to it :) I’ve experienced most of what you written, as have all cat owners, I’m sure. Each cat has particular characteristics that are peculiar to them as well as the more general traits to watch out for. Also I do think that a cat and its human will develop a means of communication that is special to them. Austin is a rescue cat and has never liked being picked up and cuddled, yet he will show his belly to me and never bites when I brush him. Yet another cat I had from a kitten, couldn’t tolerate his belly being touched! It is probably me who has learnt the most, except maybe I need some Welsh lessons! lol

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