Cats use their bodies to communicate how they feel. Other cats and animals understand this language but, unfortunately, most humans make little effort to learn a cat’s language. The good news is that once you know what to look for, it is remarkably easy to understand what your cat is trying to tell you!
So, let’s dive in and break down how cats communicate with us.
The Tail – 60% Indicator
The tail is the most obvious sign of a cat’s mood. As a rough indicator, the tail alone will tell you about 60% of how a cat is feeling. There are other indicators, obviously, but the tail is the critical one.
Tails are like a smile on a human. A cat who’s “smiling” walks with her tail straight up in the air. She is confident and happy. A cat who is over-the-moon happy about something will have a hook at the top of her straight tail!
If a cat’s tail is neutral they are unsure or cautious. Treat her as you would someone who’s face is blank. If her tail is curled under, she is feeling agitated, anxious, or insecure. Treat her as you would someone who is frowning.
A twitching or wagging tail indicates that your cat is either angry, focused on a potential meal (mouse, toy, foot), hears or smells danger, or is focused on something else that she sees as a threat. Each cat and situation is different but as a general rule, if a cat is wagging or twitching her tail, that is a sign to back off.
A fluffed out tail is a defensive posture that a cat takes when she tries to make herself look as big and intimidating as possible.
The Eyes – 20% Indicator
Lighting conditions obviously affect a cat’s eyes but, allowing for that, they still give good insight into how a cat is feeling. Be on the lookout for when a cat’s eyes are not a result of the lighting conditions. That’s the real tell!
If your cat’s pupils are very narrow (i.e. slits) and she is not in direct sunlight, that indicates that she is aroused by anger, fear, excitement from hunting, or pleasure.
If your cat’s pupils are very large, that shows that she is either anxious, scared, or is in full hunting mode and ready to pounce!
Many times I’ve seen cats in situations where their pupils are either unnaturally very narrow or very large. They are obviously angry, anxious, or scared. But, since they may be held by a person or cowering down, it is assumed that they are ok when they obviously are not.
The Other 20%: Ears, Whiskers, Etc.
Ears. Ears are hard to interpret since most cats move them around constantly to hear. Nevertheless, the position of the ears is a good indicator of your cat’s mood. Neutral ears (slightly forward and relaxed) is good as it shows your cat is aware but not threatened. Upright ears show that your cat is interested and alert. Back is scared or anxious.
Whiskers. If your cat’s whiskers are relaxed and sticking out sideways, she’s calm. If they’re pushed forward, that means she’s excited and alert. And if they’re flattened against her cheeks, she’s angry or scared.
Purring. When your cat purrs, it is usually a sign of happiness and pleasure. Purring can also indicate that your cat is nervous, sick, or in pain. Be aware of these other meanings if there’s no obvious reason for the purring.
Posture. If your cat is crouched down low, she is either scared, anxious, or getting ready to pounce. An arched back shows your cat feels threatened and is usually accompanied by a fluffed-out tail!
In Action: What’s Pumpkin Trying To Tell Us?
Have a look at the picture of Pumpkin at the top of this post. What is his body language telling us about how he’s feeling?
The first step is to put this in context. Pumpkin had just been chased up the pole by he sister, Pickles. They then traded some swipes and Pickles won the top perch position. Pumpkin then moved across the bridge away from the battle.
The next step is to look at Pumpkin’s body language. His tail is in a neutral position indicating he’s cautious. His pupils are about the right size for the lighting conditions and his eyes are open wide showing that he’s alert. His ears are upright showing that he’s interested and on alert for new noises. His whiskers are far forward showing that he’s alert and gathering sensory information for processing.
Given Pumpkin’s alert and ready-to-hunt body language, I’d show him that I wasn’t a threat and allow him to come to me (any move towards him may be seen as aggression and frighten him).
Have a look at your own cats and see what they are telling you about how they feel. Look at all the body language and at what’s happening around the cat so you can see the big picture. It is also important to note here that, unlike humans, cats don’t lie or try to hide their feelings. What you see is the truth.
In all cases, be cautious and nonthreatening when you approach cats. Try to put your cat at ease and reassure her that you are not a threat and that she is safe. When you understand what your cat is trying to tell you and respect how she feels, it improves your relationship dramatically.
In the next post, we’ll discuss the other side to this equation. Now that we can interpret what our cats are telling us, how do we return the favour and speak to them in a language they understand.
Cindy, Pickles, Peanut and Pumpkin
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