Cat Communication: Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language

If you’re anything like me, you often look at your fluffy feline friend and ask yourself “what are they thinking?”.

Actually, this has become a kind of game I like to play, to try to figure out what my cat might be thinking at any given time.

In fact, one of my favorite videos is this amusing “diary of a sad cat“, where the human speaks what all cats must be thinking – it’s really funny! 

Well, we might not be able to really read our pet’s mind, but we can pick up on the clues they give us to let us know how they are really feeling. 

What do cats think and feel – and more importantly: how do they communicate? 

cat hunting in garden cat veteran
Notice this cat’s tail…it’s pointing down. This means he is likely on the hunt for something in the garden!

So, how do cats communicate? Cats have different ways of communicating with other cats and with humans. Cats communicate vocally (meowing, purring, and hissing) and with their bodies and behavior.

Here are a few key things to note, before we dive in:

  • One of the main ways a cat will communicate with humans and other cats is with their tail. Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, jaw, and near their tail. When they rub those parts of their body on an object or another animal, they transfer a scent that only other cats can smell.
  • A cat’s eyes will give them away in a lot of different ways (more on that below) however, a cat’s eyes are for more than just communicating! Did you know a cat can see in the dark much better than a human can? In fact, cat’s eyes react to light and darkness in very interesting ways – read on to find out more! 
  • It’s also very important to note though that every cat is different so different cats will communicate things in slightly different ways, understanding the nuances of the ways in which your cat communicates is crucial to developing a strong bond with your feline friend.

Having said all of that, let’s dive into how a cat will communicate how they feel, what they want and more using a mixture of scent, sound and body language!

two cats kissing  cat veteran
Cats will often “touch noses” as a greeting, to sniff out the other cat’s scent – this is usually considered a friendly greeting.

Cat Communication Through Tails: How Do Cats Communicate with Their Tails?

A quick funny story about a cat’s tail giving away their true emotions: on the day we brought my son home from the hospital, our indoor/outdoor cats wandered in like usual once the day ended. Tess found her spot on our computer desk (her usual), and Lucy was begging for her food bowl to be re-filled (her usual). Our son let out a cry, alerting them to his presence.

Our oldest cat, Tessa, has been around kids her whole life – so she didn’t mind much. Lucy on the other hand…she was not as amused. In fact – the sudden cry from an unknown human in her house made her tail become so bushy and she pointed in straight up in the air as her whole body tensed. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that happen, she’s a short haired cat but I could have sworn that night she had mange of hair because her tail got so big. 

This is one of the ways cats communicate with their tails. I’ll explain more below!

happy orange cat cat veteran
Eyes closed, ears relaxed, comfortable posture…this cat is content!

A cat’s tail can say many different things about the cat’s mood, her intentions and in turn, how you should interact with your cat.

Reading a cat’s body language is important to understand what that cat needs (or equally important, doesn’t need) from you as her owner. 

Let’s talk about the different signs your cat could be giving you with her tail movements. 

🐈 Wagging Tail

Well, it depends on how she’s wagging her tail. Yes, really! 

A quick. swift moving tail suggests a strong emotion – most of the time anger or annoyance. Meanwhile, a slower, “swish” movement of her tail would signal that she is happy to see you (or that bag of treats you’re carrying). And a quivering or twitching tail tends to mean your cat is focused (maybe on that bouncing ball you just threw or an animal in the bushes) – best to let her focus on what she’s looking at. 

🐈 Tail Pointing Down

A cat walking with his tail down is usually in an aggressive mood – he could be stalking something or just generally uneasy about something in the environment. Reading your cats body language is important to know when and how to interact with your pet – and this is usually a sign your cat isn’t in a playful mood. 

🐈 Fluffy or Bushy Tail 

As I mentioned in my little story above, if a cat feels threatened, fearful or suddenly startled, she will bush her tail up to be really fluffy as to appear bigger to the potential threat.

Best leave this cat to herself to settle down – if there is something in the environment that has frightened your pet – give her a way out (opening a door or removing the “threat” from her space). 

🐈 Curled at the Tip Tail 

A cat whose tail is curled at the top can be very curious and potentially questioning of something around her. Funnily enough, a curled cattail does look a bit like a question mark – so this one is easy to remember! Let your cat feel out her surroundings on her own, don’t force her into any specific location. 

🐈 Tail Between Legs

Do you know those movies where you see the lost and hurt puppy dog running away with it’s tail between its legs? Well, it’s a bit the same for a cat – usually, a tail between an animal’s leg signals a submissive or fearful cat. Unlike the bushy/fluffy tail tactic, cats usually do this to appear less frightening or aggressive to another animal. 

🐈 Tail Straight and Pointing Upwards 

This signifies a happy cat! Usually, your cats tail would stand upright when she’s around you. A little fun fact for you: a mother cat will hold her tail upright to signal for her kittens to follow her!

One of my favorite videos explaining cat language touches on how a cat’s tail can let you know just how they are feeling  – check it out below! 

 

Cat Communication Through Body Language: The Eyes Have It 

A cat’s eyes are incredible – both in design and in communication. For this post, we’ll focus more on the communication your cat does with her eyes, but we do have a post for you to read if you’re interested in learning more in-depth information on what your cat sees

What does the size of my cat’s pupil mean? 

We’ve all seen a cat’s pupils in all different sizes…we just maybe haven’t realized it. A cat’s eye will become like narrow slits in the sunlight or in bright spaces to protect the retina from damage, as cat’s eyes are made to see much better in the dark. A cat’s eyes will dilate in darker spaces or at night, because they are adapting to their surroundings to see better in the dark. 

Your cat can also communicate with you through her eyes –  so let’s break down some of the more common cat expressions from their eyes. 

  • trust, safety, and comfort 
  • dominance or assertiveness 
  • aggression and anger 
  • cat kisses
close up of cat eyes cat veteran
A cat looking up in the daylight. Notice the slit-like pupils. In the dark, her pupils will dilate and become big round circles to adapt to seeing in the dark.

Check out our post on cat vision to learn more about how a cat’s eyes work!

Trust/Safety/Comfort

Cats allow their eyes to be wide open when they are alert – but this can also be a sign of great trust. A cat that puts her face close to your cheeks or allows her face to get close to another pet (a cat-buddy or a friendly dog) is a cat that feels safe and content in her environment.

This can even be seen as an act of trust or affection. 

Dominance

A cat that doesn’t blink or stares for a long time at something is a cat that wants you (and any other living being in the room) to know that they are in control. This is a sign of dominance or even in some cases, a sign of aggression.

Owners actually don’t often recognize this (because who really realizes how often their cats blink) – but other animals in the room would certainly take notice. 

Aggression/Anger

A cat’s eyes will become very small slits to indicate fear, aggression or anger. Similar thought process to how a cat’s open eyes indicate trust and comfort, a cat’s slit eyes indicate the exact opposite of that. In squinting, they are protecting their eyes from potential dangers (such as another cat’s claws). 

The Slow Blink (AKA, the Cat Kiss)

A relaxed, comfortable and happy cat will have sleepy-looking eyes. If you meet your cat’s gaze when she is in this content and happy mood – slowly blink your eyes. If she blinks back, you have been given affection in one of the highest forms – the cat kiss.

One of my favorite cat buddies, Jackson Galaxy, explains in the video below how a cat kiss works. 

 

Cat Communication Through Body Language: The Ears

A cat’s ears are very telling…if you see a cat with pushed back ears, you know that cat is on edge and could be preparing for fight or flight mode. If you notice your cat’s ears are pointing upwards and alert,  you can tell your cat is searching for that sound they just thought they heard. 

Cats can also convey how they are feeling with their ear movements, and this, in turn, can let you know how you should interact with your cat. Here are some of the more well-known cat ear positions and what they mean…

 Forward-Facing Ears 

Curiosity, interest, and intrigue! A cat’s pointy ears are listening to interesting sounds to gather information about her surroundings. You might notice your cat’s ears perk up a bit if you have a window open and birds are chirping. 

 Turned to The Side Ears 

Uneasy, scared and anticipating potential threats – your cat’s ears may turn a bit to the sides (like airplane wings). Cats also do this as a form of protection, similarly to when a cat squints her eyes to protect them from a potential attack. 

 Twitching Ears 

A cat’s ears may twitch or flicker when she is feeling on edge or agitated. This can be noticed when a cat’s sideways-facing ears flutter or twitch quickly.

 Flattened Ears 

Anger or fear could be behind your cat’s flattened ears. This can keep her ears out of range of a predator’s claws or teeth and can be a sign of your cat preparing for a fight or flight. Cat’s with slicked back ears (different than flattened to the sides) are in fight mode. 

Check out some cool facts about your cat’s ears in the video below! Also, to read some interesting and helpful information on ear mites in cats, click here

 

How Do Cat’s Communicate with Other Cats?

Cat’s don’t just use their bodies to communicate with us humans – no, no! They use these methods to communicate with each other and other pets, as well. The way a cat communicates with other pets differs a little bit from the way they communicate with us humans, though. 

In fact, cats “meow” primarily to communicate with their humans – not really to communicate with other animals. According to anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, part of the evidence to support this is that feral cats don’t meow nearly as much as domesticated house-cats do. 

So, how do cats communicate with each other? 

  • scents and markings 
  • hissing, yowling, and other verbal cues 
  • physical body language such as arched back, fluffy fur

Scent or Markings

Leaving a scent (urine) is a classic sign to other cats that says “I’m here!” and most likely “this is my area!”.

This sometimes brings out the competitive nature in cats – this is why multi-cat homes usually have those one or two places where your male cats may spray…they notice another cat’s scent there and want to mark it as their own. 

Hissing, Yowling or Verbal Cues

Just because cat’s don’t generally use their “meows” towards other pets, doesn’t mean all vocal communication is off limits. Cats can communicate through a variety of different sounds: hissing, purring and yowling, to name a few. 

Physical Body Language

Much like communicating with humans, a cat will use their body language to signal their emotions to other pets.

For example, fluffy hair that’s standing on end signals alertness, fear, and potential fight or flight mode.

Whereas ears pointing down, body low to the ground can signal they are ready for an attack if the perceived threat doesn’t dissipate. 

alert cat cat veteran
Ears pointing, eyes wide open, body language tense…this cat is on alert!

Related Questions:

Why do cats close their eyes when you pet them? Think of this as the ultimate compliment, because your cat is being vulnerable around you and showing you they accept your love. Closing their eyes for more than a split second shows immense trust in the environment and situation. Your cat is comfy and happy! 

Why do cats like to sleep with their owners? This is another classic act of appreciation and trust from your cat – sleeping next to you makes them feel safe and content, and they love spending time with you! This could also be another way for them to keep cosy and warm – you may find your cat more likely to snuggle in bed with you in the winter time. 

Do cats love their owners? Cats are capable of emotions, and if you treat them right, they will show you in their own ways how much they love you. Check out this post about the 12 Different Ways Your Cat Shows You They Love You, and let me know in the comments below if your cat does any of these cute little acts of affection. 

Why cats ears are hot? A healthy cat’s ears should be warm to the touch, but not hot. Your cat’s ears are a part of their body that help them regulate their body temperature. If you think your cat’s ears are warmer (or cooler) than normal, this could be an indication of a health concern and it’s always worth asking your local vet about.

Why do cats lift their butt when you pet their tail area? A cat may instintively lift their rear end in response to being pet near the base of their tail. This is because cats are able to transfer their scent through their anal glands – when they raise their tail to you or other cats, it’s their way of letting you confirm their identity and exchange scents. 

Why do cats eyes turn black? A cat’s eyes are designed to operate in dim lighting situations – actually, your cat’s eyes will work far better in the dark than our human eyes could. If you were to look at your cat’s eyes in the sunlight, you would see that they are narrow slits – this is to protect their retina from damage. When you see your cat in a dim room or perhaps at night fall – your cats eyes will dilate to accomodate for the lower lighting. It’s this that tends to make their eyes look almost completely black. 

Why do cats purr and then bite you? Well, we happen to have a whole post on this subject. Click here to read it

Has your cat ever done anything particularly strange to communicate a feeling to you?

Let us know in the comments below what communication you’ve noticed from your cats! 

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