Reading Your Cat

posted: 05/15/12
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Reading Your Cat
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Every feline possesses its own distinct personality, just as people do. Even purebred cats of breeds known for a certain character profile don't always match the description. Your Siamese may not be as boisterous as the majority of his relatives; your British shorthair, a breed known for its calm and self-possessed manner, may be quite skittish. But like a bonding parent who learns to read the subtle body nuances of a newborn, you can become attuned to your cat's temperament and idiosyncrasies, making for a more harmonious relationship.

By understanding how cats communicate with us, and other animals, we can help to foster a safe environment and prevent dangerous miscommunications.

Body Language

Unlike social, pack-dwelling canines, felines in their natural environment often go for lengthy periods without face-to-face encounters with others of their kind. They have very little need for a system of direct visual communication. But when cats do happen to meet, a universal feline body language communicates information. Most of what we know about the feline's body language stems from the observation of cats, wild or domestic, in conflict. The usually aloof animal sends out a variety of physical messages when it confronts another feline. Its nervous system automatically registers stress levels and produces physical signals that reveal whether the animal is relaxed, tolerant, fearful, apprehensive, defensive or aggressive. Properly interpreting these reactions tells us when and how to approach and handle cats.

Feline body language is not intended to deliver refined signals. The messages are broad, such as "Leave me alone." Triggered by fear, a rush of adrenaline causes the cat's back and tail to arch and the hair to bristle. This familiar Halloween-cat pose makes the frightened feline appear more physically imposing. Although the raised hackles may outwardly convey strength and a readiness to do battle, the communication is really designed to dissuade rather than provoke potential attackers. When cats, wild and domestic, are fearful or nervous and defensive, their ears flatten or twitch and their eyes dilate fully to take in as much of their surroundings as possible.

The body language of confident, aggressive cats is exhibited in response to direct confrontations, with intruders on their territory or run-ins with smaller cats. The pupils narrow to slits for better depth perception as they stare down opponents; their ears stand up, facing forward or folded so that the backs are seen head-on. With its rear end held high and tail slung low, an aggressor will often approach the defensive cat in a prancing sideways motion that creates the illusion of being larger.

Not all feline body language is straightforward, however. Messages sometimes seem to be mixed or conflicting. Since most of a cat's body language is not intentional but a reflexive response to stimulus, anger and fear may elicit the same physical response. It is not unusual, for instance, for a fearful feline to display signs of aggression and vice versa.

What Their Movements Mean

A cat's posture, tail, ears, eyes and hair all speak volumes. But frequently, because we fail to understand and interpret the signals correctly, we blame the cat — unjustly. Understanding the body language of felines can be difficult, even counterintuitive, since it is meant to convey messages primarily to other cats. Signs of fearfulness or irritation can be easily misread as playful excitement because a cat's associated behaviors appear to be similar. And misinterpretation of cats often arises out of confusion with the body language of dogs, which is sometimes opposite in meaning.

- A cat's tail is its signal flag. Held high, the tail is a banner communicating confidence. Curling around another feline's tail or a person's legs, it offers friendly greeting. In motion, it usually indicates excitement. The cat is either in predator mode, having sighted a bird or a mouse, or is feeling playful, hiding behind a chair ready to pounce on a passing person or cat. And while the rhythmic wagging of a dog's tail signals happiness, the agitated whipping of your cat's tail means that he is perturbed or upset. Don't startle a cat in this state. Your reward may be a claw swipe or a bite.

- Cats are affectionate and love to be touched, but only on their own terms. They may greet members of their household fondly with cheek rubs, but they prefer to initiate this contact. Cats may exchange quick eye-blink hellos with each other, but they seldom stare. Instead, they will respond to a long stare from you by freezing movement and then alternately looking at you and looking away.

- Huddling with its tail wrapped around its body, a cat may be telegraphing that it is cold. A similar body position, but with a relaxed cat, signals its dreamy contentment.

- A sick cat often doesn't curl up, but lies in the position requiring the least energy.

- An alert, attentive cat scans wide-eyed, ears pricked and rotating, tuned to threats, prey, and other felines. Spotting something of interest, the cat stares intently, pitching its ears and its whiskers forward.


A startled, fearful or defensive feline may strike the pose of the classic Halloween cat to make itself look larger and more threatening. It turns to one side with back arched, hackles raised, ears turned back and teeth bared. Sensing a potential threat, a cat tenses its body, lowers its tail and raises the fur on its back and tail. On its toes, it is ready to flee the instant the need arises. If it is preparing to attack, the cat will crouch or lie on its side or back, narrow its eyes to focus on its target, hiss and bare its teeth and claws. A feline that takes this posture isn't interested in your affection; it means business. You're best to stay out of the way.


Few felines are truly aggressive by nature, but even the gentlest of kittens may lash out if annoyed, threatened or over-excited by play, seeming to lose control beyond some threshold of arousal. Claws and teeth can be dangerous, especially to small children, so take signs of impending assault seriously. Keep a youngster who seeks to shower kitty with affection from hugging it, kissing it and lugging it around. While a cat that's in the right mood may put up with a moment's snuggle, it won't appreciate — and may not tolerate -- being confined or roughly handled. A squirming cat that switches its tail, turns back its ears or growls is making a clear statement: It wants to be put down. Heed the warning.

How Cats Talk

Felines express a surprising variety of sounds, each carrying one or more messages. On sighting a bird, a cat may clack its teeth in a chatter of excitement. A rhythmic purring usually signals contentment, but a cat also may purr when injured or while giving birth. In response to a threat, a feline may growl or grumble, often as a prelude to hissing or spitting. Owners should read hissing as a defensive, "Keep back. I'm scared right now."

Cats speak to people primarily with meows, which come in many forms and carry many different meanings. You will quickly become an expert translator of your cat's meows. Easiest to interpret is the meow of request, which is usually accompanied by a head-held-high, front-paws-together begging posture. Sometimes a meow expresses complaint, anxiety or confusion. Other easily recognized cat sounds include the hissing, spitting, the caterwauling of battle-readiness and the sharp yelp or scream of pain. And there certainly is no mistaking the yowl of a feline in heat or the boisterous uproar of mating cats.

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