Understanding the Body Language of Cats

When it comes to an understanding and respecting your feline friend, not much can offer greater insight than their body language. From flattened ears to dilated pupils, each movement and response made by a cat is indicative of how they are responding to a particular situation at any given time.

Every blink, twitch, and shift your cat makes is an important message they’re trying to convey. While cats are vocal animals, they also use physical indicators to communicate both with each other and with us with special cat’s body language. 

Which parts of the body to watch 

The most important features to consider when examining a cat’s body language include it’s tail, ears, eyes, and body movements. The rules are; however, not cut and dry, and context must always be considered when using body language to assess how a cat is feeling. For example, when you come home from work and your cat runs towards you with an upright tail, this is a sign of an excited and confident greeting. Whereas, when a cat raises its tail when a strange cat approaches, this may indicate aggression. 

body language of cats
Image credit: Ayelt van Veen on Unsplash

Why is it important? 

Having a good understanding of how our cats are communicating with us allows us, as cat guardians, to provide them with the best possible life and care. Understanding cat body language also offers us some insight into what our feline friends are experiencing at any given moment. These feelings help to tell us their individual needs, what is or isn’t working for them in the home environment, and how their natural instincts are being demonstrated.

How understanding cat body language is helpful

Three years ago, I began working with kittens from feral colonies with the objective of successfully socializing them to be homed as domestic companions. The very first kitten I worked with was a tiny ginger kitten named Reed and although he was small in size, his 

Seeing a hissing, spitting little ginger firecracker of a kitten trying his best to swipe at your hand might make one think that the emotions fueling these actions were anger or aggressiveness. But I quickly began to notice small signs that this wasn’t the case at all. He would hiss and then swallow quickly and glance around the room nervously. He would flatten his body as much as possible when I tried to touch him and only resort to biting when he was backed into a corner. This wasn’t a mean kitten at all. This was a scared kitten.

Understanding the emotion behind the actions allowed me to better understand how to approach the kitten in a way that would respect his boundaries and produce good results. Rather than immediately putting my hand near him, I would sit in the room with him and talk quietly. Once the trust was established, I was able to hand feed him and create positive associations. 

It took a while, but through connecting with his body language and responding accordingly, I was able to help the once fiery kitten develop into content and trusting bundle of purrs. He was able to be adopted out and has enjoyed his life with a wonderful family ever since. 

Signs that your cat is unhappy

In some cases, we may provide our cats with absolutely everything they need, yet they remain unhappy. This is why it is so important to be able to assess our feline friends’ body language. 

In order to ensure that your cat is happy, it is important to be able to pick up on any possible signs of distress. These signs will also help guide a pet parent on how to best interact with their felines and avoid unnecessarily pushing boundaries. 

Most cat owners will have noticed their cats arch their backs with raised hair and perhaps even an accompanying growl. I have noticed my own cats do this when an unknown cat is in the area or if the vacuum cleaner gives them a fright. This body language is typical of a cat experiencing stress, fear, or threat. 

These emotions can also be demonstrated through dilated pupils, crouching bodies, flattened ears, or wagging tails. A cat that is withdrawn or hiding away for extensive periods of time is also likely experiencing acute distress. Cats demonstrating any of these signs are likely unhappy and an assessment is needed in order to establish how to reduce the discomfort your kitty friend is feeling. 

Of course, while these behaviors remain typical for the species, each cat is different in their approach. As pet owners, we must be able to distinguish what our own kitties are telling us through their body language. 

Causes of stress to be mindful of

For a species renowned for its independence and resilience, cats are far more sensitive than many may realize. No matter how small, changes in the environment can cause a huge amount of stress on a cat. This includes new smells, people coming and going, changes in set up, as well as new or unknown pets.

Another very important possible cause of stress to be mindful of is sickness. While much of the body language may be the same for distressed and sick cats, there are some notable differences to be mindful of.

Signs that your cat may be unwell 

Every responsible pet owner should know the tell-tale physical signs of their cats feeling unwell. Cats are well-known for their ability to mask their pain expertly, so it is our duty as their guardians to pick up on any possible symptoms and act swiftly to ensure that our kitties are being well cared for. If your cat is showing any signs that they may not be feeling well, it is always best to take them to see the vet for a thorough assessment. 

One of the most obvious ways to know that a cat is feeling unwell is through the signs they communicate with body language. If you touch a cat and he or she winces or bites you, it is very possible that pain is being experienced in this area. Other signs to be mindful of include keeping the eyes shut, holding the head low to the ground, and drooping of the eyes and whiskers. They will likely be lethargic and possibly hold their body into a tight ball in order to comfort themselves. The third eyelid showing, nasal discharge and drooling are other indicators that your cat may need a vet visit.

Signs that your cat is happy and comfortable

As pet parents, our greatest wish is for our beloved fur children to be as happy as possible. This involves a number of things, including good quality food, high levels of interaction, affection and kindness, and a secure environment. We can absolutely use a cat’s body language to assess their happiness too, as well as discomfort!

A happy cat will have loose and fluid body movements. They will stretch out often, their pupils will be thin slits, and their ears will be upright yet neutral. Happy cats are also playful, and energetic, display a good appetite, and a willingness to engage. 

Cat owners with a strong relationship with their cats can look for a few signs that will tell them that their cat loves and trusts them. These include head butting, displaying the belly, tail shaking, and kneading. If your cat rubs against your body, this indicates that they are rather possessive, yet very fond of you. A neat trick to help tell if your cat trusts you is the slow blink test! Simply make eye contact with your cat and blink slowly at them. If they do it back, they love and trust you!

Using personality as an indicator

Many guides, books, and videos exist telling us how to care for cats in general. But there is no resource to explain how to provide the care our individual furkids require to thrive. What works for one will not necessarily work for another and the best way to know if we are on the right track, is to understand the messages our cats give us. 

When I first got a cat, I was so excited to try everything I’d seen people doing on social media with their cats, especially walking on a harness. I invested in a good harness, did tons of research, watched even more videos, and began the process of harness training my cat to go outside. He did so well wearing his harness inside and I couldn’t help but envision all the adventures we’d go on. Perhaps even holidays! 

Yet, when I took him outside for the first time, my cat was unbelievably upset. He couldn’t handle the unfamiliar noises, barking dogs, or cars. His pupils dilated and he just shut down, cowering on the spot. I could see that it just wouldn’t be fair of me to put him through something that made him so uncomfortable. 

I realized that he had likely had negative experiences when living outdoors as a colony cat and did not wish to go through those feelings of fear again. He is far happier inside, climbing his trees and chasing his wand. I know this because his ears are pricked up and his stature is bold. His body language helped to set important boundaries, ensuring that I know what to do to keep him happy and comfortable.

This is what works for him, yet there are many cats that absolutely love being outside and going for walks! Every cat is an individual with a unique personality. It’s all about taking time to get to know your own furchild, using their body language as a way to understand their feelings and comfort levels. 

Do your cats recognize your face and voice?

Natural instincts 

Cats are naturally preying animals that are excellent hunters. These skills need to be put into practice and developed in order for them to do well in their homes. Many of a cats’ behaviors can be attributed to their instincts and having a base knowledge on them will help cat guardians to respond appropriately and effectively. 

You may have noticed your kitty scratching, biting, or even grabbing at your legs when you walk past. At first, you may be upset and offended, but your cat is just trying to exhibit some of it’s natural behavior! These should not be discouraged entirely, but rather redirected into an appropriate outlet. 

Fans of Jackson Galaxy may have heard him explain that cats need to hunt, eat, and then sleep. This mimics their natural prey drive and can be easily put into practice at home. A good play session that encourages lots of chasing, followed by a meal and then bedtime, will help your kitty to exert their energy in a natural way. 

Final Thought

Understanding your cat’s body language is essential to being the best pet parent possible. From ear twitches to tail swishes, every movement our cats make tell us something unique and likely important about how to help them thrive. 

Just by being mindful of our car’s body language, we are able to tell if they are happy, uncomfortable, feeling unwell, and what works best for their unique personalities. While our cats may not have voices, they are certainly talking to us and it’s our job to listen to all their body language has to say!

References and Further Reading

Leave a Comment