Cat Body Language: Talk to the Tail

Cats have a reputation for being aloof and elusive. But despite this reputation, our cats are constantly communicating with us. Along with a wide variety of vocalizations, cats communicate with their ears, tails, eyes, whiskers and body posture. They also exhibit complex behaviors that let us know what’s on their minds. Learning to understand cat body language can improve your relationship with your favorite feline. Establishing a mutual understanding makes for a happier and more relaxed cat. In the interest of human-cat relations, this post will detail some of the important cat body language a cat guardian needs to know.

“Ears” a Clue!

  • Ears forward – A cat with ears slightly forward feels relaxed, content and happy.
  • Ears straight up – “Pricked” ears indicate that your cat is attentive and in a state of increased alertness.
  • Ears moving in different directions – This cat is hyper-alert and listening all around for every possible sound.
  • Ears turned back or sideways – A cat with turned-back ears feels irritated, over stimulated, nervous or anxious. Take care around a cat whose ears are in these positions, as they can precede a defensive strike.
  • Ears back and flat against head – This is the definitive sign that a cat is aggressive. The cat might be feeling scared and defensive, or just angry. In any case, give this cat plenty of space!

Tell-Tale Tails

  • Tail up – A relaxed but erect tail indicates a happy and approachable feline.
  • Tail down – This tail position is usually exhibited by a cat who is scared or threatened.
  • Tail moving slowly back and forth – Gentle “swishing” most often indicates uncertainty. This cat might be trying to assess a situation and determine how to react.
  • Tail moving rapidly back and forth – A cat’s wagging tail isn’t the same as a dog’s. Rapid tail-twitching means a cat is agitated or upset and should be left alone.
  • Bottle-brush tail – This is cat body language of last resort. The “Halloween look” means your cat is terrified! A puffed-up kitty is trying to look large and intimidating to a potential predator, such as a dog, or to another threat, such as a rival cat.

The Eyes Have It

  • Half Closed – Droopy lids indicate more than a sleepy kitty. These eyes also mean your cat is relaxed and trusting.
  • Slow Blinking – Slow blinking also lets you know that a cat feels safe and comfortable. This cat trusts you!
  • Dilated pupils – Not just a response to low light, dilated pupils can mean that a cat is surprised, scared or stimulated. A good time to observe this response to stimulation is when your cat is intensely involved in chase-play.
  • Constricted pupils – If surrounding light isn’t too bright, constricted pupils can mean your cat is tense or aggressive. If you see these eyes, watch your cat for other signs of irritation or angry behavior. If you can’t eliminate the cause of irritation, simply leave your cat alone.
  • Stare – “The Stare,” as with most mammals, including humans, most likely indicates a challenge from your cat. Walk away. You know you’ll never win.

Are You a Whisker Whisperer?

  • Set out from face – Whiskers set out from the face in a “normal” position are an example of relaxed, “business as usual” cat body language.
  • Set out and forward, stiffened – Bristling, forward-facing whiskers are exploring. These tell you a cat is inquisitive and showing interest.
  • Flat against face – This whisker position indicates fear and defensiveness.

Posture and Cat Body Language

  • Slow, deep breathing with claws tucked away – This indicates a relaxed and content cat. This cat also moves in a loose, easy-going manner.
  • Tense muscles – As with humans, tensing commonly indicates agitation or arousal. Freezing is the extreme of muscle tensing and indicates immanent “fight or flight” or “pounce” behavior.
  • Rapid, shallow breathing with extended claws – This cat is nervous, possibly frightened and is prepared to take defensive action.
  • Slinking/dropping low – This can be the familiar “stalking” or hunting posture. The prey may be real for outdoor cats or a favorite toy for indoor cats, but all cats assume the low stalk position when engaged in this natural behavior. Less commonly, however, dropping to the ground can be a sign of extreme fearfulness. It represents an attempt to hide by looking smaller. This is another time to test your knowledge of cat body language by looking for other clues to determine the exact nature of your cat’s behavior.
  • Lying on the back – This is a common sign that a cat trusts you, but it can also be a defensive posture. In play fighting or a real fight, cats will roll onto their backs and kick/claw their prey or opponent with their back feet. If you can scratch that fluffy belly without getting this response, you are officially a member of the inner circle!

Cat Behaviors that Talk

  • Rubbing – When cats rub against you, they are actually using glands in their bodies to mark you with their scent. This “possessiveness” isn’t just about territory, though. It’s also a sign of affection. After all, who isn’t a little possessive of the ones they love?
  • Kneading – That adorable “making biscuits” thing is actually a holdover from kittenhood. Nursing kittens massage their mother’s teats to encourage milk flow. A reflex of comfort and contentment, kneading is a behavior that adult cats engage in when they are really happy.
  • Licking – A regular part of normal grooming, licking can sometimes be a sign of an uneasy cat. Compare this to a “nervous habit,” similar to the way you and I might fidget with a ring, pen or other item when we feel agitated or awkward. A nervous cat may engage in sudden, excessive or overly vigorous licking and grooming.

Putting It All Together

Cats will often use several forms and combinations of body language to display their feelings. As a start, learn to recognize a happy cat. In addition, as cat people know, every cat is an individual with his or her own personality. Therefore, it’s best to interpret these communication signals as a whole, taking into account the surrounding circumstances and your own cat’s nature. Like us, cats can also send mixed signals if they are unsure of a situation. Your cat’s eyes and ears may say “I’m cool,” but his tail and body posture may tell you otherwise. If you notice a dramatic change in your cat’s overall demeanor or behavior, it could indicate an emotional or physical problem. Learn to determine if your kitty is suffering from physical discomfort, malaise or depression. Take time to observe and understand your cat’s various ways of communicating. You’ll gain admission to a rich world of feline “language,” and both you and your cat will benefit from deeper relations. And as always, at PugetPets, experienced “cat people” are standing by to care for your feline friends when you can’t be there. Rest assured, we speak fluent Cat.