Translating Feline Body Language | PAWS Chicago

Translating Feline Body Language

Learning how to interpret your cat’s cues.


While cats cannot speak our language, they do communicate through body language and signals.

Understanding these physical signals can tell you if your cat is feeling tense and stressed or calm and relaxed. It is equally important to be aware of the environment around your cat to get more information about his frame of mind.

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A cat’s tail can tell you a lot about his mood:

  • Erect Tail: When the tail is erect to its full length, it is a greeting, an invitation for rubbing or a request for food.
  • Tail Flick: The tail flick of a seated cat often indicates irritation.
  • Wagging Tail: Tail wagging can mean many things. Small flicks might express indecision. A more pronounced tail wag can be the prelude to a fight between cats.
  • Held Down Tail: A tail that is held down with an elevated rump belongs to an aggressive cat who is standing sideways near another cat.
  • Fluffed Tail: A fluffed up, arched tail is seen when the cat stands with his back arched and is torn between being aggressive and defensive. A fluffed tail that is positioned straight out or down is seen when the cat turns aggressive.
  • Wrapped Tail: A tail wrapped against the cat’s body may mean he is content. For a nervous cat, it is a defensive posture.

All of these behaviors also can be seen in kittens as they engage in play.

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Cats involved in a standoff will make threatening sounds, but the position of the ears will identify the defender and the aggressor. The defender’s ears will lie down flat against the head for protection. The aggressor’s ears will lie flat, but with a twist, so the tips of the ear can be seen from the front.

Confident, curious cats listen for sounds in front of them using forward-pointing ears. A cat who is hunting or playing will also keep his ears forward to collect as much auditory information as possible to execute a successful pounce.

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One of the most wonderful cat eye signals is the slow blink. Blinking is a very powerful communication tool used to signify reassurance. A continuous stare has the opposite effect; it is threatening and unsettling and is used effectively by cats in managing territorial distances. In a standoff, the defending cat’s pupils dilate to provide him with wider peripheral vision. The aggressor’s pupils narrow to give him better depth perception

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A cat begins purring at about one week of age to let his nursing mom know the milk supply is reaching its destination. It is believed that purring among adult cats and between cats and humans is derived from its parent-offspring relationship. But contentment is not the sole condition for purring. A cat will purr to signal a friendly social mood. An injured cat may purr to indicate the need for attention or to use the frequency to self-soothe.

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Signs of Overstimulation

Signs that a cat is becoming overly aroused may include:

  • Fidgeting
  • Tail lashing
  • Flattened ears
  • Retracted lips
  • Warning nips in which teeth do not break the skin
  • Growling
  • Hissing

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