Print Translating Your Cat’s Body Language

While felines may not "talk" incessantly like canines, cats speak volumes via body language. All you have to do is understand the lingo.

Body language is a natural form of communication in cats, and one way for owners to figure out their pets' needs and emotions. If you need help understanding some of the actions of your cat, here's a cat body language primer for beginners.

  • Arched back, fur on end. Among kittens, this may mean "come play with me." But with older cats, it usually says "leave me alone," especially when paired with a deep growl, stiff movement, or solid eye contact.
  • Kneading with paws. This behavior is typically seen only in small kittens, and experts are mystified as to its meaning in adult cats. It's most likely a carryover from kittenhood that pops up for no particular reason. Most cats find it comforting.
  • Leg rubbing. This is a natural marking behavior for cats. Your cat is covering you with pheromones from glands on her face so you and everyone else in the house will have a comforting group odor. Leg rubbing can also be an owner-reinforced activity because it usually leads to petting and other favorable attention.
  • Leg movements. A bend in her forelegs shows that a cat would rather avoid a fight, but will defend herself if need be. If your cat's legs are fully stretched, she's self-assured and prepared to attack. A bend in the hind legs, however, shows indecision, or even timidity.
  • Ears back. This can mean one of two things: If your feline's ears are back and her posture is steady, she's taking stock of her options and preparing for her next move. But if her body is low to the ground, she's probably guilty of mischief—better check to see if the curtains are tattered or the sofa is scratched to bits.
  • Pricked ears. In general, this indicates your cat's interest in what's happening around her. But there are variations within this behavior that each means something entirely different. A raised head means dominance, a lowered head means submissiveness and a tucked-in head simply means boredom. (Is your cat bored? Maybe exercise is the key. Click here to read "5 Steps to a Fitter Feline").

Sound Effects

  • Purring. Cats purr when they're happy, but other emotions can also lead to purring. Felines purr when they are in pain, in fear, or waiting for something to make them happy.
  • Hissing. A hissing cat is not a happy camper, and should be left alone.

Tail Tales

  • Twitching tail. This usually means a cat's excited about something she sees, such as a squirrel outside the window. However, it can also indicate predatory or territorial arousal, which can lead to aggression. If this is the case, leave her alone until she calms down.
  • Tucked tail. This most often indicates a fearful kitty, especially if accompanied by flattened ears, dilated pupils and growling. A fearful cat may scratch or bite. It's better to leave her alone.
  • Swishing tail. Broad swishing of the tail indicates annoyance, while little movements display excitement and curiosity.
  • Quivering tail. Many believe this is the greatest gesture of love your cat can display. Cats will often reserve this for their favorite person.

Other Behavior

  • Sulking. Cats portray a sulking expression because they are withdrawing. In hostile situations, the dominant cat always stares at her rival. The cat who looks away doesn't want to risk increasing the hostility. When a human stares at a cat, that person becomes the dominant rival. Because the person is bigger than the cat, the cat turns away and surrenders, appearing as if she is sulking. After her sulking stage is over, the cat will usually relax quietly and begin to purr.
  • Scratching. When your cat scratches your new stereo speakers or your leather recliner, she may simply be seeking attention—it's her own way of saying, "Hey, look at me! I exist!"
  • Showing her tummy. When your cat rolls over and bares her belly, she's giving you the ultimate compliment. It's her way of saying she trusts you.
  • Lying low. If your cat is lying flat or crawling low to the ground, she is feeling sneaky and getting ready to attack. Look out—the "victim" could be your bare feet!
  • Pet me, please. Experts say cats carry memories of kittenhood into adulthood. They see people as their own mothers. When you stroke your cat, the stroke may remind her of her mother's tongue grooming her fur. (Petting your cat can be good for you as well as her.)
  • Body size. When your cat expands her body, she's trying to look as big as possible to her foe. It's a way of intimidating her enemies.

When Your Cat’s Body Language May Mean Trouble

Some cat body language can indicate illness or disease. Your cat needs a trip to the veterinarian if she:

  • Refuses to eat
  • Retreats from the household, huddling by herself
  • Neglects her grooming, with her fur becoming ragged and coarse
  • Sneezes repeatedly
  • Scratches constantly
  • Has difficulty urinating
  • Has trouble breathing
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