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The essentials

  • Cats make many sounds — Meows, yowls, chirps, chatter, and hisses — cats have a large vocabulary.
  • That’s an expressive tail —The swish, flick, curl, or poof of a cat’s tail may indicate its overall mood.
  • Cats have a special sniffer — An organ in the roof of their mouths tells them even more than their noses about what certain smells mean.

Some people find cats to be aloof and poor communicators, but the truth is that they’re great at talking to their human companions, but we’re not always great at listening. Read our guide to decipher your cat’s body language and behaviors so you can build a more harmonious living space for you and your family.

Learn to speak “cat”

When trying to understand a cat’s body language, it’s important to look at your whole cat and not just one single cue. While there are a few exceptions, most of the time, one action can mean very different things, which makes understanding cats very confusing for new pet parents. It may be easier to think of it like this:

👉If you were a cat, how would you talk?

Cats communicate through posture, body language, and behavior. A significant portion of human communication is non-verbal as well. We just don’t typically notice the subtle cues that direct social interactions. New cat parents may have a basic understanding of cat tail language, but that’s it.

Common cat cues

Here are a few typical behaviors you may have noticed in your cat:

  • The lip curl. When cats get a whiff of an interesting smell, they’ll curl their lips, open their mouth slightly, and look like they are in intense thought as they process the new smell through a special organ in their mouth, the vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s organ.
  • Twitching while sleeping. Occasionally, feet and/or tails twitch while a cat dreams.
  • The zoomies. These sudden outbursts are your cat’s way of blowing off excess energy. It’s a harmless, healthy behavior (though you may want to stow your breakables.)

Understanding your cat’s body language is simply a matter of learning a new set of nonverbal cues and adjusting them slightly for each cat. Keep reading to learn more about how your cat expresses their mood.

How cats tell you they love you

Humans say “I love you” when they are happy and feeling affectionate.  Cats do too, but in their own way. From “gift” giving to following us into the bathroom, there are various ways cats tell us they are happy with their life and the people in it. 

It’s all in the face

Your cat’s eyes are captivating, but they are also communicative. Look for soft, half-shut eyes and moments where they slow blink at you. They are telling you that they are relaxed and love you. Grooming and soft “love bites” indicate love since cats are mutual groomers. It’s common in harmonious, multi-cat households to see cats groom each other.

Pay attention to posture

A cat’s relaxed posture and position can also indicate your cat’s mood and how happy or relaxed they are. They may expose their tummy (the ultimate sign of trust), and “loaf.” Yes, they look just like a loaf of bread with a cat head when they tuck their legs beneath their chest and belly.

Purring and kneading

A whole topic in and of itself, purring is a complicated communication with a few different meanings, but when paired with things like kneading, it’s a sign of contentment. Kneading, on the other hand, is almost always good. Called “making biscuits,” kneading is an innate behavior from birth. When healthy adult cats knead, it represents a period where they were content and happy. It’s also a way to put their scent on something.

Older cats are less likely to knead due to arthritis in their toes, and this can make it harder to shed the nail sheath from around their claws. This is how ingrown toenails occur and why it happens more to older cats than younger ones.

Dr. Erica Irish

Tail quivering

The tail quiver is your cat’s way of saying they are excited to see you. Along with vocalizations, rubs against you, and winding in between your feet, cats will often follow their owners around to be close to them or simply see what’s happening.

Here are some other ways cats show affection and tell us they are content with life:

  • They bring gifts. Cats have a built-in need and desire to hunt, even when their food needs have been met. They bring us their prey because it’s stopped moving, and they want us to make it move again.
  • Display their hindquarters. For both cats and dogs, scent plays a big role in communication. It’s how they get to know another animal. When cats present their backside to their people, they’re saying “hey,” and offering the opportunity to get to know them.

Decode signs of fear, stress, and aggression

Cats may be apex predators in their environment, but they still have a healthy sense of self-preservation. Cats and humans have similar sympathetic nervous systems — the “fight or flight response” — when faced with a perceived threat.

For cats, this often includes:

  • Low, slanted ears. Often called “airplane ears” for the way a cat’s ears stick out to the sides when they feel scared or threatened. 
  •  A defensive position. Dilated pupils and wide, alert eyes (also seen in playtime) may indicate fear. 
  • Tucked tail. Frightened cats will typically tuck their tail under their body.

Cats may also retreat to a safe hiding spot or run away.

Jump scares may not be enough of a stimulus to elicit running away and being upset, but for some more sensitive cats, it DOES happen that way! Cats are more about sensory processing than reasoning, so even if that same loud thing keeps making that same loud noise, it's easy for some kitties to get startled even when they've been startled by it before.

Dr. Erica Irish

Stressful situations and cat body language

Certain situations create stress for our cats, though perhaps not fear. Moving, meeting a new pet or person, or loud noises, for example, can be stressful. 

Cats that become withdrawn, reject attention they once craved, or become less tolerant of other pets or people may be stressed. They might suckle on blankets or soft clothing, lick their lips, swallow more often, or groom excessively as a way to cope. Their eating habits may change, and they may experience digestive upset. Surprisingly, some experts even theorize that purring is a self-soothing tool for stressed-out cats or a cat in pain. 

If the stress persists, your cat may try to tell you more directly. Excessive meowing and changes in the pitch or tone of that meow might be their way of getting your attention. Lastly, if bathroom accidents aren’t the result of a medical condition, it may be your cat’s way of letting you know that something isn’t right.

👉Go to the vet if there are changes to your cat’s eating habits or elimination. These may indicate a medical condition that requires prompt treatment.

Spot and prevent aggressive behaviors

Aggression typically happens when your cat is in a frightening or stressful situation that they aren’t able to escape. The reason many stereotypes arise about “mean cats” is that sometimes, we overlook the signs that our cat is scared or stressed until they communicate it in a dramatic way. No cat is inherently malicious or mean. Aggression is the last resort.

By learning to spot aggressive body language and behavior, pet owners can diffuse situations and prevent injury. Here are some of the signs of aggression in cats:

  • Hissing. For typical domestic house cats, any type of hissing is a warning. Loud, forceful hissing is a sign of aggression, though, and is often preceded by many softer hisses. Think of it as your cat building the volume and tone of a repeated request. Some cats even spit.
  • Fluffy tail. Tails that are standing erect and puffed out are a way for cats to appear bigger and more threatening. Some cats even wag their tail during confrontations. 
  • Posturing. Angry cats might stay low to the ground or arch their backs and approach with a sideways, crab-like walk. This depends more on the situation, threat, and the cat’s disposition. 
  • Biting and scratching. It’s their last line of defense, but it’s an effective one.

👉Deep bites from any cat should be seen by a medical professional. Keep vaccinations up-to-date and records readily available according to your local regulations.

All cats are different. Genetics, overall health, socialization, and past life experiences may make some cats more reactive than others. Get to know a new cat and allow time to read that cat’s particular body language. You’ll be able to determine if they are relaxed or a generally reactive or nervous pet.

3 tips to prevent frightening and stressful situations

You’ve learned how to decipher cat body language, but perhaps the best course is to avoid the very  situations that cause fear or stress. Here are a few techniques used and approved by betterpet staff members.

Provide ample hiding spaces — Create a high place for cats to perch; drape tablecloths over corner tables; or set up cat trees with cubby holes. You can also upcycle unused plastic shelving or drawers by cutting out archways.

Offer treats — Sit on the floor away from your cat and gently toss them their favorite treat. To make it less threatening, try to throw it so that it rolls at least a few inches.

Give them space — If treats don’t work, assume that the best way you can support your cat is by leaving them alone and giving them space. Let them come to you if that’s what they need.

Signs that your cat wants to hunt or play

Playtime is the best time for cats. Not only is it an opportunity to bond, but they get to sharpen their hunting skills and blow off energy stored up from their 20 hours of naptime. 

When cats want to play, they tend to stalk their favorite toy (or your ankles). They’ll crouch low with their backside lifted and watch their “prey” with wide, alert eyes. Their ears typically face forward and might even twitch as they learn as much as they can about the object of their fascination.

It's inappropriate play/behavior to [attack ankles]. If they have enough toys and environmental enrichment, your ankles should be safe!

Dr. Erica Irish

Once they are locked on, the butt wiggle starts. There are numerous ideas about why a cat will wiggle their backside in preparation for a pounce, but it’s a trait shared by big cats and house cats alike. The most popular idea is that cats are testing their balance, the stability of the ground beneath their paws, and preparing their muscles to spring into action and secure their next meal — or your bare toes.

When they pounce, they’ll grab their prey, wrestle it to the floor with their teeth and claws, and then kick it with their hind feet. This “rabbit punch” is painful for bare hands, but for house cats, it’s a form of play (albeit stemmed from powerful hunting instincts.)

Get moving toys and things they can chase to get out their hunting drive. Always reward them at the end with a treat or something they enjoy so they don't become frustrated with the inability for the hunt to truly end (i.e. they get to enjoy their prey).

Dr. Erica Irish

More cat body language to watch for

While our cats are often quite expressive when it comes to the food bowl or getting into the catio, there are other times that the only indication of what they are experiencing might be their body language. Here are some additional signs that your feline companion might need your attention.

  • Yowling and/or howling. While this is sometimes a behavior of unaltered male cats or cats suffering from cognitive dysfunction, typically it indicates that your cat is feeling distressed and looking for you. 
  • Loafing during winter. While loafing is often nothing to worry about, for breeds without an undercoat, or who have thin or sparse fur, it can indicate that they are too cold and are trying to preserve body heat.
  • Drooping tail and ears. A low, drooping tail and ears that are facing out and somewhat down can indicate illness and general unwellness. Look for other signs of sickness like listlessness, dull eyes, and changes in appetite or bathroom habits.

For seasoned cat parents, reading feline body language seems like an innate trait. Even for those nicknamed “cat whisperers,” it’s still a matter of learning how to read cues and pull from experience to determine what a cat is saying. Getting to know a cat’s personality, and keeping these cat body language meanings in mind, will go a long way toward creating a stress-free environment for everyone.

Frequently asked questions

What is the body language of a happy cat?

Happy cats are typically relaxed and will lay on their side or back, groom one another, purr, or quiver their tail in excitement. Some cats are even quite vocal and will make numerous vocalizations.

How do you tell if a cat likes you?

When cats ease their guard, expose their stomach, purr, or go to you for attention and pets, it’s a sign they like you. A word of caution: The exposed tummy is irresistible but for some cats, petting it is a big no-no.

What’s the difference in body language between cats and dogs?

The biggest difference in body language between cats and dogs is in how they interact with others. Dogs’ ears tend to point to the sides in a friendly gesture, while cats face forward. And, while some cats will show their side as a threat to appear larger, dogs do it as a friendly gesture.

Is there such a thing as animal non-verbal body language?

All communication by almost all animals is non-verbal. However, barking and meowing are examples of audible communication. When adult cats meow, it’s typically for the benefit of humans and not each other.