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Body Language of Cats

What did you just say?  Reading the body language of cats.

It’s safe to say that people in the United States love pets. Close to 69 million households have a dog, and over 45 million homes are shared with a cat. (1) Most people, even those that do not own dogs, seem to understand the basics of “doggy language.” A happy dog wags his tail; an angry dog barks and growls. Cats are often less well understood and even, at times, misunderstood.  The language cats speak is considerably more subtle than their more gregarious housemates. However, learning how to communicate with your cat and understanding the subtle nuances of their behavior is wonderfully rewarding. 

How to spot a content kitty:

We certainly have seen these images: a calm, relaxed kitty resting by the fire on a winter’s day or a cat contentedly purring, eyes half closed on his owner’s lap. We instinctively know these are happy scenes but breaking it down, what is it about the appearance of these kitties that lets us know they are happy?

A happy, relaxed kitty holds her body without tension. She may be found lying down, curled into a ball with her paws tucked neatly underneath her, perhaps gently kneading the front paws or purring. Her eyes may be half closed or slowly blinking. Her whiskers will be relaxed, held in a natural position away from the face, not pulled tightly inward. Her ears may swivel gently from side to side, taking in the sounds of her environment or in a relaxed, forward position. If walking around, her tail is held high and might even twitch subtly at the tip, indicating a very happy kitty indeed. 

Blink, and you might miss it:

You might be a bit curious about the slow blinking mentioned above in our example of a contented feline. Interestingly enough, a new body of research (2) has shed some light on what the “slow blink” is trying to relay from cat to cat or even cat to human. Researchers feel the slow blink is supposed to indicate a cat is open to interaction and does not intend to be intimidating. It may be the kitty equivalent of a welcoming smile between humans. The slow blink may be shared between two cats (good friends or recent acquaintances) or between cats and humans. Researchers demonstrated that utilizing the slow blink was an excellent way for people to “break the ice” with a cat they just met. A human offering a slow blink and an outstretched hand to a cat they do not know is more likely to be approached by that cat when compared to a human who does not offer a slow blink. This seems worth trying especially in situations where a cat may feel less than welcome or even threatened such as in a veterinary hospital. 

On alert:

Cats are fabled hunters and pound-for-pound possess incredible strength and agility, surpassing almost all other land mammals with their physical prowess. They are acutely aware of their surroundings and their body language changes significantly when they become investigative. A focused cat will be looking forward with pricked ears and whiskers. Their pupils will narrow and their eyes open wider. Cats may crouch lower to the ground, shifting their weight onto their powerful hindquarters, ready to pounce or attack at a moment’s notice. A focused kitty, in the throes of the hunt, will carry their tail low, slowly waving it side to side just prior to leaping onto prey (either real, imagined, or a favorite toy).  

Stay away, can’t you see I’m afraid:

In an ideal world, our cats would remain either relaxed and content or alert and playful every day. In reality, they experience stressful situations from time to time and it is crucial for us to recognize when they are worried, afraid, or angry. Nothing about the body language of a frightened or angry cat is welcoming. Evaluating the face first, our anxious kitty will have ears that swivel quickly back and forth, side to side, or even are held still and tense, flat against the top of the head. His pupils dilate, eyes are wide and open, and the welcoming slow blink is gone, replaced by an unblinking stare.   

Our frightened feline’s entire body is tense. They may lower their head and crouch their body low to the ground. They may curl their tail underneath themselves or conversely stretch the tail out flat on the floor, moving just the tip. As anxiety progresses to fear and severe agitation, our kitty becomes more visibly tense. The ears flatten closer to the head, pupils remain dilated with wide, unblinking eyes. At this point, our cat may attempt to run away and hide if possible. Their coat bristles and whiskers either flatten to the sides of the face or stick straight out from the muzzle. A truly frightened or agitated cat may whip their tail back and forth in a frenzy or hold it low, tense, and fluffed out. The cat may hunch their back, hold their forelegs stiffly in front of them, hair bristling to make them appear as large and menacing as possible. These upset kitties often hiss, growl, or vocalize menacingly. Cats in such a distressed and agitated state should be handled carefully and allowed to calmly settle. Even the slightest touch or interaction with them can be interpreted as a threat and the cat will feel forced to attack as a means to protect itself.  

If you’re happy, I’m happy:

After reading this, hopefully, you have concluded that your personal cat is happy and content most of the time. Kitties that spend much of their life anxious and fearful often show their discontent in a variety of ways such as destroying furniture, urinating outside the litter box, or even biting or scratching people or other pets. At Longwood Veterinary Center, we want to help your cat remain happy and healthy. If your cat’s body language is telling you they need some help, we are here for you both. Never hesitate to contact the friendly staff at Longwood Veterinary Center with your questions or concerns. There are some wonderful online resources as well including the American Association of Feline Practitioners or Fear Free Happy Homes Each site has access to charts and videos that will help you become proficient in the language of “cat” with a little time and practice. 

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Written by Corrina Snook Parsons VMD