Do you have a cat or thinking of getting one? If so, it’s good to know about cat behavior and cat body language! With this handy guide, you’ll be able to decode your cat’s moods, understand the situation, and be able to respond to their behavior quickly and efficiently.
Part of understanding cat body language is understanding the distinct sounds or vocalizations, felines make. Here’s a breakdown of the most common cat sounds and what a cat is communicating when they make them.
This is the most common sound associated with cats. This simple sound is your cat’s main way of communicating and can represent many emotions!
Cats often meow when they enter a room to greet their owners or to ask for attention from them. Cats may also meow to welcome their people when they get home or to “reply” when their owners talk to them.
But, a meow can also indicate illness or feelings of loneliness. Pay attention to the length of the meow, as it gives you a sense of the cat’s state of mind.
Long, drawn-out meows can be the equivalent of a human crying and feelings of sadness and despair. Quick meows are a way of communicating that they want attention.
If your cat won’t stop meowing, especially when you’re not in the room, seek professional advice to make sure there are no underlying medical conditions.
Chirps and trills
This is a hard sound to describe, especially since it’s not a typical cat sound. It’s also sometimes called chattering, as if the cat is trying to speak.
It’s believed that this is the sound felines make when they’re in their natural hunting mode. You can expect to hear this sound when a cat is stalking birds or prey, or even watching them from a window or in a catio. Chirping is a cat’s way of mimicking a bird’s sound, encouraging their prey to come closer.
Chirping or trilling also indicates concentration as a cat watches their prey, or frustration if they can’t reach them.
Chirping or trilling at a higher pitch can also mean excitement.
Other than meowing, the most common cat sound is purring. Purring is often a sign of pleasure. If the cat’s purring is soft, and a low rumble, they’re calm and settled. A cat will have a content purr where they’re groomed, petted, or comforted by their owner. Purring is a way cats express happiness.
But purring isn’t always a sign that your cat is content and settled. Cats can also purr when they’re in pain or feeling uncomfortable. Purring can be soothing in the same way a child might suck their thumb.
If your cat won’t stop purring, go to your veterinarian for advice and an examination.
Growling, hissing, or spitting
Hissing is usually a sign of aggression or fear. Expect to hear hissing when a cat feels threatened or angry.
Cats usually only hiss at other cats or animals rather than humans, especially in disputes over territorial boundaries with another cat. If they’re very agitated or frightened they may hiss at you or other humans.
If your cat is hissing without any noticeable threat around, it could be a sign that they’re in pain or feeling unwell. (2) If the hissing continues, seek advice from a vet for a diagnosis.
Yowling is a way for cats to communicate that they’re unhappy with something.
A yowl is a long, drawn-out moan. It means the cat’s worried, uncomfortable, or concerned. It can be an indication of digestion and gastrointestinal issues, or it has to do with unneutered and unspayed cats mating.
It can also be a way they express that there’s something in their environment they’re anxious or angry about. A newly adopted cat might yowl because they feel insecure or confused in an unfamiliar environment.
If your cat won’t stop yowling, call your vet. It might be time for a check-up to make sure there’s no underlying medical cause.
Chattering, chittering or twittering
When a cat chatters, they’re excited and hunting. If the cat doesn’t catch its prey, these sounds change to chittering.
Another familiar cat sound is a caterwaul. The caterwaul has a hollow and almost haunting tone to it. This is a way for unspayed female cats to communicate that they’re ready to mate with another cat.
Screams are extremely loud, drawn-out, and high-pitched. They’re often followed by snarling, deep throaty growls, and yowling.
When an unspayed female cat is outdoors and mating with a male cat, she’ll often let off a scream.
Cats also scream when they’re involved in a fight and hurt, or when they’re defending their territory from other cats.
You can stop your cat from screaming by keeping them indoors—especially at night when other free-roaming cats are on the prowl.
Snarling often begins as a high-pitched yowl. It’s very characteristic of feral, or community, cats.
A snarl indicates fear or that another animal has become a territorial threat. Cats use this fierce-sounding vocalization to defend their territory.
Snarling is also a way for an anxious or insecure cat to show they’re feeling threatened.
If your cat is snarling, assess the situation. Are they in danger from another animal? Or struggling to adapt to a new cat or kitten you adopted? If they are, separate them and remove your cat from the situation.
Cat body language
Equipped with 32 muscles and extraordinary hearing ability a cat’s ears are one of the most finely tuned parts of their body. (They can even turn them a whole 180 degrees!) Paying attention to your cats’ ears can also help you pick up on subtle social cues and the emotions your cat is expressing. Here are some of the main ones to look out for.
Low and sideways pointing ears
Also called “airplane ears” this is when your cat’s ears lower, slightly flatten and point outwards. As the name describes, it looks as though they’re airplane wings! Cats will often have “airplane ears” when they’re fearful or anxious. In some cases, low, sideways pointing ears can also be a sign of aggression.
Ears flat and back
If your cat’s ears flatten entirely to the point where they’re flush against the back of their head, watch out. This is a red flag that your cat is feeling seriously angry, threatened, fearful, or aggressive. If not heeded, they could lash out and attack with their claws or teeth.
Ears straight forward
A cat whose ears are straight forward is feeling playful or content. They’re in a peaceful state of mind and don’t feel anxious, uncertain, or agitated.
Also called “radar ears” this is when your cat’s ears perk up and swivel. Cats with radar ears are on high alert and are often expressing caution and unease. Be mindful of their body language. Cats will often be in a crouched or tightly curled position when they’re feeling especially fearful.
Twitching ears can occur when your cat is listening intently. But, more often than not twitchy ears have an underlying medical issue like ear mites, an ear infection, allergies, or skin irritation.
A cat’s tail helps them keep their balance, walk along a narrow spaces, such as a fencesor along shelves and while they’re chasing after their prey.
Your cat’s tail is also a huge part of how they communicate with you and other animals. It’s a tell tale sign about how they’re feeling and how they might act. Here’s what to look out for.
Tail between legs
The tail between the legs is usually a classic expression of submission or defeat. The stance, along with growling or hissing sounds, could mean a cat is being defensive or fearful.
Tail straight up
This is a sign that your cat is happy and in a pleasant mood. When their tail is up, they’re showing that they’re friendly and looking to greet you or get attention. Cats often have their whiskers forward and their head lifted confidently when their tail is in this position. They’ll often bunt you playfully with their head or affectionately rub their cheeks and body on your leg or hand.
Puffed out tail
If you’ve ever dropped a cast-iron skillet on the kitchen floor or were watching an action movie with sudden, loud explosions chances are you’ve experienced this puffed-out tail first hand.
A puffed-out or bristled tail is often the way your cat’s body instinctively reacts to being startled. Part of this comes down to their biology and ancestors, wherein the wild, when faced with a threat this would help the cat appear larger and more menacing.
A bushy tail is also a way for your cat to express fear and anxiety, especially in territorial disputes with other cats.
Twitching tail tip
A twitching tail tip is characteristic of your little obligate carnivore’s predatory nature.
When a cat hunts, it will crouch and keep its belly low to the ground, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.
Twitching tail tips are also commonly seen in indoor cats during an engaging round of playtime. Playing with your cat with wand toys, catnip, mice, and battery-operated toys lets them express their instincts. As they stalk their “prey” their tail twitches with the same concentration and focus as it would if they were hunting in the wild.
Tail rapidly moving back and forth
If a cat’s tail is wagging it’s a sign that they may be agitated, overstimulated, frustrated, or feeling aggressive. Their tails quickly thrashing movement can also be accompanied by snorting, growling, dilated pupils, and flattened ears.
Slowly moving back and forth
If your cat’s tail is moving back and forth in a slow movement, they might be trying to weigh up a situation. It’s often a sign of uncertainty and unease. To avoid frightening your cat or startling them into aggression it’s best to not engage and leave them alone until their body gets into a more relaxed state.
When a cat thumps their tail you can be sure of one thing: they’re ticked off. If your cat is agitated with you or another cat or animal you may notice this behavior. Tail thumping can be followed by narrowing or squinting eyes, low growling, and your cat curling their lips to show off their teeth.
Like us, cats have a range of emotions. Cats use their body language to share how they’re feeling with their human caregivers and with other cats.
Pay attention to the overall appearance/impression of the cat – is she tense with sharp quick movements, or is she loose with fluid, rounder movements? The former being an upset or angry cat, the latter being a happy comfortable cat.
Tummy up pose
A cat that is stretched out on the floor with its belly exposed is often a sign of trust, could contentment, and playfulness. Cats will often flop into the tummy-up pose if they have a close and loving bond with their human caregiver. Some cats will allow their favorite human to gently stroke their belly when they’re in this position. They may start purring or trilling and their ears will be in a natural upright position when they feel this way.
This is because some cats use the belly-up pose when they’re feeling defensive or aggressive. This is because from this position they can claw and scratch with all four paws. Keep an eye out for a thumping tail, dilated pupils, and twitching or flattening ears. This can indicate that it’s best to step away and not touch the cat.
The danger flop
The “danger flop” as one of our readers calls it, is when your kitty lays belly up inviting the belly rub but springs the trap of teeth and claws trap in play when you touch her.
Standing with a relaxed body
If a cat is standing in a neutral upright position they tend to be happy and relaxed. Their ears will be straightforward and upright and their tail will often be sticking up with its tip curved. They may be meowing, purring, or making other cheerful vocalizations.
Lying down with body flattened
A cat that’s lying down flat on the floor with their ears flattened back is feeling stressed or threatened. The cat will often curl their tail around or very close to their body and tightly tuck their paws, arms and legs under their body. This position suggests that they’re anxious or upset and want to be left alone.
Walking sideways with back arched
Cats walking sideways with their back arched typically feel one of three ways: fearful, aggressive, or defensive. They often hold their body tensed up, bristle their fur out, flatten their ears, and growl or hiss.
Kittens and young cats will sometimes playfight with their littermates and feline friends in this position.
There are also some health conditions, like vestibular disorders or inner ear damage that can cause sideways walking. These cats usually won’t have the fluffed out hair, which helps to differentiate. Keep an eye out for a tilted head, clumsy movements, and unfocused or darting eyes. This can indicate a lack of balance and disorientation, not fear, aggression, or defensiveness, and requires immediate veterinarian treatment.
The loaf of bread
When your cat tucks their paws under their body and assumes the adorable “loaf of bread” pose, you can be certain of one thing: they’re in their happy place. Their tail is often loosely tucked around or under their body, their rump is rounded, and their eyes are either softly focused or closed entirely. Cats falling asleep in the loaf of bread position are calm, content, and feel secure and safe.
The classic Halloween cat
The Halloween-cat stance is a classic pose that signals a cat’s feeling fearful. In the Halloween-cat stance, their fur bristles up and stands on end, their back arches, their tail either drops low or flares up and they sometimes break into a hiss or a snarl. Cats often assume this defensive and frightened pose when they’re feeling threatened by another cat or animal or are suddenly startled.
You can read a lot into your cat’s emotions just by looking into their eyes. Here are some of the feelings your cats express through their pretty peepers.
When a cat’s pupils dilate wide (4), they’re likely feeling anger, fear, excitement or playfulness. You often see the latter happen before a cat pounces on a toy, or finishes feasting on (and rolling in) catnip. Wide pupils might also mean the cat is anxious, stressed or overstimulated. Look for other body language clues —are they trying to swipe at you or bite you? Or are they sitting still and looking tense?
Be mindful of your environment too. Wide pupils can also mean your cat is anxious or uncomfortable, especially if they’re on their way to the vet clinic, or a loud thunderstorm is raging outside.
When your cat’s pupils narrowed to thin slits it can mean several things.
It could be a physiological response. For example, they may be adjusting to a sudden bright light, like if they’re laying in their window seat and sunshine streams into their face.
More often it’s behavioral and mood related. Thin slitted pupils often indicate your cat is in a heightened state of emotion.
This could be excitement, fear, aggression, or even pleasure.
Take note of your cat’s ears and tail to get a better read on which emotion they may be feeling.
Unblinking direct stare
An unblinking direct stare from your cat is often a threatening and confrontational action. It’s a warning that they may lash out or attack. Maintaining eye contact with a cat who is unblinking and in an offensive stance could put you at a risk of injury.
In multi-cat households cats also unblinkingly stare at other cats if they’re feeling especially territorial. It often happens when there are limited resources. A lack of toys, food, litter boxes, and space can cause this display of aggression.
Bloodshot eyes with constricted pupils
Pin-prick sized pupils and bloodshot, squinting eyes can indicate that your cat is in pain or has an illness. It can be a case of inflammation, a bacterial infection, cornea trauma, or other eye-related diseases or conditions.
If one of your cat’s pupils is larger than the other it’s a sign that something is wrong.
Also known as Anisocoria, these abnormally sized and uneven pupils often appear when your cat has an eye disease like glaucoma, interior eye inflammation, or as a side effect of feline leukemia virus, or FeLV.
The slow blink
This is “I love you” in catspeak! The coveted slow blink is the ultimate sign of affection between a cat and their human. Slowly blinking is a way cats express their trust in you and love for you. Instinctively when a cat closes their eyes it makes them vulnerable. So slow blinks are really the highest feline compliment!
Cat behavior can range from quirky and cute to creepy, strange, and totally hilarious. But what does it all mean? Here are a few classic feline moves.
When a cat rubs their body, head, cheeks, or chin against you or an object, they’re expressing affection, trust, and even possessiveness! This is because cats have scent glands around their faces. Cats are territorial creatures so naturally, they’re inclined to spread their scent on what they believe is theirs.
Cats rubbing their heads or bodies on their human caregivers is often a sign of their close bond. Sometimes cats will also rub their heads or bodies against other cats to strengthen bonds and show affection!
Head bunting is a highly affectionate action that indicates closeness and a strong bond between cat and human.
Bunting is when your cat playfully and energetically bonks their head against your hand, leg, or body. It’s often done as a friendly greeting and is a mark of confidence in the cat. Sometimes accompanied by purring and meowing, head bunting is essentially the feline version of a hug!
The glands around your cat’s face distribute pheromones, so this is a way of creating a “group scent” and your cat declaring you’re a part of their “colony”!
Scratching is a normal instinctive behavior for cats. Scratching is a way that cats can express their pleasure and excitement and relieve stress and anxiety. They also scratch to maintain the health of their nails and slough off the dead parts. On top of that cats also have scent glands in their paws so scratching is also a way that they can mark their territory.
Offer up a variety of textured objects for your cat to scratch. Flat, corrugated cardboard scratchers, thickly carpeted cat towers, and doormats made from coconut husks or palm fibers are all very attractive to cats.
Cats also get a case of the itchies! It’s not uncommon for your cat to give themselves a good scratch behind their ears or under their chin. Itching isn’t usually behavioral, but medical. If you notice that they’re scratching themselves vigorously and over and over again it could mean they have an underlying health condition.
This could be anything from a food allergy to fleas, to seasonal allergies like sensitivity to pollen!
Of all of the natural behaviors cats are known for, their attention to grooming is one of the most distinctive ones. After all, cats can spend as much as half of their day keeping their fur clean and tidy!
When cats lick themselves they also regulate their body temperature, spread natural oils known as sebum throughout their fur, to increase their blood flow, and remove icky bits from their fur like dirt and parasites.
Cats also often groom themselves to relieve stress, heal injuries, and soothe itchy, irritated skin. In the same way that a human would have a massage. Determine if there are any recent changes that could cause your pet to feel stressed.
Cats can also groom and lick other cats as a sign of affection and bonding.
While grooming is generally, a positive sign that your cat is healthy and happy it isn’t always the case. For one, overgrooming can be a serious issue that signifies your cat has some health or behavioral problems that need to be addressed.
Anxious cats can groom themselves so aggressively that they “mow” the fur straight off patches of their body, and leave raw, bald patches on sensitive areas of their body like tummies and tails.
Overgrooming can also be a sign of painful skin conditions, allergies, parasites, or fungal infections like ringworm.
If you notice any strangeness in your cat’s grooming routine pay a visit to a veterinarian for professional care and advice.
While we associate chewing with untrained puppies, cats can also chew furniture and other items. Chewing is often a sign that your cat is bored, understimulated, and looking for something to do. Cats need enrichment and stimulation every day, or they’ll become irritated, restless, and destructive.
You can remedy this by playing and interacting with your cat for 20 minutes every day. Invest in some exciting toys that’ll keep them busy when you have a lot on your plate.
Cats can also chew their own skin and the fur off of parts of their body. This is a compulsive behavior that can be a sign of high anxiety and insecurity.
Biting can be an act of aggression, a fear reaction, or a sign that your cat is revved up and overstimulated.
Cats can sometimes bite other cats in a show of dominance or if they’re feeling threatened.
Biting can be an act of fear too, with a cat biting you or another animal when they’re scared, feel insecure, and are confused.
Overstimulation can also cause biting. Too much petting, long rounds of playtime — especially with laser pointers — and ignoring your cat’s agitated body language will often result in a sharp, and painful bite.
If you play with your cat with your hands they could also begin to develop a habit of biting you, thinking that they’re just playing a game. Feline behaviorists and experts recommend only playing with kittens and young cats with toys, not hands, in order to prevent this biting behavior as your cat ages.
If your cat is habitually biting you or other animals take them to a veterinarian first to rule out any illness or medical conditions. If they have a clean bill of health you can seek out a feline behaviorist who can help assess the situation and what’s causing the behavior.
A “nip” rather than a bite, can mean a few things. Kittens or young cats might nip their humans when they engage in misdirected play behavior and “prey” on them. Cats can also nip if they’re overstimulated. In this case, the nips often come from what’s known as petting-induced aggression. Some cats also nip to demand attention.
The cat sneer, AKA the Flehmen Response
If your cat curls back their lips and exposes its teeth while drawing in a long breath, don’t worry, they’re not sneering at you. This strange behavior is called the Flehmen Response and is a normal part of cat behavior!
A cat’s vomeronasal organ, as known as Jacobson’s organ, is at the roof of your cat’s mouth with ducts that connect to their nose and mouth. This is how cats detect scents like pheromones from other cats. The sneering face they pull is their sense organ in action!
You’ll notice the Flehmen Response when your cat comes across something new and uses this scenting behavior to investigate it.
Cats roll over onto their back when they’re relaxed and feeling secure and confident. Some cats roll over when their favorite human comes home in a display of affection and as a greeting. By lying on their back, they’re encouraging you to pet, cuddle, or talk to them. Rolling over is also common mating behavior in unspayed female cats when they’re in heat.
This signature cat move is all about happiness and contentment. After all, cats associate kneading with their kittenhood and when they were nursing their mother. Cats often knead their blankets, furniture, and beds when they’re getting cozy for a nap. They’ll also knead their human caregivers as an expression of love, trust, and affection.
Choking or gagging
The appearance of choking or gagging, although terrifying to witness, is quite common in cats. This is often characteristic of cats trying to hack up a hairball.
However, if no hairball comes out or your cat won’t stop making a choking sound, consult your vet right away.
If no hairball comes out or your cat won’t stop making a choking sound, consult your vet right away.
Dogs aren’t the only ones who beg for table scraps!
In some cases cats will repeatedly meow and yowl, follow you around, and even stand up on their hind legs to paw at you in a bid for a meal.
Try not to indulge in their needy behavior. As creatures of habit and experts at manipulating humans, this may teach your cat to become demanding or even overweight.
Neediness and begging can be a sign of an underlying medical problem or health conditions. In those cases the begging can be a cry for help and a symptom of hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, or parasites like roundworm.
Some cats beg for food but don’t give into them. This behavior could be a sign that your cat has a health condition.
Cats are master escape artists and hiders.
Some cats are known for hiding away for hours deep under beds, or in dark shadowy parts of the basement like behind the furnace, or even under blankets.
Hiding can be a part of playing, with some young cats and kittens hiding behind furniture or inside cardboard boxes only to spring an attack and “fight” with their littermates or other cats in the household.
But cats are also sensitive to changes in their routine or environment. These changes can lead to fearful and anxious behavior in your cat.
If you notice your cat is hiding more often than usual try to figure out what the source of stress is for them. If nothing has changed in their routine or in your home, it might be an illness or medical condition that’s causing them to retreat for hours on end.
If you notice your cat is peeing more than usual, whether more frequently or in larger amounts, you need to figure out what’s causing it.
There could be a multitude of reasons for increased urination. Your cat may be drinking more water if they’ve developed a thyroid disorder, chronic kidney disease, or diabetes.
Excess peeing can also be an indicator of bladder stones or a urinary tract infection.
Take them to your vet as soon as possible if you notice any excessive urination. All of the above conditions are serious and could even be life-threatening.
Spraying is most commonly associated with unneutered male cats marking their territory. But scent marking isn’t the only reason cats spray.
Neutered male cats and even female cats can also spray. In these cases, spraying is a hallmark of an insecure and anxious cat. In multi-cat households, spraying can occur when the cats have to fight for limited resources. Big life changes can also throw your cat into a tailspin and lead them to fearfully start spraying.
In some cases, spraying can be confused with peeing outside of the litter box. Cats with bladder stones and bladder inflammation, or cystitis, could take up a spray-like position because peeing in their natural elimination position is too painful.
Take note of your cat’s body language and overall behavior to see what could be causing the spraying. An examination at your vet clinic can reveal what’s behind it.
Litter box problems
According to the ASPCA litter box avoidance, or inappropriate elimination, is the most common behavioral problem reported by cat parents. (5)
Unlike what pop culture would lead you to believe, this isn’t because your cat is trying to spite you. The most common reason for peeing or pooping outside of the litter box is anxiety. Consider if the cat’s environment has changed.
Has the litter box moved to an unfamiliar room or a new location? Is there a new pet in the house? Do you have a new roommate, friend, or family member staying with you?
Medical issues could also be behind it. Some cats suffer from incontinence in their senior years. Other times cats could have a painful illness that makes it hurt to get into the litter box, like a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, or bladder inflammation.
If you can’t get to the bottom of the issue, consult your vet for professional advice.
Cats have a variety of moods. Here’s a quick guide to tell how they’re feeling.
- Keep themselves well-groomed
- Relaxed posture (6)
- Healthy appetite
- Meows, trills, chirps, or purrs
- Rubs up against you or gives you head bunts
- Ears and tail up straight
- Flops down belly up and rolls on the floor
- Tail swishing or thumping
- Ears twitching or flattening
- Eyes wide and pupils dilated
- Swatting or nipping
- Fur bristling up
- Crouching or holding body tense or tightly
- Fleeing with fur standing on end
- Low, sideways pointing ears
- Tail between legs or puffed out
- Losing control of their bladder
- Excessive sleeping
- Poor grooming or excessive grooming
- Twitchiness and tenseness
- Little to no appetite
- Disappearing or hiding for hours on end
- Arched back with fur standing on end
- Flicking or thrashing tail
- Unblinking eyes and a direct stare
- Snarling, hissing, and growling
- Overgrooming to the point of hair loss
- Frequently hiding
- Airplane ears
- Litter box avoidance
- Excessive vocalization and clinginess
Takeaways on cat behavior and body language
Cats have a wide spectrum of emotions that they express through their body. In order to unlock the mystery of what our felines are feeling or trying to tell us we simply need to pay attention to their social cues– even the subtle ones!
Now you’ve got plenty of new and valuable facts about all things cats to add to your cat guardian tool kit. Keep this article handy and refer to it whenever you notice your cat behaving out of the ordinary. After all, it’s up to us as kitty caregivers to make sure our cats have the happiest, healthiest, and safest life possible! (7)