Being able to read cat body language is more than a cool skill that comes with cat parent brownie points. It’s an essential part of being a compassionate and conscientious cat owner. Understanding cat body language will make it easier for you to meet your cat’s needs, respect their boundaries, and understand their expressions of love.
In this first installment of the Cat Body Language Series, we’re going to talk about the importance of context and evaluate the aspects of cat body language that can be noticed at a first glance: body posture and tail movements.
Context and Cat Body Language
Before you begin to draw conclusions about a cat’s body language, it’s important to pause and take a look around. The interpretation of cat body language is largely dependent on the context in which it is occurring.
A cat making eye contact with their favorite human in an environment where they feel safe and secure is likely feeling very different things than a cat making eye contact with a stranger in an unfamiliar environment where they feel trapped. In the former case, eye contact can be interpreted as an expression of love and trust, whereas eye contact likely indicates that the cat is preparing to defend themselves in the latter.
Misinterpreting these cues could mean the difference between a positive cat-human interaction that promotes trust and a negative one that ends in scratch marks and broken trust. So, before you draw conclusions about a cat’s body language, ask yourself a few questions:
Is the cat in a familiar or an unfamiliar environment?
Is the environment open, with lots of places for the cat to hide or get to a higher vantage point?
Or is the environment enclosed and dark with no places to hide?
Are there new or unfamiliar people around?
What is your cat’s typical temperament?
Cat Body Language: The Big Picture
POV: you’re approaching an unfamiliar cat for the first time. What’s the first thing you might notice? Probably not the minutiae of their ear shape, the dilation of their eyes, or the position of their whiskers. While these things are all super important, your first barometer of a cat’s mood likely comes from their overall body posture.
Body Shape and Orientation
Put simply, cats who are feeling comfortable and confident will often have open body language, whereas fearful, anxious, or angry cats will likely present with a closed-off body shape.
In addition to body shape, if you pay attention to the direction that a cat is facing, you can usually get a forecast of their mood and next movements. A cat whose head is pointing toward you might be interested or receptive to you, especially when paired with other relaxed body signals. A cat who is facing sideways, however, is likely considering escape, as this position gives them the best vantage to take off from potential threats.
A cat who is feeling relaxed will usually present with neutral body posture, like in the illustrations above. When sitting, they’ll hold their heads upright and have gentle movement in their tails. When standing upright, their heads and tails will likely be held high, indicating confidence. A cat who is stretched out on their side is the epitome of relaxation, as this position voluntarily exposes their vulnerable tummies.
Cats who are teetering on the edge of comfort and fear might present with alert or anxious body language. Instead of an open body posture, alert cats will begin to close themselves off by lowering their tails and bringing their center of gravity downwards. They’ll also present with more stiffness in their overall movements and postures.
Anxiety and Fear
Because house cats are mesopredators, they have both predator and prey instincts. When a cat feels threatened, they will make themselves smaller to seem less threatening and to protect their vital organs. Where a confident cat will have open body language, a fearful cat will completely close off, leaning away from the threat, crouching down, and tucking their tail into their body.
On the flip side, fearful cats may feel that they can intimidate or fight their way out of a stressful situation. You might see extremely fearful cats trying to make themselves appear bigger by arching their backs and puffing out their fur.
The movement and position of a cat’s tail can act as a sort of mood barometer. At the most basic level, confident and comfortable cats usually have high, relaxed tails, while anxious and fearful cats usually have stiff, lowered, and/or flicking tails.
A cat with a high or neutral tail is likely feeling happy and comfortable. Relaxed cats often present with softly swishing tail movements and minimal stiffness. You get bonus points if your cat wraps their tail around your leg; this is their way of saying a gentle “Hello!”
Once a cat’s tail begins to quiver, this means that something has caught their attention, facilitating a move away from relaxation and toward alertness. Quivering or vibration usually indicates excitement at seeing potential prey.
Focus and Anxiety
A flicking, twitching, or thrashing tail is an indication of increased alertness, though it’s also a bit ambivalent. It could mean that your cat is beginning to feel agitated, or it could be a sign that their hunter’s instincts have been activated. In addition to increased movement, anxious and alert cats will typically present with stiff, lowered tail postures that reflect a decreased level of confidence.
Anxiety and Fear
As a cat moves toward a more fearful state, you’ll likely notice that their tail is pulled in closer to their body and may show signs of piloerection, which is the term for when a cat’s fur stands on end. In the first tile, the anxious cat has their fluffed tail held high, indicating that they’re likely trying to intimidate whatever has made them feel threatened. But, as a cat becomes more afraid, they will try to make themselves appear smaller by tucking their tail. This is an adaptive behavior designed to make themselves a smaller target to possible predators.
Putting It All Together
If you feel like you and your cat are struggling with a language barrier, we hope this series can help. These are just some of the many ways that cats use their bodies to communicate with humans. Stay tuned for our next installments in the Cat Body Language Series, where we’ll discuss everything from facial expressions and vocalizations to honorable mentions like the slow blink.
If you’ve been struggling to learn cat language, it’s possible that you need an interpreter. Jessica Bartlett is a UW-Certified animal behaviorist who offers virtual consultation services that are tailored to the unique needs of the clients she works with. Drawing on her certification in advanced feline training, Jessica helps her clients to speak their cat’s language, leading to more fulfilling cat-human relationships.
Check out Cat Lovers’ Academy to learn more about Jessica, meet her kitty family, take a look at her free purr-fessional resources, and access her cat behavior consulting services.