Cats make genuinely loving companions. However, as any cat owner will tell you, deciphering cat body language can be a real challenge.
Unlike dogs body language, cats rely less on facial expressions, making it even more puzzling for humans to understand their feelings. This is why being able to read a cats body language is an invaluable skill for any cat owner.
By the end of this article, we hope that you will be able to recognise the various body language cues that can help you to understand if your feline is feeling joyful, content, anxious, worried, or scared and, in the process, allow you to build a deeper connection with your furry companion than ever before!
Happy, Content, Relaxed
Cats will display happy, content and relaxed behaviour when they are comfortable and satisfied in a safe place where they are not threatened and all their needs are met.
Contrary to popular belief, cats thrive off company and like to make strong connections with their owners and even other cats they live with. They will feel happy and content in their company.
Always be mindful that some signs of your cat being content or happy can be confused with being frightened or alerted to danger, for example, if they are holding their tail upright and high in the air.
Signs your cat is relaxed, content and happy include:
Holding their tail upright – with a curve at the top. This usually means they are happy to see you.
Slow blinking – if your cat makes eye contact then slowly blinks, this is the cat way of saying they love and trust you. It is their way of smiling at another human or cat.
Soft eyes – this is where your cat holds their eyes half closed in a relaxed fashion.
Exposing stomach – if your cat feels relaxed and content, they may roll into its tummy in front of you. They are exposing their soft, vulnerable parts here and letting you know they trust you.
Balancing on two back legs – if your cat transfers their weight into their two back legs or does a little hop when they see you, this is a playful ploy to gain your attention and spend some quality time with you.
Stressed, Anxious, Fearful
Cats can easily get stressed, anxious or afraid. Each cat will have their own threshold. Stressors for cats include unfamiliar humans, new cats or surroundings. Loud, unpredictable noises, a difference in their daily routine or feeling threatened on their home turf can all cause undue stress and anxiety. Signs your cat may be stressed, anxious or fearful include:
Lying low on the ground. Cats often do this to attempt to remove themselves from view. Be careful, though, this can be confused with them crouching down to pounce.
Ears flat on the head. If your cat holds their ears flat against their skull, this can be a sign of stress or fear.
Dilated pupils. You may catch your cat looking at something with wide eyes and dilated pupils with a shocked expression. This can mean they are frightened or stressed if their pupils are dilated but seem relaxed. This can also signify contentment or excitement, so consider the bigger picture when looking at pupil diameter.
Whiskers pulled back tightly.
Tail held high in the air, shaking from side to side.
Ensure your cat always has a safe spot to retreat if they feel scared or anxious. If you think your cat is stressed or frightened, it is very important to give them space and let them hide away somewhere secure. Stressed or anxious cats may show warning signs of feeling uncomfortable just before they turn aggressive and lash out by biting or scratching.
Excitement Vs. Arousal
Cats can get excited or aroused by many different things. They may feel playful and start teasing you by play fighting or pouncing.
Another cat may sexually arouse them. They may get excited when they greet their owner after being alone for an extended period of time as they are pleased to see them or if they know they are about to be fed. Signs of excitement or arousal include:
Alert and focused on one thing in their environment, this could be at any of the things mentioned above.
Ears held upright – they will have their ears pricked up and be hyper-focused on what holds their attention.
Forward pose, pointing their body at the object of arousal or excitement – There will be no hunched or crouched position.
Changes in pupil size – pupils will be dilated.
Standing on back legs – they may stand up on their hind limbs or attempt to jump up onto you.
Tail position – they may hold their tail straight in the air or playfully swish it. They may rub themselves against you frantically and make high-pitched meow noises.
Whiskers pulled forwards and fanned out.
Aggression, Give Me Space
Your cat may be showing aggression for several different reasons. They may feel threatened and lash out to protect themselves, especially if backed into a corner. You may mistake anxious or stressed behaviour as a sign of aggression or vice versa.
They may be play fighting, the intention may not be malicious however, they can show overt signs of aggression and really hurt their playmate with scratches and bites.
Your cat may be in pain or feeling poorly. If this is the case, they may show aggressive behaviour to protect themselves or because they are feeling vulnerable. Conditions such as arthritis and hyperthyroidism commonly affect cats and can change their behaviour.
Cats can get frustrated and show signs of aggression. This is called redirected aggression. For example, if your cat has been playing with a laser toy which initially seems like a brilliant game to them. After a period of time when, every time they ponce, they are unable to catch anything, they eventually get frustrated. This may lead to them biting you out of sheer frustration of repeatedly not catching anything.
Signs of aggression include:
Stiff back legs and raised tail – with backside held higher than shoulders, poised to pounce.
Tail held high in the air, straight or downwards, and tucked between the legs.
Dilated or constricted pupils including staring intently.
Ears will be flat against their head or held upright and rotated slightly.
Hackles will be raised (erectile hairs along an animal’s back|).
Hissing including growling.
Whiskers pulled back or tightly or brought forward.
Cats are highly intelligent creatures and can get bored very quickly. Reasons for boredom include:
Lack of exercise – your cat may have pent-up energy to burn if they are not getting the exercise they need. If they are an indoor cat, they may not have the space to move around as much as they need to. They also are unlikely to have the same physical challenges such as chasing mice or birds indoors. Indoor living is undoubtedly safer for cats as they are exposed to fewer risks, but owners still need to find ways to exercise their car indoors whenever possible.
Lack of mental stimulation – cats are very intelligent and require lots of mental stimulation. If they don’t receive it, they will start to get bored. They require enrichment objects and activities in their environment such as puzzle toys and feeders. You can play with your cat to give them mental stimulation.
Overgrooming and other repetitive behaviour. Bored cats often groom themselves excessively or lick and bite themselves. This can turn into a vicious circle.
Fighting with humans or other animals. Your cat may attack other creatures in the household if they are bored and need to release pent-up energy.
Overeating – bored cats often overeat as something to do to occupy time.
Reluctance to interact – Some cats become withdrawn and disinterested in their environment if they are chronically bored.
The position of eyes, ears, body, whiskers and tail can vary with boredom signs depending on what your cat is doing.
Consider that your cat may be suffering from separation anxiety. This can manifest as boredom as they often exhibit the same sorts of behaviours. It is always wise to look at the bigger picture and take into account what else is occurring in your cat’s day-to-day life that might trigger certain behaviour.
When observing your cat’s body language, it is always important to look at the whole situation and interpret the results with this in mind. Look at all the different behaviours your cat is displaying in response to the situation they are in. This will help you better understand your cat’s intentions and behaviour.
If you are willing to put the effort in to learn about your cat’s body language, you are guaranteed to have a much better relationship with them in the long term.
The information in this article has been fact checked by Dr. Emma Chandley BVetMed PGCertSAS MRCVS