How to understand the body language of our cat

A cat communicates in a completely different way to a dog; this may be why humans often label cats as enigmatic and difficult to understand. However, a number of studies on cat behaviour have shown that felines use a complex language based on postures, expressions, vocalisations and scent marking to communicate.

Because of this ability to communicate, it is possible to understand the body language of our cat. For example, we are able to assess if we can approach it or, on the contrary, if we should respect its desire to be left alone.

Let’s look at the face!

By observing the facial expressions of a cat we can assess its moods and emotions. To do this we must pay attention to the eyes, mouth, whiskers and ears. A cat receptive to contact will have its eyes open (but not with dilated pupils); a closed mouth, its whiskers relaxed and ears carried forward.

A nervous or worried cat, which is unsure of the situation, will tend to bend its ears towards the head and half-close its eyes.

As anxiety turns to fear, a cat’s ears will flatten on the head, its pupils will dilate and the feline will meow, or hiss with increasing intensity. In this case, it is absolutely necessary to get away from the cat: if it feels threatened it might decide that the only way out of this situation is to attack.

Beware of the tail!

The cat uses its whole body to communicate and its tail, in particular, plays an important role. A relaxed and friendly cat will approach us holding its tail upright, sometimes with the tip directed forward; if the feline is really happy to see us the tail will vibrate.

If the tail is moving quickly from side to side, like a dog wagging its tail, we should not presume that the cat is happy! On the contrary, it is nervous and you should stop touching it or move away.

If a cat is afraid, it will tend to hold its tail hidden between its legs. If we look at the photo with two cats we see this specifically: the red cat in the picture seems to be threatening, but it is actually the one that is afraid. Notice how it keeps its tail between its legs, its tense posture and its hair standing on end.

If a cat gets more fearful, then its tail will get large and bushy and the cat will assume a posture in order to “look bigger and threatening” to the enemy. The Anglo-Saxons call this position the “Halloween cat”. This is another case where you need to stop any attempt at physical contact with the cat and give it time to calm down. The way a cat moves also helps us understand its state of mind. A cat that feels safe will approach us directly whereas a scared cat will crouch down low, almost crawling on the floor, trying to avoid direct contact. We see this position frequently when a cat is put in to a cage or kennel after a veterinary examination.

Other times, when a cat adopts a body position like the white cat in the picture it can be a sign that the cat that is inviting us to play with it, but in this case its pupils will not be dilated, its ears will be forward and the cat will skip sideways.

A cat that totally trusts someone will lie on the ground and show its belly. In this instance, many people mistakenly believe that the cat is asking to be stroked or scratched on the tummy, when in reality, this is not what it is communicating at all, and anyone attempting to stroke a cat adopting this position runs the risk of being scratched because the cat sees the contact as an assault on our part.

Have you ever seen your cat assume these positions? Maybe now you will know what they mean next time you see them.

Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour