Feline communication is largely nonverbal, although from time to time cats may use special noises — like howls, chirps, growls, hisses and meows — to get their point across. In various ways, though, your cat talks to you all the time. Do you understand what she’s saying?
It can be difficult for us to pick up on the subtle cues that indicate when our cats are feeling upset or anxious. The warnings cats give are not always glaringly obvious to the untrained eye. Unfortunately, this means that they may be overlooked as insignificant until the cat progresses to more overt signs of distress, like panicked attempts to fight or flee. Because feline communication signals are easily misread — or missed altogether — cats are often incorrectly labeled as temperamental and moody.
In order to help avoid stress and conflict, it is important that you learn to listen to your cat. While certain behaviors can serve as clues to your cat’s state of mind, none of them should be interpreted in isolation. It’s best to look at multiple signals to help assess how your cat is feeling. Cats may also send mixed signals if they are unsure of a situation — so your cat’s eyes and ears may say “I’m relaxed” but her tail and body posture may tell you otherwise.
Once you know what to watch for, you’ll find your cat is almost constantly speaking to you. Here are five common ways your cat talks to you and what she’s trying to say when she does.
The Tail: A Measure of Your Cat’s Moods
Your cat’s tail can help you gauge how she is feeling in a given situation — anywhere from relaxed and comfortable to frightened and agitated. It’s important to have a good sense of your cat’s average temperament, measured by the height at which she carries her tail when she is relaxed, in order to judge when she is feeling anxious or uneasy.
When a cat is content, she will typically hold her tail out loosely behind her. When she’s happy, she may hold it high, with a slight twitch or curl forward. A slightly moving, twitching, wagging tail is a sign of interest; you may see this when your cat is intensely watching a bird through the window or playing with a toy (especially right before she pounces on and bites the toy).
Always pay close attention to a moving tail — it can help give you an idea about a cat’s degree of stress or anxiety in a situation. When your cat becomes agitated, she may move her tail in a way that is faster and more forceful. This type of movement is a sign that she’s overwhelmed by the situation and is not enjoying it.
If your cat is concerned about a situation, she may also lower her tail and wrap it underneath her body or around her side if she is lying down. And the bristled out, stiffly held tail that we associate with Halloween cats isn’t just your kitty trying to look scary — it’s a sign that she’s actually terrified.
Ears Aren’t Just for Listening
A cat’s ears are loaded with information. When your cat’s ears are forward and slightly to the side, she is probably feeling relaxed. When your cat is really interested and excited, her ears may be pricked forward.
Your cat’s ears may pivot some as she follows a sound, but fast-twitching ears may be indicative of nervousness and uncertainty. A cat who is fearful or agitated may move her ears back toward her neck and pin them tightly against her head or move them out to the sides so that they resemble airplane wings.
The Eyes: A Window to Her Soul
Your cat’s eyes help tell the story of her inner state. When she is content, her pupils will be normal size (not dilated) and her eyes will be open or perhaps slightly closed, if she is especially relaxed. When your cat is at ease, she may make eye contact and will hold the gaze for a while before looking away in a nonchalant manner or blinking softly.
But if she is aroused and on the edge of being aggressive or fleeing, your cat’s pupils may change shape — either dilating or constricting — and her eyes may look hard or stiff.
If your cat is staring at something with a fixed gaze — for example, a squirrel or another cat — this is a sign that she’s getting ready to strike or attack. On the other hand, if your cat is feeling fearful, she may avoid eye contact and may exhibit a darting eye movement as she assesses the situation and searches for an escape route.
The Muzzle: The Face of Fear
When your cat is relaxed, her whiskers are set out from her face, where they are less noticeable. When she is interested in something, her whiskers may move out and forward, becoming more stiff. When she is frightened, she may hold her whiskers flat against her face.
Sudden licking can be another sign of an uneasy cat. If your cat is licking her lips — and isn’t eating — she may be afraid of something. By the same token, a nervous cat may start licking or scratching her body or grooming herself excessively.
The one thing your cat may not use her tongue to do if she’s stressed is eat. In fact, when she is anxious she may be unable to do or enjoy normal things, such as treats, petting, play or rest.
The Body: Reading Your Cat’s Posture
A relaxed cat’s breathing is usually slow and deep. She keeps her claws tucked safely away and moves in a loose, relaxed manner.
The more agitated or aroused a cat gets, the more tense her muscles will become. If your cat freezes altogether, it can mean that she’s about to fight or flee — or, in some cases, pounce. A cat who is stressed will move in a rigid, stiff fashion.
A frightened cat may slow her pace and drop low to the ground when afraid (although this slinking posture may simply indicate that she’s getting ready to pounce on something). Alternatively, she may speed up her movements in an attempt to get away from the situation or threat.
When your cat becomes nervous, her claws may extend. She may also breathe in a shallow, rapid manner.
A fearful cat may try to change the appearance of her size: Her fur may fluff out and you might notice excessive shedding. She might arch her back to look bigger or she may attempt to seem smaller by cowering or curling up with her extremities held tightly to her body.
A cat lying on her back may be showing you her trust or assuming a defensive posture — you will need to carefully consider the situation in order to know for sure.
Always pay attention to your cat’s physical reactions to a situation. For instance, if you are holding your cat and she is peering down at the floor, stiffening her body and leaning away from you, she is asking to be set down. Respect her request and let her down gently before she feels forced to resort to clawing and crying. After all, you would expect the same of your friends, right?