Interpreting cat body language is a subtle and complex art form. Where dogs seemingly wear their hearts on their sleeves, cats keep their cards close to their chest, preferring to maintain a mysterious and elusive air. While this hard-to-get method is, personally, one of the things I love about cats, it can also make it hard for the untrained eye to know when they’re crossing a cat’s boundaries – or to recognize displays of love.
In part 1 of the Cat Body Language Series, we talked about context and the big-picture cat body language cues that you might notice at a glance. Now it’s time to get into the cues that you have to look a little closer to see, like the minutiae of a cat’s facial expressions and ear position.
Just a Piece of The Cat Body Language Puzzle
Recent research has shown that some people are able to read a cat’s emotions just from looking at their facial expressions, but cats’ expressions are often so subtle that it can be easy to misinterpret. That’s why it’s important to realize that these details are just some of the puzzle pieces that make up the overall cat body language puzzle. These pieces must be put together with other cues, like the ones discussed in Part 1, in order to be read accurately.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that your cat uses their ears to tell you a whole bunch of things, from “I’m feeling so happy and relaxed” to “I’m anxious and need you to back off.” When paired with other cues, the position of a cat’s ears can also add depth and clarity to our interpretation of a cat’s overall body language.
Cats who are feeling confident and relaxed will often present with neutral ears. As you can see in the illustration above, a relaxed cat usually has their ears facing upright and slightly forward. There are some variations to this rule, so it’s important to consider context and the unique breed of your cat. For instance, Scottish Fold cats have a genetic mutation that causes their ears to fold forward, so their “relaxed” ear position will be different from that of a standard domestic cat.
When something has caught a cat’s attention, their ears might react in a few different ways. Alert cats might swivel their ears backward and forward or present with some slight twitching, but they also might hold their ears in a forward position that is similar to the relaxed cat’s ears.
This is where looking at context and overall body language can come in handy. Upright and forward ears can be a sign of confidence, but it might also mean that they’re feeling vigilant and attempting to take in as much sound as they can. Other pieces of the cat body language puzzle, like tail movement, posture, and pupil dilation can help to clarify things.
Alertness is a somewhat ambivalent state; it could simply indicate interest, or it could be the stepping stone into anxiety and fear. If you notice these signals, it could mean that your cat is more likely to be startled, so avoid abrupt movements and be thoughtful when initiating interaction.
Anxiety and Fear
When cats are feeling anxious or fearful, their bodies will reflect their instinctive drive to protect themselves. They’ll likely bring their ears closer to their heads in an effort to protect them from being damaged.
An anxious cat will often present with “airplane ears,” where their ears splay out to the sides like the wings of an airplane. At this point, it’s important to give space to prevent them from moving all the way into fearfulness, in which their ears will press flat against their heads. Once a cat has reached this point, you should cease all interaction (unless you want to be scratched or bitten) and make sure they have an escape route available.
You know what they say: the eyes are the window to the soul and whatnot. In the case of cats, I’d say the eyes definitely help to pull back the curtain a bit. Like the ears, a cat’s eyes provide important clarification that is valuable when trying to interpret what they’re thinking and feeling.
Cats’ pupils offer a wealth of information about their mood. Cat pupils dilate and constrict in response to lighting and to emotional arousal; the more dilated their pupils are, the more information they can take in. So, a cat with undilated pupils feels relaxed enough to lower their defenses. The same applies to cats who willingly close their eyes or slow blink in your presence; this is the ultimate sign of trust and often seen as a cat saying “I love you.” (hint: say “I love you” back by slowly blinking in return).
However, pupil dilation is not an exact science. Context is especially important when interpreting this cue, as cat’s pupils may have responses that have nothing to do with their mood. In dark areas, cats’ pupils naturally expand to allow more light into the eye, and in lighter areas they become more narrow.
As mentioned above, dilated pupils indicate that a cat is trying to take in more information from their environments. When something catches a cat’s attention, their pupils will naturally dilate to allow them to see and examine more of their surroundings.
Anxiety and Fear
Cats who are anxious will often display a “hard stare,” where they stare fixedly with dilated eyes and a rigid body posture. This differs from when a cat looks at you with relaxed eyes, which is an expression of trust and companionship, and instead is a sign that a cat feels threatened and needs some space.
When a cat has crossed over the threshold into fearfulness, the hard stare will be intensified with furrowed eyes and other bodily cues, like piloerection, flattened ears, and exposed teeth. This is a clear sign to back off and give some space – unless you’re in the mood to be attacked.
Cats use their whiskers to navigate the world. Their whiskers may look like cute additions to their face, but they’re really functional touch receptors that attach to a network of nerve endings under their skin. This makes them sensitive enough to navigate in the dark by detecting changes in the air currents around them. The movement of a cat’s whiskers can serve as helpful indicators of their mood.
Relaxed cats keep their whiskers positioned loosely at both sides of their face. Likewise, alert cats who are hunting or playing will push their whiskers forward, which aids in prey detection. However, like flattened ears, cats pull back their whiskers to protect them when they’re feeling fearful or preparing for a fight, as this position prevents whisker damage.
Still Struggling With a Language Barrier?
If you’re finding yourself still struggling when communicating with your furry best friend, stay tuned for Part 3 of the Cat Body Language Series, where we’ll give you the final pieces of the cat body language puzzle.
If you have problems that a blog can’t solve, though, it might be time to reach out to an expert. 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.