Updated: August 9, 2022 by Kristen Chapple
I’m sure that just like me, most cat owners have spent countless hours wondering what exactly it is that our cat is thinking and wishing we could see inside their heads. Do they love me, or are they just manipulating me for food?
Most people have heard that if a cat blinks slowly at you, then they like you, and there is some truth to that. Cats generally only blink slowly in this way when they feel comfortable and safe, and therefore, trust the people around them.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what cat body language can tell us about what is going on in our feline friends’ heads. While we may never be able to know exactly what they are thinking, certain telltale body movements can let us know when they are afraid or frightened, or comfortable and happy.
When it comes to reading cat body language, there are four main things to consider: body shape, tail, eyes, and ears. While it is not strictly body language, the sounds that cats make are also useful indicators of what is happening in their heads. Read on to find out the main things to look out for when interpreting cat body language.
Body Shape and Position
The way that cats choose to position their bodies can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. However, it is easy to get caught out, as interpreting body language depends a lot on context, and very similar body positions in different contexts can signal very different things.
Like most animals, when cats are ready for a fight, they try and make themselves look as big and intimidating as possible. This can often mean arching their back towards the ceiling. However, this cat stretch is also a classic body shape for a relaxed cat, who is stretching out and ready to get comfortable in their space. The telltale difference between the two body shapes, besides the context, is the hair. A cat that is ready to defend their turf will have their hair standing on end, which again makes them look bigger and more intimidating, while the hair on a relaxed, stretching cat won’t stand up like this.
Lying on the back with their belly exposed is another body movement that can mean different things depending on the circumstances. Yes, an exposed belly can be a sign of them feeling comfortable and relaxed and able to be vulnerable in their space. But rolling over and exposing their belly does not always mean that they are flirting with you in order for a nice rub.
Anyone who has been nipped or scratched when they go in for a belly rub will know that this is not always the case. Cats can also assume this posture when they are primed for a fight as they claws are more readily available to scratch in this position. They could take this position when they feel like they are in a place they can’t escape from.
The Ball Position
A cat may also assume the ball position for a variety of reasons. Usually, it’s to get comfortable to prepare to sleep. But if your kitty doesn’t end up napping, then the getting balled up is mostly to get warm or for self-protection. So look around you and check that there’s no threat around and that your space is warm enough.
Positioning in Relation to You
A more subtle way to read a cat’s body position is simply how they position themselves in relation to you. If they look at you head on, with their head and torso pointed directly at you, it usually means that they are interested in you and that they are up for some interaction. If they have angled themselves away from you, this may be because they want to be able to make a quick getaway, which means that they are probably feeling a bit scared or unsure.
Stop and Freeze
One cat body action that is pretty hard to misinterpret is if they simply stop and freeze. It is a sure sign that they are feeling tense and might sprint away at any moment.
The way that a cat chooses to move their tail is also a pretty good sign of how they are feeling. Cat parents need to be careful not to get confused with advice for dogs, as for cats, a wagging tail is rarely a sign of happiness and comfort.
When it comes to a cat’s tail the first thing to look out for is whether it is pointed up, or if they are keeping it low, and maybe even between their legs.
Up Vs Down
If their tail is up in the air, in general, this means they are feeling happy, comfortable, and confident. When their tail is down, this suggests that they are anxious or afraid. They are lowering their tail to try and make themselves as small as possible, and therefore a more difficult target.
Cats will even sometimes retract their whiskers in order to seem smaller and less threatening in stressful situations. In the converse, if their tail is up in the air, and their hair is standing on end to make the tail seem larger, they are ready for a fight and are probably quite confident of their chances of winning.
Unlike dogs, if a cat is waving its tail back and forth in string rapid motions, they are not signaling to you that they are happy, but rather that they are agitated. Meanwhile, if they are moving their tail more slowly, it means that they are unsure about a situation.
They are probably not feeling fearful, but they have yet to decide what to make of something. Meanwhile, if their tale is more quivering that wagging, you can take this as a sign that they are happy and excited and go in for some playful cuddles.
Moving onto cat ears, the way cats choose to position their ears indicates a lot about what is happening inside their heads.
Directly Forward Ears
The best sign to see is if your cat is pointing their ears pretty much directly forward. This generally means that they are feeling both happy and playful. However, if they are also pointing straight up, it could mean that they are on the alert for something. This might be part of a fun game, or they could be worried about something serious that they see directly ahead.
To The Side/Back Ears
Ears pointed to the side or the back are a clearer sign that your cat is worried about something. They are opening up their sense of hearing as much as possible to give them all the information that they need to identify and combat a threat of some kind.
If your cat’s ears are pointing in different directions, since they can move independently of each other, it means that while they are data gathering and assessing a situation, they aren’t particularly worried about anything specific right now.
If your cat flattens their ears against their head, then they have moved past assessing the situation and have moved into fear. This is a clear indicator that they are very worried about something, maybe an impending earthquake or a strange animal in the vicinity, which can in turn make them both angry and aggressive.
Finally moving onto the eyes. No, it is not simply an old wives’ tale.
Blinking Slowly and Drooping Eyelids
If a cat blinks slowly at you, it does generally mean that they like you, or at least that they feel comfortable and safe with you, and that they trust you. Drooping eyelids can indicate much the same thing. However, if your cat is simply staring at you, be a bit more worried, as this is likely a challenge, so you may have done something to offend them.
While the cat blink is telling, it is probably the cat pupils that are the most interesting thing when it comes to the eyes. As well as dilating and constricting based on light levels, cat pupils can change their shape based on how your cat is feeling.
Cat pupils will dilate when cats are surprised, scared, or stimulated. Only context will tell you which of these things she is feeling, and therefore, whether to go in for a game or give her the room to feel comfortable again. Meanwhile, constricted pupils is pretty much always a sign of tension and aggression.
While not strictly body language, the sounds that cats make also offer interesting insight into how they are feeling. This is more useful for some breeds of cats than others, as some cats can just be downright chatty.
A Growl, A Hiss, And A Yowl
Some of the sounds that cats make have become quite well known to us. A growl is generally a warning to keep pack unless you want to taste claws. A hiss, more than being a sign of aggression, suggests that they are feeling threatened. Again, it is a sound of warding rather than an invite to fight. A cat yowl, which again sounds quite aggressive, is not your cat goading someone into a fight, but actually reveals a high level of anxiety and fear as they are left feeling like they have no options.
A Trilling Noise And Purr
Luckily, there are also some pleasant cat sounds to look out for. A trilling noise is usually the sign of a happy cat, and is often given as a greeting to people who are familiar and trusted.
Cats will use their meows in a variety of different circumstances, but it is generally a sign of either excitement or frustration. The odd meow here and there is pretty difficult to decipher, so you are probably better off using other body language signals to figure out what is happening with them.
However, it is generally a sign that something is wrong and a plea for help. If there is nothing in the immediate vicinity to explain their distress, it might be time for a trip to the vet.
Here’s a vid that contains all these sounds:
Communicating With Your Cat
Whether you are trying to bond with a new cat and make them feel welcome in your home, or you just wish that you better understood the apparent mood swings of your long-standing feline friend, cat body language can offer a lot of insight into what cats are actually thinking.
This can help you better determine when it is a good time to approach them for some fun and games and when it is best to leave them alone. It can also help you make them feel more relaxed and comfortable in your home as you identify anxiety triggers, whether it be neighboring cats, noisy vacuum cleaners, or visiting children that play a little too rough.
If you pay attention to their torso, tail, ears, eyes, and the sounds they make and think about the action that they are doing within the context of the present situation, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of whether your cat is feeling happy, confident, and playful or anxious, scared, and agitated. Remember that cats sometimes display several different forms of body language to express how they are feeling, so put the pieces together like a bit of a puzzle.