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The essentials

  • Cats communicate in a variety of ways — Posture, tail movement, and ear position are just a few of the cues cats use to relay their needs.
  • Context should be taken into account — The environment or situation your cat is in will help you better understand their body language.
  • Consult your vet if you’re concerned about your cat’s behavior — If your cat is excessively vocalizing or exhibiting signs of illness, schedule a veterinarian appointment right away.

While many consider cats to be mysterious and hard to read, the truth is they’re excellent communicators — if you know how to speak their language. 

Owners should familiarize themselves with a cat’s body language, or the physical cues our whiskered friends use to articulate their needs. Whether your cat is purring, vocalizing, or pawing at you, there are several things they may be trying to say. Let’s dive in.

Common cat body language cues

Cats aren’t as aloof as they seem. They use their body to communicate with their humans, visitors, and other pets. Pay close attention to their movement and behavior to gauge their receptiveness to being pet, picked up, or played with.

Some cues can be both positive and negative depending on the situation, so you’ll have to look toward other signs or symptoms to understand what exactly your kitty is trying to say. Here are common physical cues that cats exhibit:

  • Vocalizing. Cats vocalize for many reasons. It can mean they’re happy, depressed, or hungry, depending on the scenario.
  • Kneading. Also referred to as “making biscuits,” kneading is when cats instinctively rub their paws against an object, person, or another pet. This could be their way of bonding with their humans, marking their territory, or relieving stress.
  • Pawing. Cats paw at their owners when they want attention or don’t want attention. If your cat does this while you’re not interacting with them, it likely means they want you to give them a good rub. If your cat pushes you away from them while you are petting them, then they’re probably telling you to back off.
  • Head jerking. If your kitty suddenly whips their heads towards you when you come near, they may just be startled by your presence. Back away so they don’t further perceive you as a threat.
  • Ear movement. You may have heard of “airplane ears,” which is when a cat flattens their ears and sticks them out to the side (like an airplane) when they’re afraid. Cats may also use their ears to express affection, surprise, or aggression.
  • Tail movement. A raised tail can be good or bad. If it’s whipping back and forth quickly, your kitty may be irritated. But a lazily swaying tail can represent a happy, calm cat. A tucked tail, on the other hand, almost always points to fear.
  • Whisker movement. Cats point their whiskers outwards when they’re content, and inwards when they’re agitated.
  • Staring. A consistent, unblinking stare is seen as a display of dominance, while a soft, droopy eyelid indicates trust.
  • Biting and scratching. Cats can’t make it any more clear that they feel threatened than by biting or scratching people. If this happens unprompted, training may be necessary to curb the behavior.

How cats communicate with their posture

Cats also communicate through their posture or positions they’re in. This is likely an evolutionary instinct carried over from their ancestral roots as predators. Here’s how to best interpret your feline friend’s posture:

  • Normal. A cat’s “normal” posture is relaxed with their head and body pointed toward you and a lazy tail.
  • Arched back. When fearful or tense, cats arch their backs up in the air to make themselves bigger and more threatening-seeming.
  • Crouched. Cats crouch low to the ground when they’re anxious or afraid, which acts as a springboard should they need to leap away from a perceived threat.

Belly up: to rub or not to rub

One widely held belief is that cats expose their bellies to their humans when they want to be rubbed. This likely stems from dogs, who do in fact assume this position when they’re yearning for a good stomach scratch or massage. And while this can be the case for cats, it’s also possible your kitty is lying on their back to bat away a potential aggressor — including your hand.

If your cat has their eyes closed in a relaxed position, you can probably assume they’ll be more receptive to belly rubs than one with their eyes wide open and alert. The more you get to know your feline friend’s personality, the more it should become clear what they’re asking for with an exposed stomach.


How cats communicate with their tails

A kitty’s tail can be quite expressive. Fear, excitement, and agitation are among the emotions cats use these appendages to communicate. Here are some common feline tail positions and what they mean:

  • Relaxed high tails. Cats with a relaxed, raised tail that curls at the tip are likely in friendly spirits.
  • Tense high tails. On the flip side, a cat may abruptly shoot their tail up high in the air to make themselves seem bigger in the face of a threat.
  • Tucked tails. A tail tucked low behind a cat’s rear is likely a sign of anxiety and fear. They’re essentially trying to make themselves a smaller target.
  • Flicking tails. Context is key when determining why your cat’s tail is quivering. They may be excitedly wagging their tail like a dog when you come home or are holding up a toy. Or they may be shaking their tail in fear when a different animal approaches them. Look at the situation and assess accordingly.

How cats communicate with their ears

You can also add ears to the list of body parts cats use to speak their mind. The more cats turn their ears backward or to the sides, the more unsettled they are likely to feel. Here are the common ear positions cats use to communicate:

  • Ears forward. The baseline for a cat’s ear should be forward and relaxed, suggesting they’re at ease.
  • Ears up straight. A cat’s ears will stand up straight when they’re on high alert, like hearing a voice coming from outside or a stranger approaching them.
  • Ears turned back. Cats turn their ears backward as a sign of aggression. Take this as a warning to back off.
  • Flattened ears. A common sign of fear in cats is flattened ears, which are sometimes called “airplane ears” because they stick out to the side like airplane wings and are typically present right before a cat bolts away.

How cats communicate with their eyes

To understand what your cat is saying with their eyes, look at how opened, closed, or dilated they are.

Here are different ways our feline friends communicate with their eyes:

  • Droopy eyes. A sign that your cat is trusting of you is that they’re gazing upon you with half-closed eyes.
  • Narrow eyes. In some cases, a cat may constrict their pupils when they’re about to pounce on someone or something. You can consider this look “attack mode.”
  • Wide open eyes. While wide-open eyes can be a sign of affection, they can also indicate your cat feels alarmed.
  • Dilated pupils. Cats’ pupils dilate when they suddenly become stimulated, either from fear, surprise, or excitement. Other body cues will be needed to determine which one.
  • Staring. A cat may resort to staring without blinking to assert their dominance when a threat is perceived.

A slow blink is a good blink

Has your cat ever slowly opened and closed their eyes while looking at you? Cats slow-blink at one another to communicate their affection, so it’s quite an honor when they do it to humans too. Next time it happens, slowly blink back at your cat to strengthen your bond.

How cats communicate with their whiskers

Although the aforementioned cues will give you more to work with, cats do also use their whiskers to express certain emotions. Whiskers pointing outwards are considered a sign of relaxation. Cats flatten their whiskers inwards towards their face when they’re agitated or afraid.

How cats communicate through vocalization

The most human-like way that cats communicate is by vocalizing their needs. Cats make a lot of sounds beyond the standard “meow,” and they all are intended to tell us something. So what exactly is your kitty yapping on about? Let’s take a look:

  • Purring. The most common way that cats communicate affection is through purring, but it can also be an indication of stress or sickness.
  • Hissing. A cat’s hiss is a warning that they will bite or scratch if you come closer. Unlike purring, you can always assume this is a negative body cue.
  • Meowing. From hunger to boredom to anxiety, there’s no shortage of reasons why a cat may resort to their trademark “meow.” Some cat breeds like American shorthairs and Siamese cats are chattier than others, so your cat may do this even when their needs are met.
  • Chirping and chattering. Cats “chirp and chatter” when they want to get to something they can’t, like a bird outside the window. Cats may also do this when they want attention from their humans or other pets.

👉 If your cat is vocalizing excessively, consult your vet to rule out an underlying health condition.

Cats are more expressive than they get credit for. As owners, the more you learn to “speak cat,” the more you’ll be able to address their needs and strengthen your bond with your furry friend. Remember that all cats are unique, and it may take time to learn your individual kitty’s personality and how that informs their body language.

Frequently asked questions

What is the body language of a happy cat?

A happy cat will have a normal, relaxed posture with their ears facing forward, eyes partially closed (or slow blinking), and their tail upright with a curl at the tip.

What is a cat’s body language when they are scared?

Cats who are scared will have “airplane ears” that flatten and stick out to the side, a tucked tail, and a crouched posture.

How do you tell if a cat imprinted on you?

Cats who have imprinted on you may communicate relaxed purrs or meows, as well as lay on you and follow you around.

What do cat postures mean?

Cat postures indicate how a cat is feeling. For example, a crouched cat may be trying to make themself smaller because they’re scared, while a cat with an arched back may be feeling threatened and ready to attack.

How do you tell if your cat loves you?

Slow blinks are a sign of trust from your cat. Kneading and purring are also considered signs of feline affection.