Cats are mysterious creatures, but their body language gives you big clues to your cat’s mood. As an avid cat lover and someone who has had cats all my life, I wanted to know more about how cats communicate with each other and the people in their homes.
So, I started to dig in and did a lot of research. I learned a ton of great information. And to my surprise, I found out that cats aren’t so mysterious after all. I rounded up everything I learned and laid it out for you below in hopes that it’ll help you get a good read on your cat as well.
Understanding Context and Body Language
Before we get into the different indicators of your cat’s mood, you have to understand the context. It is very important because your cat’s body language can change depending on their context.
For example, my cat is a very confident feline, and she carries her tail very high in the air, vertically. Usually, this means that she’s open to interacting and comfortable. However, if she were trying to defend the house from a stray cat, she’d hold her tail high in the air as a sign to attack. So, the vertical tail can represent an aggressive cat or a confident cat.
So, when you try to gauge how your cat is feeling, you’ll want to take the situation into consideration with the physical cues. You want to try and see things from your cat’s perspective. Just because someone has good intentions when they approach their cats, they end up getting bitten or scratched and blame the cat for being mean. They’re missing how the cat could have perceived their approach.
You have to consider whether a situation makes your cat feel safe or makes them feel anxiety and fear. I know that if my cat is in a dark, small space like the back of the closet where she likes to hide, approaching her induces stress because she can’t get away as easily. But, if she’s lounging on the top of her cat tree, she has plenty of areas to run off too.
If your cat is familiar with everything around, then like the people, other pets, and sounds, the cat will naturally feel safer. You have to take all their senses into consideration to help get an accurate representation of how your cat may feel at any given moment.
The key is to look at the big picture first. However, this can be overwhelming. What I like to do is look at all the small parts of my cat’s body language and piece it together to form the whole puzzle. This gets easier the more you do it once you know exactly what to look for in your cat’s posture, ears, tail, eyes, whiskers, and their vocalizations. I’ll also outline a few key indicators that your cat feels relaxed, focused, happy, anxious, frustrated, fearful, relieved, or angry.
Reading Your Cat’s Body Posture
Did you know that cats evolved as both prey and predators? When your cat runs into a threatening situation, they can feel like they’re the prey. When this happens, they get scared. This fear manifests in their body posture. They’ll make themselves as small as possible in order to reduce the area that is exposed to whatever is scaring them.
If your cat is crouched down into a small ball with their legs under them, they can be feeling anxious or worried. This posturing gets them lower to the ground and hides their more vulnerable belly. On the other end of the spectrum, your cat could stretch out. When they do this, it shows that they’re not feeling threatened. And they’re voluntarily exposing more of their body.
But, there’s a big difference in your cat stretching out because they’re relaxed and trying to make themselves appear bigger. If your cat is ready to fight or go on the defensive, they’ll try to make themselves as large as they possibly can.
You’ve seen cats that put their back all of the ways up and stand sideways. This makes them look much bigger, especially if their hair stands up. In turn, they can intimidate whatever is scaring them, and it’s a good indicator that you should leave the cat alone. This is usually accompanied by spitting, hissing, and showing teeth.
Cats also do this neat thing where they point their body in the direction they’re most likely to go. It’s called forecasting. If your cat stands sideways while looking at you, they could feel threatened and want to have a quick escape route. When they stand like this, they have an important advantage. If your cat crouches down pointed away from you, they can jump up and run quickly.
If your cat wants your attention, they’ll point their head and body toward you. A sign of trust is your cat laying facing away from you. This usually means your cat is letting their guard down. They’ll most likely trill or give you some indication that they acknowledge you if you touch them in this instance.
Cat Laying on Their Back
We’ve all been there. You walk into a room, and your cat is sprawled out on their back. You feel an irresistible urge to go pet their belly. After all, they’re exposing it to you. And it looks so soft. While it’s true that your cat exposing their bellies is usually a sign of trust, it can be a trap as well. You may touch your cat’s belly just to feel them tense up before their razor-sharp teeth and claws sink into your hand.
This is why it’s important to treat your cat’s exposed belly with caution and look at the context. It could mean security, trust, or relaxation. However, it could also mean that your cat is ready to attack because the claws and feet are right there.
My cat loves to lay with her belly exposed, but I know she’ll latch onto my hand if I try to pet her. This is why it’s essential that you take your cat’s personality into consideration before you touch them when they lay like this. Some cats will tolerate it, and some won’t want anything to do with it.
Your Cat’s Ears
Your cat’s ears are very noticeable. And this makes them a quick resource to use to find out your cat’s general mood. If your cat holds their ears in the normal position with them facing forward, your cat is feeling engaged, relaxed, or confident. If your cat’s ears are straight up, this is a sign that your cat is increasing their exposure levels. It also indicates that they ready to play or very alert.
When a cat turns their ears back, they’re fearful or angry. Another position that usually means fear is when your cat flattens their ears to the side. Many cat parents call this airplane ears. When you look at your cat’s ears, look at their eyes as well. The larger their pupils are when their ears are back, the more afraid they are.
My cat isn’t the most social thing in the world. And she likes to have a quiet place to escape and hide during busy times in the household. For her, she goes under the bed. If I start looking for her too soon, she can feel threatened. In response, she makes herself as small as she possibly can. And this includes putting her ears back.
If you’re still unsure about your cat’s ear positions, the short guide below can help.
- Ears Facing Forward – When your cat has their ears facing slightly forward, they’re likely feeling playful or content. It’s usually safe to approach them.
- Ears Straight Up – Your cat’s ears will most likely stand at attention when your cat is on alert and taking in their surroundings. You can approach your cat when they’re like this, but exercise caution.
- Ears Facing Back – Your cat is giving you a very obvious signal that they’re overstimulated or irritated when they point their ears back. It’s best to leave them alone at this point.
- Ears Facing Back or Turned Sideways – Your cat is anxious or nervous over something. And you should use caution around any cat when their ears are in this position.
- Ears Pinned Back Against the Head – When your cat holds their ears like this, it’s almost guaranteed that they feel threatened, scared, or defensive. They can be aggressive and lash out too. Either way, you want to give your cat a lot of space if their ears look like this.
Your Cat’s Tail
Your cat’s tail is always moving, and you can tell a lot about your cat’s mood by looking at it. It’s one of the first things both humans and other cats notice. I mentioned that a high tail that sticks straight up is a sign that your cat is comfortable, friendly, and confident. When your cat has their tail low, it’s a good sign that they’re anxious or afraid.
If your cat is very afraid of something or someone, they may even tuck their tail between their legs to make themselves look smaller to whatever is scaring them. A tail that has the hair puffed out and held high is the exact opposite. If your cat does this, they’re trying to look much bigger and be more intimidating.
- Tail is Up – Your cat is cheerful, content, or happy. It’s usually safe to approach and interact with your cat if their tail is up. Just make sure they’re aware of you before you touch them.
- Tail is Down – If your cat’s tail is down, it’s a good indication that your cat is feeling either threatened or scared by something. It could be another cat, pet, or someone new in the house.
- Tail Swishes Rapidly from Side to Side – Unlike a dog that wags their tails quickly back and forth to indicate they’re happy, a cat’s rapidly swishing tail is a sign of agitation. You should leave your cat alone until they calm down.
- Tail Swishes Slowly from Side to Side – Your cat will typically move their tail slowly from side to side if they’re unsure about something and trying to figure it out. You can approach your cat but use caution.
- Tail is Puffed Out – Cats can and do puff out their fur, and it’s usually not a good sign. If your cat puffs out the hair on their tail, they’re trying to intimidate whatever is scaring them. The same goes if your cat puffs out their tail and holds it down.
Cats Flicking or Vibrating Their Tails
Your cat can vibrate and flick their tails too. When I come home from going out, my cat greets me with her tail quivering or vibrating. She usually wants me to pick her up and pay attention to her. And she won’t leave me alone until I do.
On the other hand, flicking is a sign of alertness or agitation. My cat can be very moody some days. When she isn’t feeling it and wants me to leave her alone, she’ll lay there and flick her tail. If I pet her, she’ll go from tolerant to upset very quickly. So, I steer clear to avoid upsetting her until she comes to me.
Your Cat’s Eyes
Your cat’s tail, posture, and ears will probably fill in most of the clues to your cat’s mood. But if you’re still not sure what your cat is feeling, look at their eyes. Specifically, focus on your cat’s pupil. They’ll tell you how stimulated or relaxed your feline is feeling at any moment.
If your cat’s pupils get large and dilated, this means they’re stimulated over something. It could mean your cat is feeling playful. Dilated pupils can also mean excitement, fear, or anger. Again, this is where context comes in. Is your cat in a situation where they’d be afraid or relaxed?
- Pupils Dilated – Large pupils can indicate that your cat is scared, surprised, or stimulated. Look at their other body parts to see how they look.
- Pupils Constricted – If there isn’t bright light in the room and your cat’s pupil is constricted or slit, this is a good indication that your cat is feeling aggressive or tense. If there’s direct light, the pupil will constrict to help your cat’s sight.
- Half Closed Eyes – You’ve seen your cat lounging around the house. When they look at you, they have those droopy, half-closed eyes. This is an excellent sign that your cat trusts you, and they’re very relaxed.
- Staring – Does your cat stare right into your eyes a lot? If so, they’re most likely challenging you. You can stare back or break eye contact.
If your cat blinks slowly and you see it, they’re trying to tell you that they’re happy or relaxed. If your cat looks you in the eye and blinks slowly, they trust you and are not threatened by you being around them.
Personally, I love slow blinking back at my cat when I catch her slow blinking in my direction. But, you have to soften your entire face before you blink back. She seems to do it most when she’s lounging in her favorite chair in the sun. We’ll trade slow blinks back and forth a few times, and I feel like it helps us bond.
Your Cat’s Whiskers
Your cat’s whiskers are vitally important to them. They’re thicker, longer, and they embed much deeper into your cat’s skin than normal hair. Each whisker has a sensory receptor attached to the end of it. This is what communicates touch and vibrations to your cat’s brain. They’re extremely sensitive tactile organs that can connect the softest air movements. Whiskers serve as a type of GPS and a measuring device for your cat.
Each cat has three sets of whiskers on their face. They have the superciliary on their eyebrows, the mandibular on their chins, and the mystacial on their muzzles. There are 12 mystacial whiskers in four rows on each side of your cat’s muzzle. The two upper rows of whiskers can move forward and backward independently from the two bottom rows. This is where you’ll look for your cat to communicate their mood to you.
- Neutral Position – If your cat has their whiskers in a neutral position on the side of their face, they’re relaxed, content, or happy.
- Perked Position – Your cat will pull their whiskers forward and fan them out while keeping their mouth closed and their lips loose. They make their muzzle look plump when their whiskers are in this position, and it means your cat is interested and engaged. You see it when they hunt around the house.
- Back Position – As your cat’s levels of anxiety, fear, and stress go up, their whiskers move to a backward position. If their levels go higher, the whiskers can pull back almost tight against your cat’s face. Their ears will move to the side at the same time.
- Tight to the Face Position – Your cat’s ears and whiskers will give you huge clues to your cat’s aggression levels. The ears will usually be flat to the head with the whiskers tight to the face. If your cat goes into an offensive position, their ears and whiskers will point forward.
- Forward Position – If your cat’s whiskers are forward with an increased flattening of their cheek, nose, or muzzle, this is a good indicator that your cat is in pain. Your cat’s face will almost look very tense.
Never Cut Your Cat’s Whiskers
You should never cut your cat’s whiskers. Since they’re extremely sensitive, cutting their whiskers can be a painful experience. However, it also makes it difficult for your cat to navigate their environment. In turn, your cat can get disoriented and afraid.
Also, never tug on your cat’s whiskers. This can also be a painful experience for your cat. Even trimming the ends of your cat’s whiskers can be enough to make them very dizzy and disoriented.
Your cat will periodically shed their whiskers and replace them with new ones. However, they shouldn’t lose more than one or two at once.
Your Cat’s Vocalizations
Although you could argue that vocalizations aren’t necessarily body language for your cat, it is a very important indicator of your cat’s mood. Cats can make more than 100 unique vocal sounds. They may use these vocalizations combined with various body language cues to let you know how they’re feeling.
Aggression or Fear
When your cat tries to communicate with you that they’re afraid or mad, they may cycle through a list of vocalizations. They will get louder as your cat’s anger or fear levels grow. First, your cat will growl as a warning to get away.
Next, your cat will hiss at you. Hissing allows your cat to tell whatever is scaring them or making them mad that they’re feeling threatened and are ready to run or fight. It’s also an effective way for your cat to flash those pointed fangs. Your cat will yowl next. This is a piercing shriek of a noise that your cat lets out when they feel like they don’t have many options left. And they’re about to run or fight.
Chattering or Chirping
When your cat chatters or chirps, they’re making these noises for the same reasons. If they see prey nearby and they can’t attack it like when they look through a window and see a bug, they’ll chatter or chirp. Both of these noises signal that your cat is excited but frustrated.
A cat meows for dozens of reasons. It could mean that your cat is hungry, or could simply be in a chatty mood and want your attention. You should analyze your cat’s meow while looking at their other body language and posture.
However, your cat shouldn’t constantly meow. If they do, this could be a sign that something is wrong. If they won’t quit and seem like they’re in pain, it’s time to take a trip to the vet. If they meow every day, your breed may just be one of the more vocal breeds like a Siamese, Sphynx, Oriental Shorthair, Burmese, or Japanese Bobtail.
When your cat purrs, you’ll automatically think it’s a good sign. However, it’s not guaranteed. Purring may be a big sign of relaxation or pleasure, but some cats also purr when they’re in pain. Your veterinarian may tell you that it’s possible your cat’s purring will go up with their pain levels as a way to self soothe.
Trilling sounds like a purr in a higher pitch. When cats are kittens, their mothers will trill to communicate with them. When your cat trills, they’re usually feeling friendly. My cat loves to trill to greet me in the mornings.
Putting Cat Body Language All Together
Okay. I realize I threw a lot of information at you all at once. So, we’ll put everything together to make it easy to understand. You can then use this guide to decode your own cat’s body language.
- A cat that is angry will hold themselves in a rigid posture with their tail either curled around their body or held stiff and straight out.
- Your cat will act differently, and they may hiss, growl, spit, or be silent.
- They may puff up to make themselves look bigger with stiff front legs, fur erect, or they can crouch down.
- The ears will be flat against their head and tense with their whiskers held stiffly away from their face.
- They’ll keep their eyes focused with narrowed pupils.
- Your cat may swivel their ears around to take in everything or flatten them back.
- The pupils will dilate out while your cat holds their eyes wide open and unblinking.
- Their whiskers will pull back while they lower their head to seem smaller.
- As they get more anxious, your cat could start to arch their back.
- Your cat’s tail is a big giveaway here. If the tip is moving slowly side to side, reassure them.
- Your cat may lower their head, gaze upwards, and flatten their ears back.
- They may run or crouch and sit still.
- Hissing, spitting, growling, or striking with claws out is common.
- Your cat will open their eyes wide and dilate their pupils while flattening their whiskers.
- The tale can swish from side to side in a rapid movement, or they’ll tuck it under their body.
- Some cats arch their backs and puff out their hair to look bigger.
- Your cat will have narrow pupils with their eyes wide open.
- The body will angle toward whatever has their attention, and they’ll prick their whiskers forward.
- They’ll hold their tail out behind them. It may twitch as they get ready to pounce on their target.
- They could sink close to the ground and coil their legs under them.
- If you’re the object of their attention, your cat could rub against you and hold their tail straight in the air.
- An actively frustrated cat will make a point to stare at whatever frustrates them.
- They’ll point their ears forward, have their eyes wide open and dilated, and point their whiskers forward.
- They can pace back and forth.
- Your cat should eventually give up, but long-term frustration can lead to depression.
- When your cat is relaxed and sitting down, they point their ears forward and swivel them toward your voice.
- When your cat lays down, they tuck their feet underneath them, or they could lie sprawled out.
- Your cat’s eyes will be half-opened. This is where that slow blink comes in.
- The tail will be still, and the whiskers relaxed. If they’re standing, their tail may have a slight curl.
- They’ll most likely close their eyes and purr if you stroke them.
- It’s possible for your cat to show relief with their whole body by going into a full-body stretch.
- The head, ears, eyes, tail, and body all visibly relax.
- Some cats will yawn, have a wash, or sit with half-closed eyes.
- The whiskers will return to a neutral position.
- Their eyes are half-closed or blinking slowly.
- Your cat could curl up into a ball, stretch out, or tuck their front paws under them.
- There is no tension in their body.
- The whiskers will relax away from the sides of your cat’s face.
- They’ll relax their ears or swivel them around.
Understanding cat body language can be challenging when you first start looking for clues. However, your cat will tell you all you need to know. You can use this guide to help decode your cat’s behavior and bond with your furry friend.
Brian is a proud cat parent and animal enthusiast who lives in the Northwestern United States with two cats. In his spare time, Brian likes traveling around with his pets, exploring new places, and writing. Sharing what he learned over the years of cat ownership brings him joy, and the cats teach him something new every day.