—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
|As nonverbal creatures, it can be very difficult to understand what your cat is trying to say. Outside of a mother and her kittens, cats don’t often vocalize unless it’s for protection (they will growl, hiss, and spit at rivals). Although they have come to learn that we are verbal and they cry at us, they don’t cry at each other.
So how do they communicate? It’s mostly through body language. In this article, I’ll teach you how to speak cat through looking for signs on body, face, and one of their most powerful silent voices – their tail.
I Whip My Tail Back and Forth - Restlessness
Be very careful when you see a cat whipping their tail, because the cat could be fearful or aggressive. However, sometimes, cats will do this during play or when they’re focused on something outside. In this case, they are a bit restless. If you’re playing with your cat, make sure you’re using a wand toy to create some distance.
Other times, kitties may do it when they’re about to wrestle with each other. For sure, it’s communicating they have heightened energy, and you should distance yourself until they are calmer.
The Content Kitty
A content cat will be seated tall with their ears facing you. They’ll be looking at you with relaxed eyes, sometimes even half-open. Often, their tail is calmly placed next to them.
Pets or even toys are welcome! Although a content kitty may not be ready to run around like crazy, they may enjoy a more sedentary play, or they could even flop over and show you belly!
I Have a Bad Feeling About This
Fearful, scared, anxious, and stressed cats will have flatter bodies and their ears will be out to the side or back. They also tend to bow their heads, have dilated eyes, and pull their whiskers back, close to the sides of their face. This could be accompanied by a growl or hiss, but if they are really shy and lack confidence, they may not vocalize.
They are trying to appear small and non-threatening, which is the reason for this body language. A tail that isn’t moving at all is a sign of fear, but if just the tip is moving, that’s a sign of anxiety.
If you have a new cat displaying this behavior, or there is a clear reason why your cat is doing it (different person in the home, construction, a storm outside), allow them to hide wherever they feel safe.
If your current cat does this behavior all the time, you’ll want to look for opportunities to build their confidence with play and/or affection. You can also talk to your vet or a cat behaviorist for other ideas to help your kitty feel more confident and happy so they don’t hide all the time.
Belly Up – No Touchy
You’ve seen it before. A kitty is showing her belly to you, and you think it means rub my belly, but that’s a trap! Hahaha. Showing a belly is a sign of trust – she trusts you completely, otherwise, she wouldn’t show the part of her body that houses her most important internal organs.
It can also be the way a happy cat greets you. Sometimes, the cat will even curl her front paws under her chin … and yes, it’s as precious as it sounds. Instead of going for the belly (and I know it’s tempting), go for a short rub or pet on the head.
When a cat is very focused, it’s written all over their face! Ears will face forward, and their pupils narrow, while their whiskers shift forward. They’ll lower their body and tail to the ground in a stalking position. They’ll also move very slowly toward what they’re focused on. This is the precursor to the famous butt wiggle they do before they pounce.
Sometimes, a cat will also chirp. This commonly happens when they are looking at birds out the window, and while behaviorists aren’t 100% sure, they believe it’s a sound of frustration from being unable to get to their prey.
Love Me, Please
When your kitty is standing confidently with their head tall, and looking at you, they are looking for some pets and affirmation! Once you start petting them, the back half of their body and tail usually rise and their stance turns into one of happiness.
If they are in this position but they are looking elsewhere and their tail is swiping across the ground, beware. They are uncertain and possibly irritated at whatever it is they are looking at. Give them a little space until they are more relaxed in the face, body, and tail.
When you arrive home or call your cat, they may come trotting toward you with their tail up and slightly curled. This is a common greeting, and they are happy to see you. Ears are typically facing forward, their gaze is relaxed, and you may even hear a few chirps.
A tail held high is showing confidence, and the curl is often a sign your kitty is feeling a little playful, and if they curl their tail around your leg, it’s kinda like a mini hug. All positive stuff!
Back Up the Train
When a cat feels threatened, they may stand tall on their front legs, arch their back, and poof their tail. This is designed to make them look bigger than they really are. Sometimes, they curl their tail between their back legs.
They may also growl, hiss, or spit, and their ears could be forward, to the side, or back. Usually, their pupils are dilated and they are looking up. In many instances, the cat will retreat, or they may just stand, almost frozen.
Leave this cat alone. They are clearly upset, and if you interact with them, they could feel the need to defend themselves.
When you think of sounds that cats make, you probably think of the main ones: purrs, meows, and hisses.
Being that they’re mostly silent communicators, using scent and body language, it may surprise you to know that many experts estimate they can make 100 or more sounds! For comparison, dogs make about 10.
We’re not going to look at all the sounds cats make, but let’s take a look at the most popular and interesting ones.
Purr - “I’m happy. I love you.”
According to PetMD, this rhythmic sound happens when a cat’s laryngeal muscles twitch at a rate of 25-150 vibrations per second, separating the vocal cords. This causes the purr sound while the cat is inhaling and exhaling.
There are a variety of reasons you’ll hear this sound. Here are just a few:
- Happiness and contentment - Typically heard during grooming or when we’re stroking them.
- Nervousness - Similar to humans smiling in awkward situations.
- Self-soothing - If the purr seemed to be at odd times, it could be a sign of discomfort or pain. For example, it’s heard in newborn kittens and mothers after birth. The frequency of a cat purr is within the range that’s therapeutic for bone and muscle growth, inflammation control, wound and muscle healing, and even pain relief.
Some big cats purr too, but cats that roar can’t purr, and cats that purr can’t roar. The hyoid bone, which connects the tongue to the roof of the mouth, is flexible, which allows lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards to roar. Bobcats, mountain lions, lynxes, ocelots, cheetahs, and cougars purr.
Trill - “Hi, Human, I love you.”
This sound is what mothers use with their kittens, and it’s a sign of affection. Cats trill at their human companions most often when greeting them, and many times, it’s followed with a leg rub.
There are so many different types of meows, and they all communicate something different.
High-Pitched Meow aka Mew - “Help! Mom, where are you?”
Kittens make this distress call and it’s for mom! It could mean they’re hungry, have to go to the bathroom, or just want to be snuggled.
Feline Standard - “I have a question.”
Mid-tone, mid-pitched meows are the standard, and they are directed at humans. Adult cats don’t really meow at each other to communicate. Your cat is definitely trying to tell you something. That “something” depends on the situation. They may want pets or be asking if you’re trying to starve them to death with a half full food bowl.
Long Meow or Repeated Meows - “Pay attention to me.” and “Feed me!”
Your cat is no fool and knows these types of meows will get you to take action. Similar to what I mentioned above, it could mean pet me, feed me, play with me, let me in, or something else.
Chatter - “But I WANT the birdie in my mouth.”
When a cat watches birds outside, sometimes their jaw will tremble and a chattering/chirping noise comes out. Experts aren’t sure if it’s a hunting tactic to imitate prey and put it at ease, or if it’s frustration because the cat can’t reach its prey, though it’s most likely the latter.
Whine - “Excuse me? Now please.”
When a cat whines, their mouth is closed, and it’s almost like they’re making the “m” sound of the meow and nothing else. Every now and then, they’ll throw a full, short meow in there. Similar to humans, they whine when they want something, like to leave or get into a room with a closed door.
Growl - “Back up.”
The growl is basically a warning, and typically a sound of nervousness, fear, or even annoyance. To further complicate things, sometimes growling can escalate into something physical. Other times, it’s a vocal expression of displeasure. Either way, listen to the warning, leave your cat alone, and let them calm down.
Hiss - “Stay away from me or I will throw down.”
A cat will hiss as a sign it feels scared, threatened, or angry. It’s often directed at other animals or other cats, especially if there is a territorial disagreement. The best thing to do when you hear it is give your cat some space.
Less common, but still important to mention, cats also hiss if they’re in pain. For instance, if you think there might be something wrong with your cat’s teeth and you’re trying to look at them, just touching their mouth could result in a hiss because their mouth hurts. Monitor how often your cat hisses and if it seems completely unprovoked, make an appointment with your vet to get them checked out.
Caterwaul - “I’m in the mood for love.”
Ever thought you heard a baby crying outside in the middle of the night? That’s a female cat in heat. Both male and female cats can express long moaning type sounds to communicate to the other sex that they are in the mood for love, but also, especially for males, to tell other males, “I’m here, back away from my lady.”
How Do You Like Meow?
Now you know all the basic sounds you can hear from your cat. Like I mentioned in the intro, they make so many noises. You might even know a few that your cat makes that aren’t on this list. The important thing is to be observant and aware of what your cat is trying to tell you, because whether it’s “But I WANT the birdie in my mouth.” or “I’m happy. I love you.” it’s something they want you to know!
How to Read Your Cat’s Eyes
Cat eyes are incredibly unique, and very different from our own eyes. With vertical pupils that expand up to 135 times their size, cats have a much easier time seeing in the dark than we do.
While they can’t see colors as vividly as us, their field of vision is larger (200 degrees vs our 180), and thanks to their eyes being designed for a predator, the cells in the retina refresh very quickly, allowing them to easily spot and track moving prey.
Obviously, these are interesting facts about their function, but did you also know cats use their eyes to communicate with other cats and us? Since they lack eyebrows, many facial expressions wouldn’t be possible if they couldn’t control their eyes. Let’s take a look at what your cat’s eyes are trying to tell you.
If your cats eyes are wide open with an average-sized pupil, they’re showing trust and contentment. They can also be expressing a bit of curiosity. Kittens have this look down perfectly.
Half Closed or Squinted
When your cat looks like they’re about to slip into their 6th nap of the day, they’re calm and relaxed. It’s a sign of trust and affection, because it means they trust you enough that they can start closing their eyes and not feel the need to be alert and on guard.
Even a cat that doesn’t let you get too close may trust you enough at a distance to have half closed eyes. If you move any closer, you may see the pupils change and the cat retreat.
It’s been called the equivalent of blowing a kiss, and that might not be too far off. If your cat is looking at you relaxed, try slow blinking at them. They most likely will return it with slow blinks.
This technique can also be used to communicate with cats who are shy or fearful. Slow blinking at them tells them you respect them and aren’t trying to threaten.
As long as there is distance between you and an unsure cat, they more than likely will return the blink or even do a half blink, almost as if saying, “Thank you. I heard you.”
Do not stare at an unfamiliar cat without blinking. Staring, as you’ll find out below, can be a sign of dominance, and you don’t want to unknowingly challenge a strange cat.
A cat’s eyes dilate to take in as much visual information as possible. In light, a cat’s pupils should be small, because they don’t need to pull in extra light like they would in the dark. Seeing a cat with dilated pupils during the day or in your home when the lights are on can mean they’re excited, surprised, agitated, or fearful.
Obviously, if you’re playing with your cat and their pupils are dilated and looking at a toy, they’re excited. You may often see this when you put a toy close to your cat’s face.
But, if you’re meeting a new cat and you see its eyes are dilated along with other negative body language like airplane ears, a body that’s low to the ground, or a flipping tail, the cat is likely fearful.
Lastly, dilated pupils can also be a sign of pain, response to medicine, or an increased heart rate. If your cat recently had surgery or is trying a new medication, ask your vet ahead of time if you should expect to see dilated pupils.
This will help you assess the reason for dilated eyes (because it could be caused from pain meds post op, and not actual pain). If your cat has dilated pupils and seems to be hiding more, the dilated pupils are likely a sign of pain or agitation.
Be very careful, because constricted pupils may mean your cat is agitated, angry, or preparing for an attack. It’s important to look at other body language and listen for vocalization. Growling, tail flipping, and ears back definitely signal the cat needs space.
But constricted pupils don’t always mean something negative. Just like dilated pupils, constricted pupils can mean excitement. It can be over dinner time, playtime, or even pleasure.
How can it be all those things? Because constricted eyes communicate arousal, which covers a range of positive and negative emotions.
This is usually a sign of dominance, and cats will frequently use it with each other to tell another cat, “Don’t you dare.” Submissive cats will look away from the stare of a dominant cat.
Unfortunately, owners are often unaware of this warning sign that can be given to them too, and will often say, “The cat attacked unprovoked.” In actuality, the cat was warning the owner too, but the owner didn’t notice.
This is also why cat behaviorists often ask for videos of incidents instead of just the owner’s account. It’s not that the owner’s account isn’t accurate, but there could be a tiny detail the cat shows in their body language that serves as a precursor to the behavior.
Once you can spot triggers and warning signs, it’s easier to avoid unpleasant interactions between cats in multi-cat households or cats and their owners.
Staring can also happen when your cat spots a toy you’re waving or prey outside (like a bird). They’ll focus intently on an object and not blink at all.
It’s in the Eyes and More
While your cat’s eyes tell you a lot, it’s very important not to only rely on them when communicating. Subtle changes matter, and the best thing you can do is be aware of their body language.
In addition to their eyes, take into account the position of their body and ears, as well as any sound they’re making to help determine how they’re feeling. Try to video concerning behavior, and if your gut tells you something is off, always check with your vet. And if they are slow blinking at you, make sure you slow blink back:-)
Why do cats slow blink?
Slow blinking is a nonverbal way to acknowledge a connection and contentment. If you slow blink to a cat, you are telling them you’re relaxed and not a threat. Often times, the cat will return the blink.
For anxious cats, sometimes it’s better to exchange slow blinks before you attempt to touch them.
My cat’s purring. That means he’s happy, right?
Usually, when a cat purrs, it’s a sign of happiness and comfort. However, cats can purr when they are in pain or even nervous.
Scientists aren’t 100% sure of why cats purr, but it’s shown to help with healing, so it’s possible one of the reasons they do it when they don’t feel well is to self-soothe. It is clear though: If your cat is healthy and purring, they are happy!
Why do cats lick their lips?
Right after a meal, it’s to clean their chops! Other times, it can be because they are stressed, or most commonly, they are nauseous. Before a cat vomits, you’ll notice excessive licking.
If you see this, you probably have a few seconds to move your cat before they puke on your new rug (because you know if there is one small rug in the room, they will decide to get sick there).
I was petting my cat head to tail, and he was fine. Then, all of a sudden, he seemed to get overstimulated and lash out at me. Why did he do this?
Pet-induced aggression is a standard cat behavior, but it isn’t totally clear why they do it. Petting or brushing head to tail can cause this reaction. The best way to look out for it is to look at your cat’s tail.
If they start thumping it on the ground, or if they are standing and shake their tail, they may be overstimulated. Stop petting them for a few minutes and see if they reset.
My cat sometimes hisses at toys. Why does she do this if she’s having fun?
Even enjoyable experiences can cause aggression in your cat. They can also get possessive over toys. Play aggression is probably the most common form of aggression. It can be very difficult to control. Here are a few suggestions:
- If you can find certain toys your cat doesn’t react as strongly to, use them.
- Try playing in shorter stints, more times throughout the day.
- Walk away or ignore the cat when they get aggressive during play.
- Get something that makes a noise and use it. Don’t try to scare the cat – just try to redirect their attention to halt the escalation.
I got a new cat and after petting her, my other cat hissed at me, but he normally likes me. What happened?
This is a different type of aggression, called redirected aggression. Your cat is upset at the other cat, but is taking it out on you.
This can happen with people, other pets, and even objects that the cat doesn’t fully have access to (like a stray outside). Allow them a few minutes to cool before you touch them again.
Why does my cat rub on me and the corners of all my furniture?
Again, since they are nonverbal, they communicate in other ways. One of these ways is scent. They are able to spread their scent through their paw pads and face. These markers indicate all sorts of different things. They are reminders for themselves for later as well as information to other cats.
Rubbing against you and furniture is to mark ownership and say an object is safe. They often refresh places they’ve already marked, and when you come home not smelling totally like them, it’s time for a refresh.
Now, You Can Speak Cat
I hope you enjoyed your introduction to cat body language. To keep your kitty happy and you safe, you must be observant. While many of the descriptions above sound obvious, sometimes, the movements a cat makes are small. Remember, their body language is how they communicate with each other, and now, you.
Purina, Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language
Hill’s Pets, The Tales Your Cat’s Tail Tells
Cornell University, Cornell Feline Health Center, Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression
Affinity Foundation, The 10 Main Sounds a Cat Makes
Fetch by WedMD, Why Cats Purr
Catster, Let’s Talk Cat Growling
The Conscious Cat with Ingrid King, A Cat’s Purr - A Biomechanical Healing Mechanism?
Shojai, Amy. The Spruce Pets, Understanding the Eyes of Your Cat.
Kelly, Erin. All That’s Interesting, Science Explains Why Cat Eyes Look and Function the Way They Do.
Michelson Found Animals, It’s All in the Eyes: How to Learn the Meaning of Cat Eyes’ & Know What They’re Thinking.
Bishko, Adriane. Fetch by WebMD, What Your Cat’s Body Language Is Saying.
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist