How to Read a Cat's Body Language

How to Read Your Cat's Body Language
How to Read Your Cat's Body Language

A while ago, we penned an article about George H.W. Bush’s service dog, Sully, being reassigned after Bush’s death. Many of you shared your love of pets with us in the comments. Some of you even told us stories about how animals have helped you live better lives — dogs and cats included! We loved hearing your stories.
Some of you told us that you adore the goofy, loyal nature of Man’s Best Friend, the dog. Others shared a preference for the quiet, more reserved cat — an animal who can be admittedly aloof and difficult to “get to know.”
In honor of pets everywhere (and maybe because it’s the weekend, and we wanted to have a bit of fun, too), let’s talk about that. We’re exploring cat body language to help you learn to interpret what your cat is telling you — aloof or not. Sink your claws into this info to get the purr-fect scoop on how to speak kitty.

Key Points:

  • Showing their belly: In the wild, cats keep the abdomen hidden because it’s the most vulnerable spot for predators to attack. A cat who shows you their belly may be telling you “I trust you” or “I feel threatened by you and know you’re the alpha animal here.” Showing the belly while growling is probably defensive, while rolling over and stretching while kneading the air is likely an expression of affection and comfort.
  • Those Slow, Lazy Blinks: Your cat looks at you and narrows its eyes. No, he isn’t plotting your death…nor is he mulling over your constant inability to feed him on his desired schedule. Instead, this is the feline equivalent of “I love you.” Cats slow-blink to share affection — and most research shows they’ll understand if you return the favor!
  • Tail Positioning: Cats can’t speak English (or any other language, for that matter). Instead, they do most of their communicating through the tail. A tail rising straight up in the air with a slight crook at the end, for example, means “I’m alert and curious or saying hello.” A tail that extends out from the body, staying even with the rest of the spine, says “I’m not sure how to feel about this yet.” Cats who display a puffed-up tail or tuck their tails between their legs, on the other hand, are afraid, angry, or otherwise upset.
  • Purring: Contrary to popular belief, purring isn’t always a sign your cat is happy or content — although it certainly can be. Cats purr both to comfort themselves when they are sick or in pain and to express their pleasure and comfort in specific situations. If Boots is splayed out on a soft bed, you can trust that they’re probably happy. A cat who purrs while injured is more likely to be attempting to comfort itself because it’s in pain.
  • Meowing: Oddly enough, meowing is kind of an adaptation to the presence of humans. Most cats don’t meow at each other; they communicate with body language instead. But there’s an entire vocabulary of meows involved with speaking to human companions. Even more confusingly, that vocabulary can vary significantly cat to cat or even region to region (yes, that means cats CAN have accents, too). Some even say that cats are trying to imitate the sounds of human babies, so they know we want something.
  • “Chattering” Sounds: “Chattering” or chittering sounds are a sign your cat is hyper-focused, alert, and highly stimulated by something. You’re most likely to hear this noise while your cat is stalking prey or watching birds and squirrels out a sunny window. This may also be a sign of friendliness during play with humans!
  • Short, Higher-Pitched Meows: This means your cat is saying hello or otherwise trying to get your attention. You’re most likely to hear it when you first wake up in the morning or when you come home from work. Meowing multiple times means your cat is really excited to see you and wants attention!
  • Mid-Range Meows (Often Longer): Your cat is starving (even if he’s been fed just a couple of hours before). Or, his water dish is empty, or maybe he wants a clean litter box. Either way, he needs something from you and wants you to handle it right now. If the mid-range meow turns into a long, drawn-out lower pitched meow, he’s insisting you take action immediately (the cat version of being dramatic).
  • Lower-Pitched Meows: This is a complaint, and possibly, even a warning. Maybe you’re petting kitty too much or you just accidentally rolled over on his leg. Or, maybe you just aren’t opening the tuna fast enough. Either way, he wants you to straighten up and fly right because he’s disgruntled.
  • Screams, Shrieks and Loud, Escalating Meows: Your cat is either frightened, extremely upset, being aggressive, or fighting with another cat. This is most common when you accidentally step on your cat’s foot or tail, but it can also happen when play between two cats goes a little too far. All’s fair in play wrestling until someone’s claw accidentally scratched a rear end…
  • The “Zoomies:” This happens to both dogs and cats. They’re relaxing fine until suddenly, they dash up and start running around the room like they’ve seen a ghost. In the process, they knock over your favorite vase, your drink, and trip over their own legs and do a summersault, finally landing on (and attacking) your couch pillows. No, your cat isn’t insane (well…); he’s just discharging excess energy. Try adding more play sessions to burn off all of that adrenaline — especially before bed.