black and white cat showing confident body language

Cat Body Language Decoded


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Cat body language can be hard to understand. Especially as some cats have a tendency to be a little aloof to their attendants…. err, sorry, to their owners.

Sometimes, us humans can make the mistake of interpreting cat body language the same way we interpret dogs’ body language. So while a wagging tail is often a sign of a happy dog, the same isn’t true of cats. In fact, it normally means the opposite.

Having said that, sometimes they’ll wave their tail around during snuggle time when they’re content and secure. Aaaand then sometimes they’ll flick the tip of their tail when they want to play. Talk about mixed signals; but that’s cats for you.

We’ve compiled some neat FYIs below to help you understand cat body language. Read on to find out how to become the cat whisperer.

Friendly cat body language

Dr Lauren Finka is a cat behaviourist – yep, it’s a real job title! Cool, right? She says a lot of the affection cats show their two-legged parents is down to something called neoteny. Neoteny refers to an adult mammal keeping aspects of its childlike behaviour. And no, we’re not talking about your partner pouting when you ask them to wash the dishes.

For example, why do cats knead? Cats knead their feline mother and often extend this behaviour to humans too. Kittens knead to release milk as babies, but when they grow up with humans instead of other cats they knead us to show contentment. The claws digging in might not make you too content. But as long as kitty is happy it’s all good, right?

And it doesn’t stop at kneading. Cats also have a special solicitation purr just for us humans. Read our article on why cats purr to find out more about that.

So basically, some elements of a cat’s friendly body language can be attributed to a good cat-human relationship. Cute, right?

Read understanding cat behaviour to find out some more fun feline facts.

New kitten-proof your house

What do those cat sounds mean?

Meowing isn’t really used to communicate in the feline kingdom. In fact, cats have developed meows almost exclusively to communicate with their humans.

And it isn’t just one meow, but an entire range of them. We don’t fully understand them all yet. So as a result, you’re likely to find multiple interpretations for a soft meow, for instance.

That’s partly because different cat breeds have different vocal tendencies. Siamese cats are known for being particularly chatty. Others might only meow once in a blue moon. Another reason for differing meows is that it depends on the individual cat’s personality.

Interpreting the meow

As a starting point, here are some the most often-cited meow interpretations:

  • Soundless meow: Some say cats do a soft (soundless) meow because their hearing is far superior to ours. But most experts agree that the soundless meow means “I’m hungry and/or thirsty.”
  • Soft pleading meow: The cat version of puppy dog eyes! “Pretty please. I’m so hungry. I’d love some of that tuna, served on a silver platter. And maybe a glass of milk?”
  • Short high-pitched meows: The quick-fire squeaks are there to greet you. Yay for a “welcome home” as you walk through the front door.
  • Hissing/growling: We probably didn’t need science for this one. Your cat is angry, scared, or frustrated. If you approach, it’s at your own peril.
  • Yowling: This is your cat letting any potential suitors know that they’re ready to make some baby kitties.
  • Low drawn-out meow: This is the cat version of a kid going “I’m booooored.”

A word of warning, yowling is a pretty effective communication method for cats. It will bring aaaall the boys to the yard.

These Prince Charmings might fight or mark their territory while they’re visiting too. So to avoid that kind of situation, you may want to read our spay and neuter article, which covers the pros and cons of desexing your cat.

Spay and Neuter – Should You Desex Your Cat Explored

Ears and cat body language

Cats might have good hearing but they’re not always good listeners. Those ears aren’t just for listening, they’re for speaking too. Yep, those pointy little ears have their very own vocabulary.

Here are cat body language signs that you can decipher from their ears alone. Hint: if you’ve got horses, these ear signs will all be very familiar:

  • Slightly bent forward means your cat is cheerful.
  • Pinned back ears are a sign of an angry or scared cat. If there’s a threat nearby, hissing or growling may follow. If there’s a brawl incoming, find out how to break up a cat fight
  • Pointing straight up is an indication that your cat is focusing their attention on something.

Your cat’s tail and body language

Your cat’s tail signals are some of the most important ones. There’s quite a lot of cat body language that relates to the tail, but the tail usually communicates something urgent.

As a cat parent, it’s important to know how to read those tail-related signals. Here’s what a cat’s tail can tell you:

  • Bushy, puffed up tail: “I’m scared. But I’m trying to make myself look bigger and stronger. I’ll attack if I have to.”
  • Flicking entire tail: “I’m agitated. Leave me alone.”
  • Swishing tail: “I’m ready to pounce! Someone’s going to cop it!
  • Twitching tail end: “I’m annoyed and irritated.”
  • Straight up tail: “I’m confident”
  • Tucked down tail: “I’m scared, anxious, and not at all confident.”
  • Thumping tail: “I’m angry and not feeling friendly. I want some space.”
  • Slow, side-to-side swishing tail: Although most tail swishing in cats means stress or annoyance, the slow one can mean that your cat is content.

Decoding cat eye signals

Eyes are the windows to the soul, so it’s said. But cats’ eyes aren’t just to add to their good looks or for their amazing night vision, they also use their eyes to communicate.  

Here’s how some good, old-fashioned eye contact can give you clues as to what your cat is saying:

  • Constricted pupils: Small, almost slit-like pupils? This is a sure sign that your cat’s upset about something. Did you forget breakfast?
  • Slow blinking: The slow blink or adoring gaze means just that – love and adoration. Awww!
  • Dilated pupils: Just like in humans, dilated pupils are a sign of excitement. But if there are growls or hissing alongside, it’s highly defensive behaviour.
cat body language can be seen in the eyes. This tabby cat has constricted pupils

Now you can understand cat body language

So, cats don’t have to be mysterious and confusing. Once you speak their language, they show lots of emotion. Ever come home from a day out or weekend away and had your cat steadfastly ignore you? They’re showing you their dissatisfaction at being left behind. Just like humans!

Speaking of holidays, if you’re planning a short trip and aren’t sure what to do with kitty, check out our article on how long is too long when leaving your cat home alone. Then check out our article on kennels vs pet sitters.

Cat insurance in New Zealand

Cat insurance is a great way to be practical with pet health and wellness. It can save you money on non-routine vet visits, prescription medicine, surgery, third party property damage and more. Plus, with PD Insurance if you sign up online you’ll score one or more months of pet insurance free and we have no lock-in contracts.

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