Most people realise that you can tell how a dog is feeling by its body language, but did you know that the same goes for our feline friends?
Feline body-language is complex and subtle with at least twenty-five different visual signals used in sixteen combinations. There are doubtless many other, more subtle, nuances that have yet to be discovered. Most owners can learn to recognise at least some of their cats’ visual signals, enough to understand when your cat REALLY doesn’t want you to fuss it, or whether he/she is feeling happy, content or worried.
A blinking or yawning cat is happy and content, one that is licking its lips, when it’s not dinner time, is very nervous, or upset.There are also several ways you can ‘talk’ to your can the way he can understand. Remember dogs have owners, but cats have staff, so understanding your boss’ wishes is part of being a good employee.
The most dramatic body language occurs in kittens or when rival entire males meet, during courtship or over fiercely protected territory. Adult neutered cats generally have less extreme interactions, but you can still tell a great deal, if you know what to look for.
The aim of body language is to convey a message and to avoid or end physical confrontation. The aggressor or challenger would prefer to win its case without resorting to physical violence as injury could result in a lack of hunting success and resulting starvation. Many disputes are resolved by staring each other down and vocal challenges. In some cases the conflict may be so subtle that a watching owner is unaware that a dispute has taken place and been resolved. The dominant cat, having won the confrontation, simply walks away from the loser, sits down and looks in another direction or start grooming.
Body language needs to be understood by looking at the whole body: face, posture and tail position. Looking at one of these in isolation is misleading since they all combine into an overall message. For example when a cat arches its back, is it upset or is it friendly? The same basic posture means two very different things depending on facial expression, whether the fur is bristling and eyes and ear positions.
Head position can indicate several emotions. If the head is stretched forward, it indicates a greeting message as the cat is encouraging touch or trying see its owners or another cat’s facial expressions.
In conflict, an assertive or confident cat may raise its head, but an aggressive cat will lower its head. Irritatingly, a submissive cat which is fearful, but defensively aggressive, will also raise its head. To tell whether a cat is being assertive or fearful the tail posture needs to be taken into account.
Cats that already have an established friendly relationship with each other or a particular human will head-butt or head rub and will extend this into a full body rub. The nose-touch is also a friendly greeting. When cats meet, they sniff each other’s faces, examining the scent glands around the lips to affirm the identity of the other and to put their own scent on the ‘family member’. ‘Tail twinning’ where cats wrap tails together whilst rubbing together is a greeting reserved for those sharing the friendliest relationships.
It’s rude to stare
In humans prolonged eye contact signals friendliness and interest, however in cats prolonged eye contact is an assertive, and even threatening signal. If you want to make friends with a cat, don’t stare at it, blink and look away!
This difference in signal interpretation between humans and cats is responsible for the scenario where several people are in a room for a social occasion and the host’s cat walks in. It unerringly goes towards the person who doesn’t like cats. This is due to the fact that cat lovers will be watching the cat, hoping it goes to greet them, those who don’t particularly like cats will ignore it, hoping it will leave them alone. For the cat, the eye contact made by the cat lovers is somewhat threatening as so it avoids them. The people who don’t particularly like cats are not making eye contact, signalling to the cat that they pose no threat, and are in fact being friendly and non-threatening.
Rival cats try to out-stare each other to resolve conflicts. When a cat realises it is being watched or stared at, it may stop whatever it is doing, assess the “threat” and then continue with its activity, but in a far more self-conscious way. The cat knows it is being watched and becomes uncomfortable. Only when it is no longer being watched, does it relax again. Slowly blinking breaks up an aggressive stare and is a reassuring signal between cats. Yawning is even more reassuring. When relaxed, most cats have their eyes half-open, giving the appearance of being half-asleep. To calm a nervous cat, don’t look directly at it, but near it, perform a slow blink, or even yawn to show to you offer no threat. This uses the cat’s own language to say “I am not threatening you, you can relax”.
Cats have excellent peripheral vision and tend not to stare directly at something unless they are getting a fix on a moving object in preparation for pouncing. When a cat sits day-dreaming, it appears to be not looking at anything in particular. It is actually taking in a great deal of information with its peripheral vision.
Some owners deliberately engage in “blink kissing” with their cats. Look at the cat, glance away, and blink at the cat in a slow and deliberate manner. The cat often blinks in response and then acts in a self conscious way, perhaps fluffing itself up or grooming. It can help the cat-owner bond, but try not to stare at your cat, remember staring is a threat for a cat. Yawning and looking away can have a similar ‘copying’ reaction.
The pupils of the eyes convey part of a cat’s message. As well as dilating or contracting according to the amount of light around, they contract or dilate to indicate mood. Dilated pupils accompany stimulation, fear, aggressive excitement and also the mild excitement of seeing its owner, a feline friend or even dinner. The more fearful a cat is, the wider its pupils expand – it is as if the eyes are trying to take in as much information as possible. An angry, confident cat has narrowed pupils. It may be ready to provoke a fight and by narrowing the pupils it can focus better on detail and also reduce the risk of damage to that part of the eye.
Cats’ ears are extremely mobile and have 20-30 muscles controlling them. They can swivel through 180 degrees and move up and down. They can be pricked forward or flattened sideways or backwards, and can be moved independently of each other.
When content and relaxed, a cat ears face forward but tilted slightly back. However, its ears demonstrate that the cat is alert even when it appears half asleep. If the cat’s attention is caught by a noise or a movement, its pricks its ears more upright, perhaps swivelling one or both to track the source of the noise.
An anxious cat will position its ears slightly back and flattened down. A fearful cat has lowered ears. The more anxious or fearful the cat is, the flatter the ears until they are lying straight backwards, flat to the skull. If the cat is fearful but aggressive, the ears flatten sideways – a combination of the forward pointing “alert” ears and the flattened/lowered “fearful” ears. If only one ear is flattened and the other is held normally, the signal is more ambivalent and the cat isn’t sure how to react to its current situation. Generally it will withdraw a short way to consider the scenario. While considering, the ears shift and change as it processes stimuli and possible responses. A similar highly mobile state occurs when the ears are panning round to catch noises, but the cat’s entire demeanour will be one of alertness or interest, probably with a slightly twitching tail.
Whiskers and mouth signals
The whiskers are mobile and help to indicate the cat’s mood. In a normal relaxed “neutral” state, they are held slightly to the side. As the cat becomes more interested in something around it, the whiskers perk forwards, ultimately coming forwards in front of the muzzle. The cheek pads also seem to swell out as the muscles pull the whiskers into position. If the cat is fearful, it pulls its whiskers back alongside its cheeks to signal that it is non-threatening as this makes the face look smaller.
An open-mouthed yawn shows contentment. An open-mouthed snarl or hiss shows that the cat feels threatened and defensive. Growls are delivered with the mouth only slightly open.
Licking the lips indicates anxiety or anticipation depending on what is happening around it. For example if food is being prepare, lip licking can be assumed to be anticipation of a meal, at other times it indicates the cat feels stressed and anxious, or in my experience, is about to deliver a hair ball, or be sick. Lovely.
The teeth-bared, silent grimace is not a dog-like snarl, but the cat’s flehmen reaction, its drawing air over a special scent/taste gland, and is usually only used in response to assessing another cat’s reproductive status.
If you are lucky you may see your cat ‘chatter’ a rapid movement of the jaw, with a slight clicking noise, usually only occurs when a cat is highly stimulated by the sight of a prey item, on the other side of a window it can’t get to, it indicates frustration and high stimulation.
Some cats sit with their tongue sticking out a little. This usually signals relaxation and contentment or that the cat has become interested in something.
The tail is an organ of balance, a rudder/counterbalance for manoeuvring at high speed and a means of communication. While hunting or stalking, the tail is kept almost horizontally behind the cat. This prevents it from fouling in low-hanging shrubs and prevents the prey from seeing a telltale tail. It may spring upright during the final rush. The tail also conveys a cat’s interest and concentration with a twitching movement as it corners its prey. This twitching movement can also be seen (usually just the tip), when a cat sees something interesting through a window, or when edging towards prey, indicating intense concentration.
The tail is an important tool for communicating with other cats and with humans. It is highly mobile: side to side, up and down, graceful and slow, thrashing and whip-like. It can be a sleep coil folded around a sitting or sleeping cat, a fluffy scarf across a curled cat’s nose or an erect bristling bottlebrush when the cat is frightened. A mother cat may also use it – deliberately or accidentally – as a toy for her kittens.
When a cat is relaxed, confident and alert, it walks with the tail horizontally behind or even slightly drooping, preventing the tail from becoming tangled in undergrowth. If it meets a friendly cat or friendly human, the tail is held vertically to convey friendliness. If it is friendly but cautious of the other cat/person, the upright tail is hooked over at the tip indicating a degree of uncertainty. A mother cat holds her tail upright as a signal to her kittens, which also adopt this posture from 3-4 weeks old to signal both their mother and litter mates their location.
A spraying cat also adopts the tail up posture, the tail will quiver and treading with the hind feet, trying to lift its rump higher, to indicate it is the largest cat it can be. When a cat meets its owner and wants to extend a friendly greeting, the tail goes up and quivers, but there is no spray of urine. It may pull its upright tail slight forwards over the back, kinked down a little at the tip and give a little chirp at the same time. This invites the cat/person to sniff the anal glands and confirm its identity as a group member. Doesn’t mean you have to do it though!
When kittens greet their mother, they run to her with their tails upright. They droop, twine or rub their tails around their mother’s rump or tail to solicit food from her. Adult cats may also tail-twine with friendly cats as they rub against each other (the tail has scent from the anal glands on it from where the cat has washed it). They also wrap their tails around human legs or objects. This both marks the leg or object and, if they are tail-wrapping part of the owner, is an attempt to get attention and/or food.
When a cat is at rest, but readying itself for action, it sweeps its tail erratically from side to side. As it becomes more alert or more emotionally charged, the tail swishes faster, wider and in a more regular manner. If the cat is lying on its side, the tail will be thumping on the floor, often loudly. Though this is most often associated with anger, it may also indicate another highly charged emotion – some cats thrash their tail in ecstasy when being groomed. Violent thrashing therefore indicates high excitement or imminent aggression. A swishing or thumping tail is sometimes an invitation for another cat to join in a bout of play, rather than annoyance. Sometimes an upright tail is jerked suddenly and briefly forwards, this indicating mild irritation.
The other easily recognisable tail signal is the upright bottle-brush tail. This indicates, in an adult cat that it feels seriously threatened and has become defensively aggressive i.e. it would rather get away, but if provoked it will defend itself. The tail doubles in size and the hair on the cat’s spine also stands erect. As well as indicating the cat’s state of mind, it makes the cat appear larger in an attempt to make the aggressor leave without actually fighting. Tail fluffing may be paired with ear flattening.
The “inverted L” is a sign of conflict. The first inch or so of the tail is horizontal and the remainder points straight downwards. The “Inverted U” or “Horseshoe” tail, often with the fur erect, is defensive aggression, but can also be seen during the “mad half hour” when the cat rushes around.
Kittens frequently use all these postures, tail fluffing, ‘inverted L’ and the ‘inverted horseshoe’ during play and mock-battle.
As previously mentioned, a defensive cat erects its fur to appear bigger than it really is. A dominant cat will also try to look bigger than it really is, perhaps swaggering a little with stiff legs. In both cases, the cat is trying to avoid direct conflict.
An aggressive cat will straighten its legs and erect the hair along its spine and tail into a ridge to make itself look more impressive. It arches its back and positions itself side-on to its aggressor to make itself look larger still. They may move sideways in a crab-like fashion (frequently seen in playing kittens).
A defensive animal will move slowly away from its aggressor, watching for any sign of attack in an attempt to avoid provoking a chase reflex in the more dominant animal.
In contrast, a submissive cat wants to appear small and unthreatening. It may adopt a crouch indicating that it wants to be left alone. If this is unsuccessful, it may sink down on one side demonstrating its submissiveness. If the other cat still threatens, the victim will roll over onto its back, turning its head to face its attacker. Unlike the dog, which will go belly-up in full submissive mode, a cat on its back is still a formidable opponent. It has done its utmost to avoid conflict, but if the aggressor continues to press the attack, the victim is able to fight back with all four sets of claws and with teeth. From this position, if the aggressor jumps on its victim, the victim’s fore legs can clasp the aggressor close to the victim’s teeth. Meanwhile, the hind legs are especially dangerous as they may disembowel the other animal.
There are other reasons a cat rolls over. A playful cat will roll over in order to use all four paws, claws sheathed, to “defend” itself, sometimes mock-biting the other cat or the owner. Some cats roll over to greet their owners, this is kitten behaviour and an invitation to “groom” the cat’s belly. Unfortunately the kitten behaviour and the adult behaviour often conflict with each other and a previously playful cat may suddenly switch to attach mode whilst on its back. Oestrus females roll dramatically in front of males to solicit attention, before and after mating. Cats also roll as a way of scratching often rolling on hot pavements or in dust-baths.
Other articles on this site by Purindoors deal with sound and scent communication in the cat.