Ask any young child what a cat says and they'll tell you confidently, "Meow!" But is meowing all that cats say? Vocalizations are just a small part of cat communication. All felines use cat body language to share their emotions with us and other animals. Everything from their ears, eyes, and whiskers to their toes and the tips of their tails give us clues as to what our cats think of us and the world around them. Use the following guide to help you decipher what your cat is trying to say with their body language.
Calm and relaxed
Cats who are relaxed will have loose, fluid body movements, and their breathing will be slow and steady. They might fold their feet in front of themselves, stretch their feet way out in front, or slouch over the side of a perch. Relaxed cats' ears and whiskers will be at their neutral positions or maybe slightly forward. Their pupils will be average size (somewhere between wide circles and thin slits), and their eyelids will be soft — perhaps blinking slowly. Those are signs that a cat feels safe and isn’t concerned about monitoring the environment.
When they're showing their affection, cats rub themselves on you, often circling or turning in little figure eights. Their tails are held high, often with a tiny curve at the very end, showing that they're happy to see you or another cat. Head butts and chin rubbing also are clear signs that your cat loves you because cats have scent glands in their faces that allow them to claim friends and objects as their own.
When your cat is spending some time cuddling on your lap, you might notice them kneading (aka “making biscuits”), another sign of enjoyment because it mimics feeding behavior in nursing kittens. You’ll probably hear your cat purring too — a classic sign of contentment.
A cat who’s playing will look a bit different from a cat who is relaxed. That’s because play mimics hunting behaviors, so cats might appear to be aggressive when they’re simply playing. Playful cats' pupils might dilate, and their eyes might get really wide. Their toes will spread apart — to gain traction for sudden movements — and their tail can get twitchy or flick from side to side, which can also be a sign that they're annoyed or agitated. In the act of play, cats might stalk, chase, pounce, swat, bite, shake, or grab hold and “rabbit kick.”
All of these behaviors are seen in cats who are hunting or defending themselves. The difference between play behaviors and the “real thing” is that play will be quieter, softer, and more inefficient. When playing, cats will put themselves into compromising positions (such as rolling on their back), something they wouldn't do in the face of real danger or if they were hunting actual prey.
A cat who's mildly stressed or trying to avoid something unpleasant might blink rapidly, turn their ears outward or back, and/or turn their head away. The cat’s pupils also might be dilated, and their whiskers might be held farther forward than normal. These are ways to keep tabs on the environment. Plus, their body might be stiff and possibly held low to the ground. And they might lean away or have one paw raised slightly off the ground. Their tail might be twitching or swishing from side to side, or it might be held tightly against the cat's body.
You also might notice them yawn, groom, scratch, lick their lips, or drink water excessively. When maintenance behaviors like grooming are done out of context or to excess during stressful events or circumstances, they’re called displacement behaviors.
Fear, anxiety, and stress
In cats who are experiencing an increasing level of fear, anxiety, or stress, their ears might be tucked back on their head or held low and rotated to the sides (aka “airplane ears”). Their head will fall at or below the level of their shoulders, and their breathing might become very fast. They'll keep their tail low and might have very squinty or wide, watchful eyes with big pupils.
These cats might hold their legs underneath them in a crouched position or flatten their body to the ground. In extreme cases of fear or aggression, cats will do the opposite — stretch up onto their toes and arch their back to make themselves appear as large as possible. Their hair might stand up on their neck, back, or tail.
At high levels of fear and stress, cats will also growl, hiss, and spit. If those clear warnings are not heeded, the cat might strike or bite. Needless to say, it’s not wise to push a cat to the point of biting because their bites can cause deep punctures wounds and often cause infection. In addition, it will be difficult to regain that cat’s trust and repair the fractured relationship.
Illness and pain
A cat’s body language not only reveals a lot about how the cat's emotions, but it also can reveal whether the cat is sick. Cats are extremely good at hiding illness, so small feline body language cues can be the first signs of trouble.
A cat who’s feeling sick might hold their head low and squint their eyes or hold them shut. Their ears might sit low or rotated outward, and their whiskers might be pointing downward. They might hold their head, feet, and tail very close to their body so that they’re tucked into a tight ball. Their third eyelids, which are found on the inside corners of the eyes, might be visible because they aren’t being retracted fully. The cat might roll to the side if they feel weak. You might notice eye or nose discharge or drooling. If you think your cat is indicating illness or pain, talk to your vet.
Interpreting a cat’s body language
To recap: Cat body language is the primary way that felines communicate. Behavior is always contextual, so pay attention to the cat’s entire body and to what’s going on in the environment. By paying close attention to our cats’ body language, we can do a better job of attending to their needs and have even stronger, happier relationships with them.