Our cats will never speak with the same verbal language as you and I, but they do tell us everything we need to know about how they are feeling through body postures and vocalizations. Using their ears, eyes, whiskers, and tails our cats speak loud and clear. It is our job to learn to speak their language so we can interpret what they are saying and respond in an appropriate manner.
When your cat is comfortable and relaxed he will be calm, quiet, and content. He will lie on the floor stretched out with his tail extended or wrapped around his body. He will walk around the house with his head held high. His whiskers will be in their normal position - protruding from the side of his mouth. His eyes will be soft and his ears will be in the normal position - high on his head with the opening facing forward. When your cat is comfortable he may meow or purr as you pet him, signaling his happiness.
When there is a change in the cat’s environment or he finds himself in an uncomfortable social situation the neutral, relaxed body postures will change to signal his emotional state. Recognizing these changes and responding appropriately will ensure your cat’s behavior does not progress in undesirable ways.
My Cat Wants Attention
When your cat wants to interact with others, people or animals, he will approach with his tail either level with his back or high in the air with a slight curl at the end. He will rub his face against the new friend and may purr softly. Some cats will roll over to expose their stomach. When petting your cat, remember to use long strokes down his back and body but avoid petting his stomach. Exposing his stomach may have been a signal he wanted you to pet him, however, cats do not enjoy having their bellies rubbed.
My Cat is Anxious
When your cat is feeling anxious he will likely sit very still with little to no movement or he may actively be looking for an escape route to remove himself from the unpleasant situation. When he is standing, the back of his body will be lower than the front as if he is slinking away. His head will sink into his shoulders so you are unable to see his neck. Your cat’s eyes will be wide and his pupils will begin to dilate. His ears will begin to turn out to the side. His tail will be low and he is likely to begin flicking the tip back and forth. Depending on his level of anxiety, he may be meowing, growling, or offering a deeper yowl. If the level of anxiety is high enough your cat may also begin to pant with an open mouth like a dog.
My Cat is Afraid
Many things can cause our cats to be afraid; a noise, a guest in the home, a visit to the veterinarian, or even an unfamiliar animal. Depending on the closeness of the cause for his fear, your cat may stand motionless or he may try to get away. He will be crouched down, cowering away, with his body slightly arched as he rests on his toes ready to escape if needed. His pupils will be dilated and his ears will be turned out and lowering towards his head. He may offer a low growl or hiss. His whiskers will be flat against his face and his tail will be curled close to his body.
If the item causing his fear moves closer, your cat is likely to stand up tall, arch his back (think Halloween cat) with his hair bristled on end, and begin to hiss, swat, or growl. His whiskers will be flat against his face as will his ears be against his head.
My Cat May Bite
If your cat’s level of stress reaches the point he feels he must fight in order to defend himself, he will stand tall on all four feet and his whiskers will be forward appearing to stand on end. His tail will be high in the air and flicking rapidly from side to side.
In the event your cat feels trapped or is under a piece of furniture, he will be flicking his tail, his ears will be back against his head, and his whiskers will be flat against his face. He will have his back arched and be leaning away. Hissing or growling may also be heard.
When your cat is displaying fear, anxiety, or stress, it is best to remove the item causing his emotional response. You will not increase his level of fear or teach him to be aggressive. When working to modify your cat’s behavior it is important to consult with your veterinarian or an animal behavior consultant who specializes in feline behavior.
Understanding what your cat is saying and modifying his environment to meet his emotional needs are vital parts of being a responsible cat owner. Our cats tell us everything we need to know. We simply need to watch for the signs.