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Cats are a conundrum. They want attention, but you better not smother them. They like to play, but will also scratch without warning. Plus, unlike canines, felines don’t take too kindly to commands. It’s been proven that they can definitely learn commands but following someone else’s rules doesn’t really go with their whole…thing. Which means it’s up to us to interpret their bizarre cat body language, behavior and vocalizations to understand what is going on inside their cute little cat heads!

At first, this is daunting. But, hopefully after sifting through the many ways in which cats communicate through body language, you’ll have a better understanding of what your pet wants, needs and feels in certain moments. This can be especially helpful to those of us with super shy cats. Being able to pinpoint when a cat who is typically fearful actually begins to feel comfortable and confident can completely change the way you interact with her. The goal, after all, is to have the best relationship possible with our pets.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that context plays a huge role in decoding cat body language. Just like dog body language, context could mean the difference between “I’m ready to fight,” and “I’m ready to nap.” Dr. Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant who founded Feline Behavior Solutions, advises always factoring in context when considering a cat’s behavior. Context includes - but isn’t limited to - where your cat is, who else is around, when your cat last ate, and what activities are happening in close proximity.

Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about cat communications.

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Physicalizations

Body language is the name of the game here, folks! Sounds your cat makes cover broader territory. Physicalizations will tell you whether your cat is ready to fight (arched back, erect ears) or flee (crouched position, facing sideways). The primary indicators are the ears, posture and tail.

cat body language straight tail
Digital art by Sofia Kraushaar

1. Tail high in the air (relaxed context)

My cat Jacques almost always has his tail straight up in the air as he trots down the hallway. This is his way of saying, “I’m happy and absolutely ready to play if you wanna.”

2. Tail high in the air (tense context)

Cats who toss their tails straight into the air when meeting a new cat or facing a potentially threatening situation are indicating they’re ready to fight if necessary. Often, this action comes with bristled fur.

3. Tail high in the air (quivering)

Now, I haven’t witnessed this in either of my cats, which could be because it’s more common in unspayed or unneutered felines. According to the Humane Society, a quivering tail likely means your kitty is really excited and about to spray or urinate to prove it.

4. Low, tucked tail

When cats are afraid, they try to make themselves as small as possible. A tucked tail make them tinier targets and show us they’re not into whatever is happening.

5. Tail flicking back and forth

You might get an ominous feeling looking at your cat’s tail flick back and forth like a metronome. That’s because she’s a little agitated and telling you to leave her alone. In certain contexts, it could simply indicate she’s on high alert (almost like she’s thinking).

cat body language arched back
Digital art by Sofia Kraushaar

6. Arched back (with bristled fur)

An arched back combined with bristling fur and an alert expression is a sign of aggression. Your kitty is alarmed. Cats will try to make themselves as big as possible if they feel threatened.

7. Arched back (with a yawn)

It’s also a really nice stretch (hello, cat pose!). Odds are your cat is either just waking up or about to curl up for a nap.

8. Standing sideways

This seems like something cats might do on the regular, but positioning their bodies sideways or moving to a position that only exposes one side of their body means they are ready to run if needed. In a word, they’re fearful.

9. Facing head on

Unlike canines who may see a head on interaction as a sign of aggression, cats do this when they are feeling self-assured and positive.

10. Facing away

My cat Foxy will often waltz into a room and sit down facing away from me. It feels like an absolute insult; she could not be less interested in what I’m doing and needs me to know it. In reality, she’s demonstrating how much she trusts me. I definitely shouldn’t launch a surprise snuggle session on her, but it’s nice to know she feels comfortable enough around me to trust me chilling in her blind spot.

11. Crouched (with alert expression)

Again, crouching is simply preparation to leap out of harm’s way. An alert crouch means your cat is anxious.

cat body language crouched wiggling butt1
Digital art by Sofia Kraushaar

12. Crouched (wiggling butt)

I’ve seen this more times than I can count. A crouched cat, wiggling its butt, is about to pounce on something. It’s … a delight to watch.

13. Stretching, belly up

Exposing the belly is a huge sign of trust! It means your cat feels totally secure and relaxed around you. As Cat Protection warns, it doesn’t mean she wants you to rub her belly, though. No. She’ll protect that by biting and scratching. Try it!

14. Rolling around, belly up

Again, she may roll around with her belly up and look at you like, “What are you waiting for? Play with me!” But if you rub her belly, she will not love it.

15. Standing still, frozen

A cat that stands (or stops mid stroll) perfectly still is assessing an uncomfortable situation.

16. Tall, erect ears

Your cat is on high alert. What. Was. That. Noise.

17. Forward, relaxed ears

Your cat is calm and cool as a cucumber.

18. Swiveling ears

You cat is investigating everything going on around her, taking it all in.

cat body language flattened ears1
Digital art by Sofia Kraushaar

19. Flattened ears

Your cat is not having a good time; she’s mad or scared and probably about to bolt.

20. Flattened whiskers

Often, these accompany flattened ears as a sign of fear.

21. Slow, steady blinks

Eyes aren’t exactly the windows to your cat’s soul, unfortunately. The rest of their body is way more communicative. But, if you get a slow, steady gaze with some blinks, it means your cat is comfortable around you and maybe a little sleepy.

22. Dilated pupils

Simply put, dilated pupils are a sign your cat is keyed up. It could be due to anything from anger to fear to excitement. It’s important to rely on the rest of the body for additional context clues.

23. Tiny pupils

When your cat’s pupils narrow into tiny slits, they could be signaling aggression. It could also just be really bright.

24. Head rubbing

When cats rub their heads against stuff (your leg, a chair, the corner of a door), they are marking their territory. It’s sweet, when you think about it.

cat body language kneading1
Digital art by Sofia Kraushaar

25. Kneading

Often referred to as “making biscuits,” cats will scrunch their paws into tiny fists over and over again as a way to express extreme happiness. As kittens, this is the mechanism they used to increase milk flow from their mothers during nursing.

26. Sniffing face

Have you ever seen your cat make this face: eyes squinted, mouth hanging open, head lifted? She’s smelling stuff! Felines have what’s called a Jacobson’s Organ. Connected to the nasal passage, it’s located on the roof of the mouth right behind the top teeth. It allows cats to better collect and interpret scents. This face means your cat is just conducting her own investigation.

Vocalizations

Relying on physical body language to understand your cat doesn’t mean you get to ignore vocals completely. Sounds cats make are simply the icing on the cake. Again, check in on the context when deciphering sounds. If your cat is kneading and purring, she’s pretty content. If she’s lethargic and purring, she could be sick.

27. Meow

Truly, a meow can mean so many different things. It’s literally a one-size-fits-all noise from your cat. Look at the context of the situation and her body language to figure out what she’s trying to tell you.

cat body language constant meows1
Digital art by Sofia Kraushaar

28. Constant meowing

Meowing the point of absurdity (aka, a consistent, constant meow) could very well mean your cat doesn’t feel good and should see the vet.

29. Chirp

A cat who enters a room chirping likely wants attention and is frustrated by being ignored. A chirp once the toys come out indicate pure joy and enthusiasm.

30. Trill

Similar to a chirp, a trill is a friendly, “Hello! What’s up with you? Anyone interested in playtime?”

31. Purr

Purring is often solely associated with utter pleasure (which is true!), but it’s also a form of self-soothing. A lethargic or reclusive cat who routinely purrs could be in pain.

32. Growl

Yes, cats growl. I’ve heard it several times when Foxy has approached Jacques while he’s got his favorite toy (a dragonfly) in his mouth. He’s saying, “Back off. This is mine.”

33. Hiss

I’ve also heard Foxy hiss when Jacques gets too rough as they play. She’s saying, “Enough. I’m angry at you.”

34. Yowl

A low yowl is a sad noise. Your cat is expressing despair; she feels like there’s nothing else she can do and is very afraid or upset.

Finally, remember that every cat has its tells. By observing and getting to know what your cat’s quirks and habits are, you’ll be much better equipped to handle certain behaviors and notice when they change.

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