Updated: Jul 22, 2022
Ever wonder how your cat seems to know what you're thinking before you do? Why they watch you for countless hours, tracking your every move? They are reading your body language. Unlike humans, cats don’t speak words, but instead, they have a vast communication system
based on body language. When we study how cats move and interact with each other we can begin to understand their language and be better pet owners and trainers. When training any animal it is important to know how to properly communicate with them! Cats use all of their body to communicate to other cats - tail, ears, eyes, posture, and movements, and they will use all of them to try and communicate with you! Read our blog and you just might be able to understand your cat as well as they understand you!
Have you ever noticed your cat’s tail and how much it's telling you? They can communicate so many thoughts and feelings with just this one body part. Whether happy, sad, irritated, or mad the tail will tell you exactly how they are feeling.
When your cat is happy and confident in their environment they will have their tail straight up with a small bend in the tip. You may have seen this when coming home to a happy cat greeting you. Along with a tall tail, their whiskers will be pushed forward and they might wrap their tail around you and other things in the house to mark it as their territory and claim it as their own. When you see your cat displaying these behaviors it is a good idea to praise them so they know this is a great mindset to be in. If you have a fearful cat, pay extra close attention so you can reward efforts to be brave in all environments.
When your cat is feeling relaxed you may see many different tail positions. It can be somewhere in the middle: not low, not high, just right - indicating that they are relaxed and interested. They can also be laying down with it straight out from their body with slight movement in the tip when they are scoping out the scene. Sometimes you can even see a relaxed cat give a big stretch in the “downward dog pose’ with their tail held high. If your kitty is sleeping or in a relaxed position you will find their tail gently and loosely curled around their body but not tucked in tight. They often give you telltale signs that they are relaxed by laying on one leg to rest their head and the other tucked in. This indicates an open body posture. In this calm state, they may slowly blink at you, you can reciprocate this to show them that you love them.
At the other end of the spectrum when your cat is upset and their tail might be straight up and bushy or low and swishing. When your cat’s tail is standing straight up with the fur on the tail looking like a pipe cleaner or the famous “Halloween cat” your cat is startled and afraid. They will also likely be standing with their body curved and to the side trying to size up a threat and make themselves look bigger. The tail that is swishing low can mean a couple of things. You’ll also want to pay close attention to the eyes and ears as well. Generally, when a cat’s tail is low, swishing back and forth at a rapid pace, it can mean that the cat is rather irritated or anxious. Look at their eyes, too. Are they squinty and slightly dilated? Are their ears on a swivel or to the side? When your cat is feeling this way it is best to assess the situation and either stay out of their way and let them calm down on their own, redirect them away from the trigger, or calmly remove them from the situation. They will feed off your energy so whatever you decide is the best plan of action stay calm and collected and praise them when they settle back down.
Sometimes when cats are feeling threatened, worried, or afraid they will tell you that you need to give them space or else. This tail is usually tucked tightly to their bodies or as explained above, in the “Halloween” tail, standing straight up! We will outline below how the ears and eyes can play a role in this, too. Don’t worry, you’ll know. They might even verbally display their displeasure with a loud “YOWL”. This is an important part of communication and is their way of telling others “no” without jumping straight to biting or scratching. Give your cat some time to cool off then try doing calm activities they enjoy. Stay aware of what leads to these signals and try to avoid or train for them in the future.
Here's some fun things you may not have known about a cat's tail:
The tail is a balancing tool to help stabilize your cat when they are walking and jumping on tall objects.
The tail is attached to the cat's spine and if the tail is injured, it can permanently damage the spine. NEVER grab a cat by the tail!
The domestic cat is the only feline that can hold its tail high while walking.
Cats’ eyes are one of the most beautiful things on earth, and they express their feelings through their eyes as well. (Not only are they windows to their soul, but they also see pretty well with them, too. Their visual acuity is quite good - they cat see up to 6x better in the dark than humans (Merck Veterinary Manual), thanks to uniquely structured eyes, and can detect the slightest motion and small hidden objects we can't see - which is one reason they are such great hunters!
Just like the tail, a cat's eyes can reflect many moods. If your cat's eyes are round and wide-open, you have their full attention - and usually it's because you have something they want - maybe their favorite toy or treat. Soft, relaxed eyes that are open wide say “I trust you.” However, eyes need to be evaluated in context with their overall body language. Your kitty'
s eyes may be wide open, but if the pupil's suddenly become dilated, this is a sure warning sign that your cat is stressed, irritated, or overstimulated. They will sometimes follow this with squinting - if you see these changes, it's time to act and address what's bothering your cat - usually either something is scaring or annoying them, but both situations need to be addressed before your cat responds in a negatively.
Cat's read your eyes, too! If you want to make your kitty fall in love with you, just give him a slow blink back when he looks at you. It’s a surefire way to say you can trust me! When rehabbing a cat, I often lay on the ground with an open body position, laying my head on one arm, and now and then giving them a slow blink. Mirroring the cat tells them that you understand them and aren’t a threat. Ever notice how bonded cats mirror each other? They are communicating through their body language that they are comfortable and happy the other cat is there.
Cats can hear from great distances. (Did you know cats are lethal within 3 feet of their prey and can pounce in 1/6th of a second?) They can operate their ears independently, with each ear having 32 muscles, and can hear better than dogs and humans. Their heightened sense of hearing and awareness gives them a great advantage in many situations.
Their human can also use their cat's ears to their advantage if they can learn to decipher how their cat is feeling by looking at them or even feeling them.
A stressed cat gets an adrenaline rush and that increases the temperature of its ears - rule of thumb “Hot to trot, better not”. Hot ears can also indicate a change in body temperature due to an underlying illness. Again, you need to evaluate their entire demeanor when assessing their mood. If their ears are warmer than normal but they are lethargic and showing no other signs of stress, it may be time for a vet visit.
When your cat’s ears are forward and up this most often means that your cat is alert and paying attention. Their ears are on a swivel and they are constantly observing the changes in their environment with their ears. Just watch how much they move when they are chilling out! Watch little Georgia's ears in this video as she tries to scale the sides of the bathtub. Did you see her ears turn sideways after her third failed attempt? How would you interpret what she's thinking at that moment?
If your cat's ears are completely sideways or flat on the head accompanied by squinty eyes: this is “No Bueno” - no good! Their whiskers will also be flat against the muzzle making them small. This means they are upset and often paired with the tucked or puffy tails we talked about earlier. This means it's time to take a break and try again later.
You may have noticed that cats like to rub on corners of furniture or the walls when they are walking by, but what are they saying when they do that? It’s more common in a multiple cat household but it’s also a natural behavior cats do when marking their territory, even you! Cats have calming scent glands on their cheeks, head, shoulder area, and down to their tail. When they rub against an object they are leaving their pheromones behind and claiming that territory as their own. Pay attention to how your cat greets you: a sign of love and affection is a head bonk and a leg rub!
What is your cat saying when they are rolling around in the sun or scratching with their backs on the ground and bellies in the air?
This is a sure sign of a happy cat and they trust you but look out! This is not an invitation for belly rubs, we call that the Venus Cat Trap! If you dare try, you’ll surely get bunny-kicked or a light bite to say, “No, thank you.”
When your cats take a cat bath in front of you, make this a great compliment. A fearful or angry cat will not groom in your presence.
My cat is “making biscuits”, what in the world does that mean?
It’s quite possibly the cutest thing cats do to say they love you. Cats learn at birth to make biscuits on momma to get more yummies from her. It’s a way that your cat is saying, “I love you, momma (or daddy)!” It can also be a sign that they are soothing themselves in preparation for a good catnap. My cats like to do it on a super cushy blanket that feels soft like their cat mom. You can sometimes find the suckling behavior at this moment, often because the cat was weaned or rescued at a very early age. Cats can also drool like dogs when they are overstimulated and happy with life.
Other Signs of Stress, Fear, and Frustration
Here are some important things to pay close attention to when your cat is experiencing any level of stress, fear, or uncertainty. You will see these signs in this order when your cat becomes stressed, frustrated and relieves stress.
When faced with stress or uncertainty, cats will often lick their lips in response to their predicament. This should not be confused with grooming and licking lips. You will often see a blank stare, and paws tucked under their chest indicating that they aren’t happy with the situation. Pay attention to this closely because this is a sign that you can intervene and redirect the cat, convincing them to change their minds. A simple game of wand toy, laser pointer, or a treat is an effective way to change their mindset. It's extremely important to watch for this sign when your cat is in a new, potentially stressful environment like a vet visit or a cat show, otherwise, you will miss your opportunity to intervene and be left wondering why your seemingly calm kitty just tried to take a bite out of your vet.
When not tired (cats yawn when they're tired, too!), this can be a sign of frustration. This typically doesn’t result in lashing out – they’re simply trying to remove themselves from their current situation, like being held for too long. If you notice your cat is yawning while training, pay attention to their environment and what you are doing so you can make them feel more comfortable.
Sighing and Shaking Off
In the presence of fear or uncertainty, the goal is to get your cat to sigh and shake off. Sighing shows you that they are starting to relax and are trying to de-stress themselves. Shaking off after a stressful situation - while it resembles what a wet dog does after a bath, is the key to a healthy response to fear, anxiety, or uncertainty. So, when your cat has been showing signs of fear or anger, watch for sighing and shaking, telling you that they have cooled off and are feeling better. Once you have learned how to read these signs of stress followed by acceptance, there is nothing more exciting than seeing your cat survey a potentially scary situation and then respond with a big sigh and shake.
Ultimately, cats want to and should be in a balanced state of mind. We can achieve this through positive training and knowing how and when to encourage them. Every moment we interact with our cats, whether good or bad, we are training them. Keep your eyes peeled and be ready to pounce on the good opportunities to change their minds and change a life!