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The Essential Guide to Cat Behavior and Cat Body Language

Do you have a cat or you’re thinking of getting one? Either way, it’s good to know about cat behavior and cat body language. This way you’ll be able to understand your cat’s moods and be able to respond to their signals to ease any distress.

Cat sounds 

Part of understanding cat body language is understanding the distinct sounds felines make. Here’s a breakdown of the most common cat sounds and what a cat is communicating when they make them.

Meow

This is the most common sound associated with cats and can represent many emotions and communication.

Cats meow when they enter a room to greet their owners or ask for attention from them. Pets may also meow when their owners arrive home, to welcome them or vocalize, as their owners talk to them. 

But, a meow can also represent illness or feelings of loneliness. Pay attention to the length of the meow, as it indicates 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 the sound when a cat is stalking birds or other prey. The chirping sound usually indicates concentration as a cat watches their prey.  Or frustration if they can’t reach them.

Chirping at a higher pitch can also mean excitement. Cat’s will do this when they’re closing in on prey. Chirping is a cat’s way of mimicking a bird’s sound, encouraging their prey to come closer.

Purring

The most common cat sound is purring. Purring is often a sign of pleasure, but purring isn’t always a sign that your cat is content and settled. Take note of the purring tone.

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. Purr is a way cats express happiness.

But, cats can also purr when they’re in pain or feeling uncomfortable. Purring can be soothing in the same way a child might suck its thumb. If your cat won’t stop purring, consult a professional for advice and an examination.

Cat hissing at dog.

Growling, hissing or spitting

Hissing is usually a sign of aggression or fear.  Expect to hear hissing when a cat feels threatened, or they’re angry.

Cat usually only hiss at other cats or animals rather than humans—unless they’re agitated. Hissing can also happen in a dispute over territorial boundaries with another cat.

If your cat is hissing without a noticeable threat, 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.

Yowl

A yowl is a long, drawn-out moan. It means the cat’s worried, uncomfortable, or concerned. Or it could also mean the cat’s having mating issues.

Yowling is a way for cats to communicate that they’re not happy with something. But, it can also be a way to express that there’s something new in their environment they’re worried or angry about. A newly adopted cat might yowl because it’s confused about the unfamiliar environment.

If your cat won’t stop yowling, call your vet. It might be time for a check-up to make sure your cat’s not sick.

Chattering, chittering or twittering

When a cat chatters, they’re excited and hunting. If the cat doesn’t catch their prey, these sounds change to chittering.

Caterwauling

Another familiar cat sound is a caterwaul. The caterwaul has a hollow tone to it. This is a way for unspayed female cats to communicate that they’re ready to mate with another cat.

Scream

While the unspayed female cat is outdoors and mating with a male cat, she’ll let off a scream, usually caused by pain.

Cats can scream when they’re involved in a fight and have become hurt. Screams are loud and high-pitched. They’re usually made in situations when a cat is defending its territory. You can avoid cat screams by keeping your cat indoors—especially at night.

Snarl

A snarl indicates fear or that another animal has become a territorial threat. Snarling at a high pitch begins as a yowl. A cat uses this type of snarl to defend their territory. or communicate with another animal that they’re feeling threatened.

If your cat is snarling, assess the situation. Are they in danger from another animal? Another cat? If they are, remove them from the situation. This sound is characteristic of feral cat behavior.

Tabby cat body language with ears forward, sits on a couch.

Cat body language 

Ears

Ears flat and back

Flat ears, back on the head, show anger, fear, and aggression, or readiness to attack.

Ears straight forward

A cat who’s ears are straight forward is feeling playful or content.

Tail

A cat’s tail helps it balance or walk on a narrow space, such as a fence or along shelves. Tails also help cats stay balanced when they’re running after their prey.

Although a cat can survive without a tail, tail injuries cause permanent detrimental damage and will affect a cat’s quality of life. A cat’s tail has many nerves that help control urination. Injuries can cause permanent damage to these nerves.

Tail between legs

The tail between the legs is usually a classic expression of submission or defeat. The stance, along with hissing sounds, could mean a cat is being defensive or fearful.

Tail straight up and out

This is a sign that your cat is happy and in a pleasant mood. When their tail is up, the cat is also showing that they’re approachable and looking for some attention.

Puffed out tail

A puffed-out tail is a way your cat communicates a mix of emotions. These can range from aggression to fear. A cat will puff out its tail if it’s startled. Cats want to appear as big as possible to ward off any threat.

Twitching tail tip 

When a cat hunts, it will crouch, its belly low to the ground,  waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. At the same time, the tip of its tail tip will twitch while the cat stalks its prey.

Tail rapidly moving back and forth

If a cat’s tail is wagging using a fast-thumping action, it’s agitated and wants to be left alone. This swishing movement can also be accompanied by snorting.

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. Leave them alone until they show more confidence. 

Adorable maine coone kitten, tummy up cat body language.

Body

Like people, cats have a range of emotions. Cats use their body language to share how they’re feeling with their owners and to other cats. 

Tummy up pose

A cat that is stretched out on the floor with its belly up could be content, playful mood. Cats will often use this pose to surrender to their owners, allowing them to stroke their belly. Their ears will be in a natural position during this pose. 

But, don’t be fooled. Some cats use the belly up pose as a defensive position. This is because from this position they can claw and scratch with all four paws. If a cat gives you the belly up position, proceed with caution.  

Kitten in the classic Halloween Cat body pose.

The classic Halloween cat

A Halloween-cat stance is a classic pose that signals a cat’s feeling fearful. In the Halloween-cat stance, a cat looks bigger than they are. Cat’s go into this pose when they’re feeling threatened, usually by another cat or pet. 

Standing with a relaxed body

If a cat is standing with their body relaxed and their ears in a natural position, they’re happy and content. Their tail will usually be upright with the tip curved.

Lying down with body flattened

A cat that’s lying down flat on the floor with its ears back is feeling stressed or feeling threatened. Most of the time, the cat will also hold it’s tail close to its body. It will tuck all its limbs in tight. This body language suggests that they’re upset and want to be alone.

Back arched with body held sideways

If you notice your cat is presenting this posture with their fur standing on end, they’re furious. They will be tense, and they will raise their front paw off the ground slightly with their ears lowered. 

Siamese cat with blue eyes.

Eyes

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. This is because you can often read someone’s emotions by looking into their eyes. The same applies to cats because they share their feelings through their eyes, too.

Dilated pupils

When a cat’s pupils dilate wide (4), they’re feeling anger, fear, or, sometimes, pleasure. These emotions make their pupils widen. You might see this happen before a cat pounces on a toy, or smells catnip. This is because they’re waiting in anticipation and excitement. 

But, wide pupils might also mean the cat is anxious or stressed. Look for other body language clues —are they sitting still and looking tense? Maybe they’re anxious or uncomfortable. Wide pupils can mean the cat is afraid. For example, on a trip to the vet, or during a loud thunderstorm storm. 

Constricted pupils

If your cat’s pupils are narrow and they’re eyes squinting, they’re ready to fight or defend themselves. Squinting helps to have less of their eyes revealed if another cat is about to attack with its claws. 

To decide what emotions your cat is relaying, look at other factors like body language and tail. 

The slow blink

This is one of the most affectionate things a cat can do. If they look at you and slowly blink, they’re communicating that they love and trust you. If a cat closes their eyes in the wild, they’re putting their trust in their surroundings.

Woman figuring out her cats body language.

Cat behavior 

You know your cat better than anyone else. But sometimes, they can display a new behavior that confuses you. 

Rubbing

When a cat rubs themselves against you or an object, they’re trying to spread their scent. Rubbing their head is a sign that they’re marking their scent in an unfamiliar environment.

Flehmen response in cats.

The cat sneer, AKA the Flehmen Response

If your cat curls back its lips and exposes its teeth while sucking in a long breath, don’t worry, it’s not sneering at you. This weird behavior is called the flehmen response. A cat’s scent organ lies between their nose and mouth and the sneering face pulls air over this sense organ. If a cat comes across something new it will use this scenting behavior to investigate the new smell. 

Scratching

The number one reason a cat scratches furniture is to groom its claws. Buy a high-quality scratch post and save your sofa. This will allow your cat to keep its claws in tip-top condition.

The second reason cats scratch furniture is to mark their territory. This is common when a cat moves to a new home or environment.

Itching

It’s inevitable that your cat will scratch itself. If itching or scratching persists, they could have an underlying health condition. This could be dry skin or parasites.

Maine coone cat play biting.

Biting

A cat’s behavior and mood aren’t always predictable. If your cat is habitually biting other animals, furniture, or you, take them to a cat trainer. A trainer will help assess the situation and the behavior.

Biting can be a show of dominance. This happens when they’ve moved to a new home or if there is a new cat at home.

But, a “nip” rather than a bite, can be a sign of affection.

Cat grooming itself.

Grooming

It’s natural for a cat to groom itself, and generally, a positive sign that it’s healthy and happy in its habitat. But, when a cat over-grooms, there might be some issues to look into.

Cats often groom themselves to relieve stress—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.

Over-grooming can also be a sign of alopecia. If alopecia isn’t treated quickly, it can cause severe hair loss and skin irritation. You should visit a veterinarian for professional care and advice.

Chewing

We associate chewing with untrained puppies. But cats can chew furniture and other items, too. Chewing is often a sign that your cat is bored and looking for something to do. Cats need stimulation every day, or they’ll become irritated and restless.

You can remedy this by playing and interacting with your cat 20 minutes every day. Invest in some exciting toys that’ll keep them busy when you have a lot on your plate.

Rolling over

Cats roll over onto their back when they’re searching for affection and attention. By lying on their back, they’re encouraging you to pet, cuddle, or talk to them.

Kneading

A cat will knead as an expression of love and trust. Cats associate kneading with nursing and its mother. They will do it to an owner to show affection.

Choking

The appearance of choking is common and usually harmless behavior in cats. Most often your cat probably has a hairball that has stuck in their throat, and they need to clear it. 

If no hairball comes out or your cat won’t stop making a choking sound, consult your vet right away.

Begging

This isn’t common and isn’t a tremendous concern, although, you don’t want it to become standard behavior for your pet. Needy cats can beg if they know it will get your attention.  

Some cats beg for food but don’t give into them. This behavior could be a sign that your cat has a health condition.

Black cat hiding in a box.

Hiding

Pets can feel upset and anxiety, like humans, do—so sometimes, they’ll want to have some time alone. This can result in your cat disappearing underneath the bed or car, in a way to hideaway.

Have there been any changes to the household or area that could cause your cat to become stressed? For example, loud noises and a busy home might make them feel scared and want to escape.

Excessive urination

If your cat is peeing more often than usual, more frequently or in larger amounts, you’ll want to address the issue.

There could be a multitude of reasons for increased urination, such as a salty diet and drinking more. Other conditions can include bladder stones or an infection. Take into account your cat’s age and if they’re on any medication if you plan to take a visit to a veterinarian. 

Litter box problems

If your cat is no longer using their litter box (5), they’re not doing it to upset you. The most common reason for this is anxiety. Consider if the cat’s environment has changed or if they’re on a new medication. Has the litter box moved to an unfamiliar room or a new location? Is there a new pet in the house?

If you can’t get to the bottom of the issue, consult an expert or a vet for professional advice. 

Tuxedo Black and white tuxedo cat looking out window.

Cat moods

Cats have a variety of moods, and here are some ways to tell how they’re feeling.

Contentment

  • Keep themselves well-groomed.
  • Relaxed posture (6).
  • Purring.
  • Healthy appetite.

Playful

  • Reaches for their favorite toy.
  • Pushes up against you.
  • Runs around.
  • Belly up and rolling on the floor

Over-stimulated 

  • Tail swishing.
  • Eyes flattened.
  • Tenseness.
  • Walking away.
  • Lying down.

Scared

  • Running away.
  • Hiding.
  • Losing control of their bladder.
  • Refusing to use the litter box.

Sadness

  • Excessive sleeping.
  • Poor grooming.
  • Excessive scratching.
  • Poor appetite.
  • Low-pitched meows.
  • Hiding.

Defensive

  • Swatting you or other animals.
  • Arched back with fur standing.
  • Flicking their tail.
  • Hissing

Anxious

  • Change in appetite.
  • Hiding.
  • No longer using the litter box.
  • Following their owner around the house.
Cat behavior, a happy orange tabby with belly up.

Summary

Like humans, cats have emotions and use their body language to share their feelings with others. Keep this article handy and refer to it when you notice a change in your cat’s body language.

A cat should have a happy and healthy life and feel anxious or fearful as little as possible. If you discover your pet is showing some anxiety or stress, use some tactics to calm them (7) down. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LEZ9vG7vE8
  2. https://www.petmd.com/cat/slideshows/cat-hissing-7-things-might-be-blame
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rb2xTAHVqjs
  4. https://www.wedgewoodpharmacy.com/blog/posts/5-ways-to-easily-tell-if-your-cat-is-in-pain-and-hiding-it.html
  5. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/litter-box-problems
  6. https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/cats/behaviour/understanding
  7. https://www.petmd.com/cat/slideshows/10-helpful-ways-calm-your-cat

 

Alina Prax
Latest posts by Alina Prax (see all)
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