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.



Herron, Meghan E., Traci Shreyer. May 2014. The Pet-friendly Veterinary Practice: A Guide for Practitioners. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, Vol 44, Issue 3, Pages 451-481

Overall, Karen. Feb 2006. Watching the cues will help unlock clues to feline communication.

Overall, Karen. Nov 2005. Feline communication: Listen to the tail's tale.

Overall, Karen. Sept 2005. Cat signaling: Learn the behavior dance to help patients.

Rodan, Ilona. Nov 2010. Understanding Feline Behavior and Application for Appropriate Handling and Management. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, Vol 25, Issue 4, Pages 178-188

Internal Medicine Specialties

 Advanced Imaging:



rodenticide chest

Digital radiograph of the chest of a dog that presented in severe respiratory distress after accidentally ingesting an anticoagulant rodenticide, a form of rat bait that causes severe internal bleeding.  In this case, the dog bled into the walls of the trachea (wind pipe), causing marked narrowing of this vital airway (the narrowed trachea can be clearly seen on this digital radiograph, highlighted by the orange arrows). Remarkably, with oxygen and appropriate treatment, the dog made a complete recovery.





Ultrasonography is a non-invasive method of examining the abdominal and thoracic cavities, including the heart (echocardiography).




Fluoroscopy enables us to radiographically study function over time.  This
fluoroscopic study shows a dog swallowing a barium meal, and confirms that
the esophagus (food pipe) is working normally.



Computerized Tomography


Computerized Tomography (CT) can be used to provide a detailed, three-dimensional view of the brain and a number of other organs and tissues.


Magnetic Resonance Imaging


Magnetic resonance imaging is provided via the College of Veterinary Medicine's collaborative links with the MSU Institute for Neurocognitive Science and Technology.


Interventional Radiology






Rhinoscopy enables the non-invasive examination of the inside of the nasal cavity, allowing visualization of tissues and foreign objects and the collection of biopsies.








Endoscopy of the gastrointestinal tract allows the non-surgical visualization of lesions, biopsy of intestinal tissues, and removal of foreign objects.



Endoscopic biopsies

Percutaneous endoscopically-guided gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement


Foreign body removal


This cat presented in severe respiratory distress after inhaling one of his own loose teeth into his airway, and was only saved by the emergency removal of the tooth with an endoscope.


Balloon dilation of esophageal strictures




Specialized Techniques

Ultrasound-guided tissue aspiration and biopsies


Ultrasound can often be used to guide the non-surgical biopsies of organs and tissues.


Bone marrow collection

Joint fluid collection

Transtracheal washes and bronchoalveolar lavage

Cerebrospinal fluid collection

Transfusion with blood and specialized blood products

Placement of tracheal stents for treatment of tracheal collapse

Placement of urethral stents in patients with malignant urethral obstructions



Advanced chemotherapy, radiation, and vaccination for melanoma

oncology chemo

Chemotherapy (the administration of drugs that fight cancer) is coordinated through our oncology unit.

Melanoma Vaccine


MSU is currently the only facility in Mississippi approved to administer the new melanoma vaccine, developed for use as an adjunctive therapy as part of the treatment of oral melanoma in dogs.

Canine Melanoma Vaccine Information for Veterinarians



Oncology Service

The goal of the MSU-CVM Oncology service is to provide outstanding diagnostic and therapeutic options for dogs and cats with cancer.  We provide hope, compassion, and healing, while offering innovative treatment for the whole patient. 

Diagnostic options include fine needle aspirates/cytology, incisional and excisional biopsies, bone marrow sampling, and advanced imaging such as digital radiography, ultrasonography, CT, and MRI.  We work with other service groups in the college, including specialists in pathology, radiology, and surgery, to obtain rapid results and to guide patient care.

Treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.  We also offer immunotherapy for canine melanoma and feline injection site sarcoma.  Chemotherapy is administered on site, typically on an out-patient basis.  Radiation therapy is coordinated through the nearby Veterinary Specialty Center using a state-of-the-art Varian Trilogy linear accelerator. 

No matter the tumor type or treatment, our primary goal is always to maintain a fantastic quality of life for each of our patients during their therapy.  As such, treatment plans are tailored to the individual needs of patients and their families, and our experienced team of clinicians, house officers, technicians, and students provide unmatched care at every step of the way.

Our Oncology service team consists of:

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  • Dr. Taya Marquardt, Assistant Professor in Small Animal Oncology and Team Leader in Oncology
  • Dr. John Thomason, Assistant Professor in Small Animal Internal Medicine
  • Dr. Alyssa Sullivant, Assistant Professor in Small Animal Internal Medicine
  • Dr. Tien Tien , Specialty Intern in Oncology/Medicine
  • Lisa Pritchard, Head Medicine/Oncology Technician
  • Virginia Cannan, Medicine/Onclogy Technician
  • Ashley Benjamin, Medicine/Oncology Technician

Please feel free to call the MSU-CVM at 662-325-7016 to coordinate referral appointments or to discuss management of your cancer patients with our Oncology service team members.





Small Animal Internal Medicine Faculty and Staff

SAIM groupPersonnel that directly support the Small Animal Internal Medicine clinical service include five faculty members, three residents (enrolled in a three-year ACVIM-approved specialty residency training program), an intern concentrating on internal medicine/oncology, and three veterinary technicians, as well as a rotating team of small animal interns and senior veterinary students.

Internal Medicine

Faculty and Staff Listing


Recent News


The MSU-CVM Small Animal Internal Medicine service provides a specialist-level service for referring veterinarians in the region, while also offering high-level clinical teaching to veterinary students, interns, and 017a 20140219 tjtresidents.

Referral services include telephone consultations with owners and veterinarians, and comprehensive diagnostic and therapeutic investigations of challenging small animal internal medicine cases referred from veterinary practitioners.

Referral cases handled by the Small Animal Internal Medicine service cover the full spectrum of specialties, including cardiology, critical care, endocrinology, dermatology, hematology, and transfusion medicine.  Specific diagnostic and therapeutic services offered by the Small Animal Internal Medicine service, and common reasons for referral, include tertiary patient care capabilities in our intensive care unit, a spectrum of advanced imaging techniques, endoscopy, and a range of techniques beyond the expertise of many local veterinary practitioners.

Within the Small Animal Internal Medicine group, a focused Oncology Team is provided for our cancer patients.

Meet Our Medical Team

Some of our specialties include:


  • Digital radiography
  • Ultrasonography (including echocardiography)
  • Fluoroscopy
  • Computerized tomography
  • Magnetic resonance imaging 
  • Interventional radiology


  • Rhinoscopy
  • Otoscopy
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Gastroduodenoscopy
  • Colonoscopy
  • Urethrocystoscopy
  • Endoscopic biopsies
  • Percutaneous endoscopically-guided gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement
  • Foreign body removal
  • Balloon dilation of esophageal strictures


  • Ultrasound-guided tissue aspiration and biopsies
  • Bone marrow collection
  • Joint fluid collection
  • Transtracheal washes and bronchoalveolar lavage
  • Cerebrospinal fluid collection
  • Transfusion with blood and specialized blood products
  • Placement of tracheal stents for treatment of tracheal collapse
  • Placement of urethral stents in patients with malignant urethral obstructions