Cats are not always easy to understand or live with, but learning to read their body language cues can help you create a harmonious relationship and household. Recognizing when your cat is anxious, fearful, or overly excited can also help prevent your feline friend from having an altercation with other household members—humans and animals. Our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Wallisville team understands that cats are unique creatures and we want to help Southeast Texas pet owners learn to recognize feline body language cues.

Reading cat body language: Signals and context

Learning cat body language, like all new skills, takes time and practice. Reading body language is all about context. The same body signal can mean something completely different depending on the situation or when combined with other signals. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize your cat’s moods and emotions through body language patterns and understand when they seek attention and when they need their space. Many helpful videos are available. To learn common cat postures and states with contextual clues, check out these videos from Fear Free Happy Homes.  

Cat body language: Ears

A cat’s ears have a wide range of movements and positions that communicate various feelings. Ear positions and associated emotions or mental states may include:

  • Ears neutral — Ears up and neutral may indicate a happy or relaxed cat.
  • Ears pricked forward — Excitement, interest, or play may cause a cat to rotate their ears forward.
  • Ears held sideways, backward, or flattened — Stress, fear, aggression, pain, or illness may cause a cat to hold their ears sideways, similar to airplane wings, or flattened back against their head.

Cat body language: Eyes

Eye position and pupil size are important cat body language indicators. Eye signals may indicate the following:

  • Narrow, almond-shaped pupils — Narrow pupils usually indicate a relaxed state.
  • Large, round pupils — Large round pupils and widely opened eyes indicate interest, play, fear, or stress.
  • Squinting — Squinting and avoiding eye contact may indicate stress, pain, or fear.
  • Slow blinking — Slow blinking or partially closed eyes usually indicate a sleepy, relaxed, or happy cat.

Cat body language: Body posture

A cat’s general posture provides helpful clues to help you interpret other signals, including ear, eye, and tail positions or movements. A fearful or stressed cat will first try to escape their situation, and if the threat persists, fight-or-flight instincts kick in. A fearful cat will try to appear small, tucking their limbs underneath them and looking away, or they may hiss and swat while puffing up their tail and taking on a Halloween cat pose to appear large and intimidating. Pushed past this point, many cats will bite. However, a relaxed and happy cat will have a loose body position and may roll, knead, or head-butt objects in their vicinity. 

Cat body language: Tail

A cat’s tail does more than help them with counterbalancing, they also use it to communicate. The tail expresses many feelings, and takes on multiple positions:

  • Tail closely wrapped around the body — This position indicates fear, anxiety, stress, illness, or pain.
  • Tail swishing or twitching — A quickly swishing tail can indicate predatory behavior if the cat is eyeing an object or animal, but in other situations can indicate fear, stress, annoyance, or frustration.
  • Tail up — When a cat holds up their tail, they are usually indicating they feel happy and relaxed.

Cat body language and vocalizations

Cats can make many different vocal sounds, each of which means something different. Meows, purrs, trills, chirps, hisses, and growls are only a few. While technically not a body language component, vocalizations play an important role in interpreting your cat’s body language signals. Some common vocal cues include:

  • Hissing, growling, or spitting — These indicate stress, fear, and aggression.
  • Meows — These are reserved specifically for communicating with humans and can convey a need or want.
  • Purrs — Purring usually indicates contentment, but anxiety and pain can also elicit purring.

Understanding their body language improves your relationship with your cat

Your cat’s body language cues and vocalizations provide clues about how they feel, what they need, and what they want. A happy, relaxed cat is OK to approach, but pay attention to shifting language as you interact. If your cat’s tail starts twitching or their pupils enlarge, they may want you to stop what you’re doing. Always give a fearful, stressed, or aggressive cat the space for which they are asking. If your cat appears stressed for no apparent reason, they could be sick, and you should schedule a visit with your veterinarian.

You can build a stronger bond and a happier household by developing a better understanding of your cat’s feelings and moods. If you would like additional help with recognizing your cat’s moods or would like to schedule a consultation regarding your cat’s behavior or health needs, contact our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Wallisville team.