Cat Body Language and Behavior Guide

Cat Body Language and Behavior Guide

by ScritchSpot

Ever feel like your cat is trying to tell you something? There are a number of ways your cat communicates to you (some cat owners might argue that 90% of those are to ask for food), and at first, interpreting what your cat is trying to say might feel like trying to solve a puzzle. But after familiarizing yourself with the basic body language cues and behaviors of a cat, you’ll start to pick up on the patterns and understand how she is feeling. 

Talking the talk

Whether you have a chatty kitty or one that tends to be quieter, she has a number of different vocal sounds to express herself.

  • Meows: This sound is almost exclusively used to communicate with humans and not other cats. A cat will meow to say hello, beg for food or attention, or when they want something. Continuous meows indicate more urgency, whether your cat is particularly needy or possibly has an injury or illness. A silent meow can be a sign that your cat is hungry or dehydrated, or simply pretending to be, in hopes of getting you to shell out some extra food.
  • Chirps and trills: These bird-like sounds originate from a mother cat telling her kittens to pay attention and follow her. Your cat might chirp when she wants your attention (especially when the food bowl is empty!) or when she is excited and happy.
  • Chattering: While staring out the window at a squirrel or bird, you might hear your cat chatter her teeth. This sound comes from predatory excitement and her frustration at not being able to attack.
  • Yowling or caterwauling: This drawn-out moan can be a mating call or a way to complain and get your attention due to an unmet need.
  • Hissing and growling: A cat’s hiss indicates that they feel threatened and are ready to fight if they are further provoked.
  • Purring: You don’t have to be a cat expert to recognize this soft, rumbling sound. Cats tend to purr when they are relaxed and happy, especially while resting in your lap and being petted. If your cat is not content and relaxed but is purring, she might be using the purr as a way to self-soothe when she is nervous or in pain.

Body language cues

Though you can glean information from your cat through vocalizations, there is much more to be learned from her body language. 

Tail

  • Up, curved into a question mark shape: feeling happy and playful
  • Slowly waving back and forth: curious, focused, or trying to decide how they feel about something
  • Standing straight up and quivering: they are excited; unneutered cats are possibly getting ready to spray
  • Flicking/whipping back and forth: agitated
  • Puffed up/bristled tail: feeling fearful or preparing to attack
  • Tucked tail: feeling very anxious or fearful

Ears

  • Slightly forward: feeling playful or happy
  • Straight up: they are on high alert
  • Pinned to the side: feeling fearful or angry

Eyes

  • Fixated stare: ready to attack; perhaps they are watching a squirrel or bird out the window
  • Slow blinking: feeling safe and comfortable; this is their way of “smiling” at you

Whiskers and mouth

  • Flat against the face: feeling fearful
  • Forward and stiff: curious or interested in something
  • Licking their lips: (with no food present) feeling fearful
  • Excessive grooming: nervousness

Body

  • Arched back with relaxed fur: wanting to be petted—give your kitty some scritches behind the ears!
  • Classic Halloween cat pose: (arched back, tense muscles and bristled fur) feeling fearful or threatened
  • Lying on back purring: feeling comfortable and relaxed but will likely scratch if you go for a belly rub
  • Lying on back growling: upset and ready to strike

Behavior

In addition to these body language cues, your cat will also engage in certain behaviors that will give you further clues as to how she’s feeling. 

  • Kneading: cats typically knead when they are happy and content.
  • Rubbing against you or furniture: this is commonly interpreted as affection, but your cat is actually rubbing their scent to mark their territory.
  • Butt wiggling: this behavior occurs when your cat is stalking prey, whether it’s a bird out the window or a special toy, and is a precursor to pouncing.

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