Cat Body Language: The Way Your Cat Communicates
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley April 06, 2019
Humans are unique in that we use language to communicate with one another. However, many other animals use body language to communicate, including our cats. As cat parents, we may often wonder what our cats are trying to tell us. If you are well-versed in cat body language, then you just might be able to decipher their message. Cats use a lot of different cues to communicate with us, so learning how to tune in to what your cat is trying to tell you can improve their life and yours. Moreover, knowing how to read when your cat is content, anxious, scared, or defensive can help you manage their environment in an optimal way.
Why Do Cats Use Body Language To Communicate?
When we think about how cats communicate, we may think about verbal communication such as meows and purrs. But did you know that cats meow more at humans than with each other? Cats learned to meow to communicate with humans, but when they communicate with each other they primarily do so through body language (Turner et al., 2017). We often think of cats as solitary creatures, but the fact that they use subtle body language cues to communicate with each other and with humans tells us that they are social animals (Springer, 2008).
What Signals Do Cats Use To Communicate With Body Language?
When observing a cat for cues about their emotions, it is important to observe the following:
- Eyes: Are the pupils dilated? Are the eyes relaxed or hardened? Wide open or half closed?
- Dilated pupils occur when a cat is fearful or excited. Dilating the pupils helps the cat take in more light from the environment, thus helping them develop an escape plan from a threat or hone in on a prey item or toy. Narrowed eyes are a sign of aggression (Springer, 2008).
- Cats will use a behavior called the “slow blink” to show humans they are content and to show you they trust you. You can also use the slow blink to communicate with cats. If you are meeting a cat for the first time and they are a little scared of you, sit facing away from them and offer them a slow blink. This will tell them that you are not a threat (Cat Watch, 2014).
- Direct eye contact is a normal way to communicate for humans, but it is actually threatening to a cat. Cats will stare at each other during aggressive encounters, but they otherwise avoid direct eye contact. If you want to make a cat more comfortable and encourage them to come up to you, direct your gaze away (Springer, 2008).
- Ears: Are the ears upright or flattened? Are the ears oriented in any particular direction?
- Cats will flatten their ears when they are scared or aggressive (Cat Watch, 2014). If a cat is content, their ears will be upright and relaxed. If a cat is alert, their ears will be upright and might be oriented in a certain direction. Cats tend to orient their ears towards a noise or whatever object, person, or cat they are paying attention to. This allows them to tune into their environment better (Springer, 2008).
- Mouth: Is the mouth closed or open? Are the lips relaxed or rigid? Are the cheeks relaxed or pointed forward?
- Cats will meow to communicate with humans and may even offer a “silent meow.” The silent meow is a sign of affection from cats, while normal meows may be used to elicit attention or food, communicate how they are feeling, or some cats may just be chatty (Springer, 2008).
- When a cat smells a particularly interesting scent, they will show a Flehmen response, where their lips curl around their teeth (Springer, 2008). This helps cats pick up more cues from the scent by passing the smell through the vomeronasal organ.
- Cats use their whiskers to communicate with their environment. Their whiskers are situated around their mouths. If a cat is alert or playful, their cheeks might tighten up to allow their whiskers to point out, so they are ready to jump into action.
- A cat that is stressed or feeling nauseous might lick their lips. Lip licking might also occur after a meal to clean their face (Cat Watch, 2014).
- Posture: Is the cat’s body tense or relaxed? Is the cat’s back arched? Is the cat facing towards you or away from you?
- Cats will use posture as a way to communicate with humans and other cats. One of the classic cat postures is an arched back. When taken in context with other cues, an arched back may be a sign of contentment or it could be a sign of aggression. Cats who are trying to display aggression may also pin their ears back and widen their pupils. Cats who are content will have a relaxed body posture and may be arching their back while stretching after a nap.
- A very common cat behavior is to roll in front of you and display their belly. Cats use this as a greeting, and it is a sign of trust. Some owners think that this behavior means they want a belly rub, but not all cats are comfortable with their belly being scratched. Reaching down and touching their belly might betray their trust. Some cats will run away to avoid it, or they may bite or scratch you instead (Cat Watch, 2014). Some cats do learn to enjoy belly rubs and may invite this, but typically you have to build a strong, trusting relationship with your cat first. Pay attention to their body language to know if your cat is enjoying the belly rub or if you are making them uncomfortable.
- Tail: Is the tail upright or down? Is the tail moving? Does it look relaxed or is the cat flicking its tail around?
- When you come home, your cat may come to greet you with their tail held up high and they may quiver it as well. Some cats will rub against your legs and wrap their tail around you when they are greeting you. These are all positive signs that your cat loves and trusts you (Springer, 2008).
- If your cat is confident and content in your house, they will often walk around with their tail held up, with maybe just a little crook at the very end of the tail. If your cat is nervous, they may walk in a more crouched position with their tail low (Springer, 2008).
- Cats that are agitated or angry will thrash their tail sideways. This could be a sign that you should take notice of what is bothering your cat and de-escalate the situation. Cats will also thrash their tails back and forth when they are playful, but the tail will be looser when a cat is playful and more rigid if the cat is angry. If a cat is angry or scared, they will also puff out the fur on their tail (Springer, 2008).
How Do Cats Use Body Language To Communicate With Humans?
One of the ways cats use body language to communicate with humans is to tell us where they want to be pet. Cats will often orient a certain part of their body toward us when asking for pets, and usually this is their way of telling us where they prefer contact. Some cats may also lean into your hand and/or close their eyes when you have hit the sweet spot. Cats will use their body language to elicit pets from you as well, especially if you are not paying attention to them. They may circle around you, or jump on your lap, or rub on objects near you to get you to pay attention to them (Brown & Bradshaw, 2013).
Do Cats Think We Understand What They Are Telling Us?
Cats are not as tuned into human behavior as dogs are. Dogs behave differently with humans than they do with other dogs showing that they read us differently and understand our behavior. Cats behave similarly to humans and other cats, but they do learn how to elicit certain responses from us (Turner et al., 2017). Cats learn by association and quickly learn what behaviors get them rewards from humans. If every time the cat meows and you feed the cat because you assume that he or she is hungry, then the cat learns that meowing at you is effective. He or she will continue to do it to get a reward. That means that if your cat is meowing in the middle of the night, it is likely because you have somehow rewarded this behavior.
When we bring a cat into our home, we are responsible for providing them everything they need to live a happy life. Since humans communicate with language, we can often be bad at reading the body language of our cats and correctly interpreting what they are trying to communicate to us. Learning how to read your cat’s body language is a great way to ensure you are providing your cat a happy life. Their body language will tell you if they are content, happy to see you, scared, anxious, or angry. Tuning in to the different ways that cats communicate can help you provide them the environment they need to be content and happy.
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Brown, S.L., and J.W.S. Bradshaw. 2013. Communication in the domestic cat: within- and between-species. In D. Turner and P. Bateson (Eds), The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour (p. 201-212). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
"Dispelling the many myths about their body language." Cat Watch, Feb. 2014, p. 2. General OneFile. Accessed 2 Apr. 2019.
Springer, Ilene. 2008. Understanding your cat's body language: she sends both subtle and obvious signs. Do you know what they mean? Cat Watch, p. 8+. General OneFile, Accessed 2 Apr. 2019.
Turner, D.C. 2017. A review of over three decades of research on cat-human and human-cat interactions and relationships. Behavioural Processes 141:297-304.