By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If you own a dog, you know how expressive and animated they can be. It’s hard to mistake emotions like excitement or contentment in a pup.
Cats, on the other hand…well, let’s just say they’re not as easy to read. Wrongly or not, cats have earned the reputation of being aloof, snobby, or indifferent, especially compared to their canine counterparts.
Of course, all pets have their own unique ways of interacting with humans. I learned this growing up, having helped care for numerous strays my sister brought home (and even their kittens! My parents –God bless- went along with it all). A cat’s way of communicating is very different than a dog’s. But that doesn’t mean your feline friend is an emotionless ball of fur. Quite the contrary…
It just takes a little bit of time and practice to figure out what your cat’s verbal and physical cues mean. Once you do, I promise you’ll have a much closer bond with your cat!
Before getting started though, it’s important to remember that the meaning of cats’ physical and verbal cues can vary depending on the context. Cats evolved as both predators and prey, so it makes sense that a meow, movement, or position can mean completely different things based on what’s going on around them. So, being aware of surroundings can really help you figure out cat speak.
With that in mind, let’s start with physical cues: ears, tail, eyes, and body postures.
Cats Communicate with their Ears
Cat ears are pretty expressive because unlike human ears, which have six muscles, cat ears have 32! This allows them to move quite a bit and take several different positions.
Here are some of the signals your cat may be giving off with his ears:
- Normal/forward: Confident, happy, and relaxed
- Forward/high and erect: Alert, possibly asking to play
- Partially flattened: Anxious
- Fully flattened (sometimes called “airplane ears”): Afraid
- Fully flattened and back on head: Angry, threatened, and/or ready to attack
Cats Communicate with their Tails
The tail is another very obvious clue into your cat’s mood and thoughts. Just like ears, tails say a lot. Here are some common signals your cat may be giving you based on his tail position:
- Tail high, vertical, and extended behind or over the back, sometimes with curl at the end: Relaxed, content, happy
- Tail down, close to body or tucked between legs: Anxious, wants to be left alone
- Tail tense or twitching: Alert, interested, sometimes associated with play
- Tail close to body, puffed out: Fear, anger, possible imminent attack
- Rapidly whipping tail back and forth: Can indicate fear and/or aggression – is a warning to stay away
Cats Communicate with their Eyes
Eyes are the windows to your soul—and also your cat’s. Their pupils, in particular speak volumes:
- Normal pupils accompanied by slow blinking: Your cat is happy, content, and relaxed. The slow blink is a sign of trust and comfort—you should feel loved! If you want to reciprocate, try blinking slowly back at your cat. This helps create a stronger bond and lets your cat know that you love him too.
- Normal pupils, wide eyes: Your cat is alert.
- Enlarged/dilated pupils: Your cat is probably anxious or tense for some reason, especially if his ears are partially flattened. Or, he may be afraid and is either planning an attack or looking for a place to hide. Sometimes, dilated pupils mean the desire to play. Other times, dilated pupils can indicate that your cat is in pain. This is a scenario where considering the context and surroundings can help you figure out the meaning of your cat’s dilated pupils.
Cats Communicate with their Body Posture
Finally, when it comes to communication, your cat’s body posture plays a huge role. Here are some of the most common gestures and movements from cats, and what they mean:
- Rubbing against you: You’ve probably experienced many an instance where your cut rubs up against you—most commonly your legs while you’re standing. This is a friendly interaction; his way of saying “hello, nice you see/meet you.” It’s also a way for your cat to transfer pheromones to mark his “territory.”
- Back arching: When cats arch their backs, it’s usually a sign that they’re afraid and about to become aggressive. This is often accompanied by dilated pupils, a puffed out tail, and flattened ears.
- Crouching: This often means that your cat is ready to play. You might find your kitty crouching and ready to pounce on a favorite toy, your hand, or another cat. Sometimes, though, crouching can mean he is looking to make an escape out of fear. Again, it’s all about the context! So, look around and see what else is going on in the room to fully understand this behavior.
- Kneading: A cat that “kneads dough” is almost always content and/or sleepy. He’s definitely comfortable with you in this moment.
- Stretched out, belly up: This position can mean a couple different things. Sometimes, a belly-up position indicates trust and that your cat feels unthreatened and relaxed. It might mean “pet me,” but only for cats that enjoy having their bellies rubbed. If not, you’ll learn very quickly to not do that again, as your cat will latch onto your hand with all four paws (and claws) and bite you. For other cats, showing their bellies means “play with me.”
Cats Communicate through Vocalization
Vocalizations accompany many of the body gestures and postures mentioned above. Adding sounds to physical cues can help create the most complete picture of what’s on your cat’s mind.
Here are the most common ways your cat “talks,” and what it all means…
- Purr: Purring signifies contentment. Sometimes, though, cats purr to self-soothe when they’re injured, stressed, sick, hungry, or anxious. But for the most part, a purring cat is a happy cat.
- Trill: This high-pitched purring sound is how mothers communicate with their kittens. In older cats, it’s an expression of friendliness.
- Meow: The meow is the most prolific—and ambiguous—sound a cat makes. A meowing cat could be expressing many things, from hunger or thirst to frustration or annoyance. Some are simply being chatty. Constant, nonstop meowing, especially if this isn’t typical for your cat, could mean something is wrong. A visit to the vet might be in order. Once again, looking for other clues in body language and environment can help you decipher your cat’s meows.
- Yowl: A yowl sounds like a drawn-out howl. Cats yowl as a mating call. If that’s not the case, a yowl could indicate fear or anxiety.
- Growl: Back off! If you don’t, you’ll likely get a…
- Hiss: A hissing cat is angry and ready to fight. While hissing, cats usually show their fangs, which are sharp and meant to scare off aggressors.
- Chirp: A feline chirps when he sees potential prey (bird, bug, etc.) that he can’t get to. It usually expresses a combination of eagerness and frustration.
Putting the Physical and Verbal Together
As you can see—and contrary to popular belief—cats truly are expressive, engaging animals! They may be a little challenging to read at first, but analyzing their body language, vocalizations, and surroundings can really help you understand their unique ways of communicating. Once you do, you’re sure to create a deeper, more loving bond with your furry friend!
*This blog was developed with Veterinarian Dana Wilhite, DVM to help educate pet owners.
- Duno, S. 12 Sounds Cats Make and What They Mean. Moderncat.com, last accessed Nov. 10, 2021 at https://moderncat.com/articles/12-sounds-cats-make-and-what-they-mean/
- Kuschmider, R. How to Read Your Cat’s Body Language. Pets.webmd.com, last accessed Nov. 10, 2021 at https://pets.webmd.com/cats/features/cat-body-language#1
- Tuft + Paw. The Definitive Guide to Cat Behavior and Body Language. Tuftandpaw.com, last accessed Nov. 10, 2021 at https://www.tuftandpaw.com/blogs/cat-guides/the-definitive-guide-to-cat-behavior-and-body-language
© Stephen Sinatra, MD and Vervana, LLC. All rights reserved.