Felines use ears, eyes, whiskers, mouth, vocals, paws, tails, legs and body to communicate. Cats can often be very subtle but familiarizing yourself with these actions can help you understand your feline friend.
Ears have a very wide range of motion. An alert or focused cat may have their ears facing directly forward where a more relaxed cat will hold their ears forward and slightly outward. An uncomfortable cat may have their ears to the side, back and/or flattened.
Eyes can take on a variety of shapes. A relaxed cat may have an almond shaped eye and appear squinty. When afraid or aroused, the shape takes on a more rounded appearance. Pupils “talk” as well. Rounded pupils are associated with fear, oblong with aggression and slightly off-round with a relaxed state. The size of these shaped pupils can indicate the intensity of emotion.
Gaze direction is important. Feral or under socialized cats usually lock their gaze without moving any other part of their body. They may also do this and then break eye contact. Socialized but fearful cats may display similar actions but will usually move another part of their body. A long and slow blink may indicate that the cat wants attention but it must be paired with other positive signals.
Whiskers can indicate the level of arousal. Low and droopy often means a low level of arousal. High and pushed forward means a high level of arousal. Some exceptions may apply. For example, when upset a cat’s whiskers may pull back prior to a bite.
The mouth position can be relaxed, open, have exposed teeth (with a wrinkled nose when hissing), panting, lip licking, clamped shut, etc.
Cats can vocalize in tons of different ways! The traditional “meow” greeting can have a wide range of meanings from announcing their presence to soliciting attention or seeking something desirable. The “purr” is usually one of contentment however some cats will purr under stress. The “chip” is a greeting or in some cases a mother’s call to her kittens. The “Chatter” is one of excitement, predatory arousal, anticipation and/or frustration. The “hiss”, “growl”, “yowl” and “spit” are offensive and defensive aggression sounds.
Paws indicate many different emotions. The most commonly identified is “kneading”. Kneading is a sign of contentment, originating from kitten hood. “Scratching” is necessary for proper nail growth, stretching muscles and can also be used for scent marking and visual marking. The position of paws can range from exposed (relaxed) to tucked under their body (tense).
Tails can vary in position and movement and can be very useful as a signaling device. Generally, the faster the tail moves, the higher the arousal level. A straight up tail is a greeting. A cat that is interested or mildly annoyed may “twitch” their tail but if extremely upset or excited may “lash” instead. Tail “quivering” may be from a higher level of excitement or scent marking. “Wrapping” the tail around the body as well pulling it between the legs can sometimes mean fear. The tail height and composition are important to notice.
Overall body postures signal feelings too. A cat that is aroused/upset may make their body appear larger by raising hair their hair, body and a paw. Ears may be back and pupils dilated. A cat that makes their body appear smaller may be fearful and/or submissive. Tense and fearful cats may wrap their tails around their bodies, shift eyes side to side with dilated pupils and crouch. During a defensive threat, cats may roll part way onto their side to allow them access to their paws and mouth, while exposing their teeth, ears are flat with large pupils. Always assess the body tension.
Other actions may include “rolling”, “grooming”, “bunting”, and “feigned sleep”. Rolling over can be considered friendly, however females in heat will display this behavior as well. Never pet a cat’s belly unless you know the cat enjoys it. When out of context, grooming can be a displacement behavior. Bunting, also known as head butting is a friendly behavior that also involves scent gland sharing. When under extreme stress, cats may feign sleep but keep their bodies tense. Feet are kept tucked under and eyes look “sleepy.”
Remember, all body language must be considered within the context of the situation. In order to get a good reading, look at all the behavior as a whole.