Cat Behavior

Deciphering Cat Body Language

By Rebecca Price                                                                                                                                                                 

Domestic house cats are both a prey and predator species. This can make it difficult to decode their feelings, but we must realize they provide subtle clues throughout the day about their emotional state. Tail, ear, eye, and leg positioning are the more obvious body postures that should be taken into account when trying to decipher a cat’s mood.

cat 1

Figure 1:

The cat facing us is clearly distressed. Though its tail is not wrapped around its body, the rest of its body language indicates no desire to interact with the other cat.

An erect tail, that may or may not wave back and forth, signifies that a cat is wanting to be seen and interested in interacting. A tail tightly wrapped around a cat’s body could mean many things. This signal needs to be interpreted along with the rest of the body (Figure 1). If the cat is crouched with all four feet tucked beneath itself, ears lowered, nose nuzzled while the tail encircles the entire body, then this cat is most likely trying to conserve body heat while resting. On the other hand, if the cat is sitting up, ears pinned back, pupils dilated, and a front leg raised (as if ready to swat), then this cat is not comfortable with the current circumstances. He/she would like more space. Wrapping a tail around another cat signifies trust and comf


cat 2Figure 2: The lowered ears, tailed curled close to the body, retracted legs, and intense fixed gaze indicates this cat is experiencing fear.  This usually occurs when a close relationship is formed between comrades in multi-cat households.

Unlike our own ears, a cat’s ears are quite mobile. They are capable of swiveling their ears about their head to listen for the slightest of sounds. Besides having an auditory function, cats’ ears can provide clues about their mood as well. Erect and rotated ears in conjunction with narrow pupils usually signals anger and aggression. Ears being held down against the head most likely indicates fear (Figure 2). Relaxed cats usually have their ears facing forward. 

Eyes that are fully opened and dilated indicate an alert, aroused cat. If this cat is shifting his/her gaze, then they are looking for an exit. This signals the cat is experiencing fear. He/she does not want to interact and would prefer to retreat rather than confront the situation at hand. A cat with narrow/slit like pupils that barely blinks along with a switching tail signifies agitation. If the stimulus is not removed or changed, this cat will most likely become aggressive.  A cat that is relaxed may have eyes that are half closed. He/she will mostly likely wink or blink excessively, signaling that he/she is content and does not feel threatened (Figure 3).

cat 3

Figure 3:

This is a great example of a relaxed cat. Though this is a still picture, he is probably slowly winking at us.  Leg position also provides clues. Legs retracted into or under the body can be perceived as a cat that is not open for interaction. Upright body posture and balancing on one front paw leaves the other paw ready for striking if a threat comes too close. Relaxed cats commonly expose their stomachs while outstretching their legs (Figure 4).

Remember that some signals are not entirely clear. The tail and eyes may say one thing but posture or leg positioning say another.  Therefore, one must use all of the above body postures to begin to decipher a cat’s current interpretation of its environment, but these signals cannot be used alone. Additional signals, such as vocalization, frequent swallowing, tactile communication (such as scent marking), and many more all contribute to the overall message trying to be transmitted by our feline companions.  Interactions are dynamic, as an interaction proceeds the disposition of the animal can change drastically, so we much practice patience when dealing with a frightened or agitated cat. This article is not fully inclusive. For additional tips on decoding what your cat’s body language means, contact your local veterinarian.



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