Cats communicate with other cats and people in a number of different ways. Their communication is complex and is visual, vocal, smell and touch based.
Feline body language can be very subtle such that we often don’t pick up on what a cat is trying to communicate. Also, because of its’ complexity, it’s important to look at the whole cat when trying to understand what they’re communicating.
This article is intended to help owners ‘read’ their cats better by summarising some of the ways that cats use their body postures and facial expressions to communicate (with other cats and people).
Looking at a cat’s facial expressions and body positions can indicate what the cat’s feeling and what their intentions are. Because facial expressions can often alter more rapidly than body postures, a cat’s face tends to provide up to the minute information about a cat’s current emotional state with their body positions indicating what the cat may be considering doing next.
When reading a cat, it’s useful to look at their tail, eyes, whiskers, ears and body posture. Remember that parts of a cat’s body (e.g. ears and whiskers) are very mobile and can change quickly indicating a shift in the way the cat is perceiving the situation they’re in.
Here are some common things you might see and what they suggest about the cat’s emotional state at the time.
- A horizontal tail is a cat’s normal tail position and suggests a neutral emotional state.
- A tail that’s twitching from side to side suggests the cat is aroused or agitated, can be positive or negative.
- A tail that’s straight up with a kink at the tip suggests the cat is feeling friendly (often used in greeting).
- A ‘bottle brush’ tail in a downward U position suggests the cat is feeling threatened.
- A tail gently curled around a relaxed body suggests the cat is calm and everything is ok.
- A cat’s eyes will be influenced by their emotions but also light conditions as well.
- Droopy eyelids suggest a relaxed cat.
- Narrow eyes with constricted pupils suggest the cat may be aggressive (or it could be the presence of bright light).
- Narrow eyes with big dilated pupils suggest the cat is concerned and worried.
- Wide eyes with big dilated pupils indicates arousal, positive or negative, for example when playing or when frightened (but could also be low light conditions).
- Whiskers that are pulled back suggest the cat is feeling threatened and is probably trying to protect their whiskers by keeping them out of the way.
- Droopy whiskers suggest a relaxed cat.
- Whiskers that are stiff and thrust forward suggest an aroused, alert cat that’s ready for action (e.g. to hunt, play).
- Whiskers out to the side and facing downwards indicate a confident cat.
- Stiff lowered ears suggest the cat may be anxious or frightened.
- Ears flat against the head suggest the cat is feeling defensive and threatened (and wants to protect the ears from injury).
- Ears moved a little to the back and slightly flat suggest the cat may be about to attack (if other aggressive signals are present also).
- Ears that are forward and pricked up indicate a cat that is interested and alert but not worried.
- A cat that is moving slowly and cautiously may be hunting or concerned about a possible threat.
- A low body in a crouched position (with the tail tucked under the body) suggests a worried cat.
- Hair fluffed and standing up (with a ‘bottle brush’ tail and ears flat and rotated slightly backwards) suggests the cat is frightened.
- A cat that’s rearing up on its back legs (combined with staring, ears pricked forwards, tail held out stiffly from the body) suggests a confident individual thinking of attacking.
Sue Hartley BSc MSc CPsychol
Sue’s background is in the psychology of human and companion animal behaviour with particular interest in problem behaviour in cats and dogs. She has had more than 15 years experience of animal care, welfare, behaviour and training in domestic, voluntary and science settings. She is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society and a member of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.
Sue’s pet behaviour business Life on Paws helps pet owners in Harrogate and Yorkshire to understand, manage and change their pet’s problem behaviour through a range of pet behaviour services including behaviour consultations, workshops and home visits. She works mainly with cats and dogs but also other species too (e.g. rabbits). She adheres to the Code of Practice (http://www.apbc.org.uk/apbc/code_of_practice) of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and is covered by professional indemnity insurance, is Criminal Records Bureau checked and Home Office national security cleared.
For more details visit Sue’s website at http://www.lifeonpaws.co.uk/
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