This post is written by guest author, Allison Hunter-Frederick, from Lincoln Pet Culture.
It’s another morning of rushing around the kitchen. The family cat is on the counter and watching your every move. The toaster pops but, before you can grab the bread, you’re smarting from the pain of a cat’s claws across your arm. This isn’t the first time. You’ve been scratched for no reason before. And you wonder, “are we safe in our own home?”
Chances are the answer is yes, and learning how to pay closer attention to your cat’s body language is the key.
By learning how to speak cat language, we can pick up on the important messages that our cats are trying to convey. This may include when they want attention, if they aren’t feeling well, or if they are upset with a situation. But how do cats talk, really? Let’s look at the basics of cat body language…
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN YOUR CAT’S EYES
Wide-open eyes mean your cat is stimulated. Large eyes often indicate friendliness, curiosity, or playfulness. They might also be a display of excitement.
Half-closed eyes are a sign of affection and trust. Your cat might also be about to fall asleep.
Slit eyes mean your cat is stressed. They’re a sign of strong negative emotions. Squinting can also protect the eyes of a cat from the claws of a potential threat.
Constricted pupils are a sign of agitation, fear, and aggression. If a cat’s eyes are big and round, with pupils the size of pinpricks, be on your guard—attack is imminent!
A slow blink expresses trust. It is a way that cats signal that their intentions aren’t hostile. Cats use this non-threatening signal to show interest in one another, smooth interactions, and let one another know they don’t want to fight. They also use it to express love and to convey a state of bliss. When you receive a slow blink from your cat, return the sign of affection with a reciprocal slow blink.
An unblinking stare on the other hand expresses a desire for control. It might occur in a multi-cat household with limited resources. The direct stare is confrontational; it signals an intention to attack and fight.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN YOUR CAT’S EARS
Forward ears are sometimes considered a neutral position or when your cat’s just being a cat. Your cat is content. Forward ears might also mean your cat is ready to play!
Straight up ears indicate an alert cat. HillsPet says that cats who regularly exhibit this ear position make great guard cats, because cats who are playing or hunting will keep their ears forward to “collect as much auditory information as possible to execute a successful pounce.”
Sideways ears mean that your cat is feeling nervous. If your cat’s ears are also low or flattened against their head in “airplane mode,” it means that they’re about ready to take off in flight. When your cat shows signs of anxiety, give your cat space and let them hide until they feel more secure.
Backward ears mean your cat is overstimulated. They’re a sure sign your cat is feeling scared and defensive or even angry and aggressive. It’s best to leave your cat alone.
Twitching ears indicate that your cat is on a mission. A cat will move their ears back and forth when they’re ready to pounce on their prey. You can use this opportunity to encourage your cat’s hunting instincts; just be sure to direct their attention to toys and not your hands or feet.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN YOUR CAT’S WHISKERS
Whiskers that are in a neutral position slightly to the side mean your cat is content and happy. This is the normal default position. They show indifference and friendliness. If you see your cat with relaxed whiskers, take advantage of your cat’s happy mood with a petting session.
Fanned forward whiskers indicate your cat’s on the prowl. Life with Cats says that when cats become interested in something, their “whiskers will come forward and fan out, ultimately extending past their muzzle. As this happens, the cheek pads also appear to puff up as the muscles pull the whiskers forward.” This is a good time to engage your cat in enrichment activities.
Pulled back whiskers are a sign of stress or fear. The flattened whiskers make your cat look smaller and this is a defensive reaction. Do not interact with your cat at this time.
Fear Free Homes cautions that “Cutting a cat’s whiskers is this superhero’s kryptonite. It’s not only painful, but it also impairs their ability to hunt and navigate their environment and causes them to become disoriented and fearful. Don’t pull on a cat’s whiskers either–that’s like tugging on Superman’s cape.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN YOUR CAT’S TAIL
A high tail is a sign of a content and confident cat. When your cat’s tail is sticking straight up, it’s also an indication of friendliness. Pay particular attention to the tip of an erect tail. A little twitch can mean your cat is especially happy and is extending an invitation to hang out.
A wrapped tail may convey friendship, or it may indicate a desire to be alone. Cats will curve their tail around other cats, animals, or people with whom they’ve bonded. Scientists refer to it as affiliative behavior. On the other hand, when cats wrap their tail around themselves, they could be warming themselves or saying that they aren’t interested in interaction.
A curved tail might simply be a friendly greeting, or it might be an invitation to play. Catster Magazine described it as a signal that the cat is approaching amicably.
A loose swishing tail usually means your cat is focused on an object. You might see this type of tail position right before your cat pounces on toys or even food. PetPlan says that “soft, fluid tail movements indicate a lack of tension.”
A tucked-away tail signals fear or submission. Cats will often crouch with their heads tucked in at the same time.
A puffed-up tail also indicates fear. If your cat’s tail resembles a pipe cleaner, your cat is trying to look bigger to ward off danger. If you notice this behavior in your cat, stay away, as cats will attack if they feel they have no other choice to alleviate the perceived danger in their environment.
A low tail usually indicates aggression. It is typically a sign of strong negative emotions, although HillsPet notes certain breeds such as Persians tend to carry their tails low for no particular reason.
A whipping tail can be another bad sign. If your cat’s tail is lashing from side to side and thumping on the ground, your cat is highly aroused. Your cat may simply be playing, but it also might be feeling frustrated. The National Cat Protection Society shares that they often have to tell people that “when they are petting a cat and their tail starts slapping the ground back and forth, that it may be time to stop, as the cat has probably had enough and may be feeling overstimulated.”
From eyes to ears to whiskers to tails, you can now re-evaluate that incident earlier in the day. What might you have seen if you knew what to look for? What cat body language was your cat using?
It’s been a long and exhausting day. Your brain is mush and your muscles are sore. Nothing sounds more relaxing than curling up with your cat and watching your favorite show. You pull a blanket tighter around you and sip a cup of hot cocoa. As you reach out to pet your cat you notice your cat’s eyes are wide open, his ears are straight up. You check his whiskers, they are tense, and you see his tail is swishing. You stop.
You put down your coffee and reach for a toy on the end table. You toss it to the middle of the room and your cat instantly pounces on it. You realize, if you hadn’t thrown the toy, your cat might have pounced on your feet. Once your cat’s energy is expended, your cat returns to curl up at your feet, and the two of you wind down the night watching a show. Ah, life with a cat is good when you understand the basics of communicating with your cat!
What cat body language do you regularly pick up on with your cat?
About the Author: Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior coach, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Her articles have been published in local and national publications, as well as on her blog, Lincoln Pet Culture. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she uses her research-based, positive reinforcement coaching approach to help cat owners improve their relationships with their cats.