How to Speak Cat: Decoding your Cat’s Body Language
How well do you understand your cat?
Which of these two cats will welcome being stroked?
- The cat with all four paws tucked under her body, who slowly blinks back at you
- The hunched cat with dilated eyes and whiskers flattened against her muzzle
The correct answer is (a) because her body language suggests she is relaxed, with slow-blinking a sign of acceptance and relaxation. On the other hand in (b) we have a stressed cat that is primed and prepared to lash out if pushed past her comfort zone.
Of course it’s easier to compare and contrast in order to reach a decision, what’s much trickier is when you are looking at one cat and trying to decide what her mood is. However with knowledge of feline body language you could, quite paws-ibly, save yourself from scratches because cats do communicate it’s just that we don’t always spot the signs.
The Eyes have It
A cat that stares (or glares) without blinking is a cat issuing a challenge. In the world of your four-legger staring is equivalent to spoiling for a fight, which is also why it’s bad news to stare at your cat as you’re likely to alarm her.
Other signs that your cat is wound up tighter than a coiled spring are extremely small or very large pupils. Both of these are a sign of lots of adrenaline pumping round her body and the urge to fight or run. It’s best to keep your distance if you see this, as approaching will push her outside her comfort zone.
Of course the exception to the pupils is in extreme lighting such as bright light or darkness, since then the natural physiology of the eye to gather light takes over.
A cat’s ears are extremely expressive, always on the move and rarely still, even when the cat is asleep. Those pricked up ears pointing forward mean she’s alert and focused, while the ears in a more neutral resting position mean that she’s chilled. One ear may move independently of the other, in which case she’s paying attention to something in the background. The sign to be wary of is the flattened back ears, especially when accompanied by flattened whiskers. This is not a happy cat and discretion on your part could save you from tears.
A Twist in the Tail
The cat with the fluffed up bottle brush tail is all riled up about something. Best to keep your distance from this one, until she calmed down.
In contrast, the vertical flagpole tail or the arched over the back ‘jug-handle’ tail are both signs of confidence and eagerness to play or interact. Especially if Kitty comes trotting to you, this is an excellent sign she’s looking for attention and fuss.
You’ve probably heard that a cat with a wagging tail is cross. However, things aren’t that straightforward because a slight flick on the end of the tail may simply be a means of buying her time because she’s in two minds about something. Alternatively, the angrily thrashing tail is just that so keep your hands well clear.
The Cat’s Whiskers
Cats gather a lot of information about their environment by feeling with their whiskers. When curious and in a happy, inquisitive mood they often bristle forward. This is a good sign which means you’re OK to cautiously approach. Whiskers held in a droopy position mean the cat is sleepy and deeply relaxed, in which case speak to her first before stroking so she isn’t startled.
The signal to be wary off are the flattened back whiskers. This is what cats do when they’re about to fight, as drawing back the whiskers keeps them tucked out of harm’s way. Leave this Kitty alone as she’s seriously keyed up.
Come Closer or Stay Away?
The cat’s body shape and other clues are designed to send out a message that can be read from a distance. This may either be “Come closer” or “Stay away”. In behavior-speak terms these are known as distance-reducing or distance-increasing signals. Cats use these a lot because they don’t really want to fight each other (they may get hurt!) but equally want other cats to respect their territory.
As a cat guardian, recognize that a fluffed up coat with the hairs standing on end is about an obvious a “Stay away” signal as it gets. This is the cat’s attempt to make herself look bigger and more intimidating and she really doesn’t want you to come any closer.
Interesting, the classic Hallowe’en cat shape – the one with the arched back and upside down ‘U’ shaped tail, are also distance increasing signals. In this case the cat is fearful and trying to look bigger so as to intimidate the threat and make it go away.
In contrast a distance reducing signal is the cat that rolls over and displays her belly. But…and it’s a big but…be careful. Cats are funny about belly rubs and even if she invites you closer, she may suddenly flip in to predatory mode and attack your hand with claws and teeth in a painful game of pounce.
So there we have it, some practical feline body language hints and tips. And last but not least, avoid cornering a cat. Cutting off her escape route will make all but the most placid cats feel stressed. Be sure to always leave a way to move away if she’s not happy with your attention. This way both you and the cat will be content in each other’s company and stay best buddies fur-ever.
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