Some of these behaviors are my personal thoughts while others are well-known and universally accepted. If you have personal experiences of cat body language not listed here I’d be very pleased if you would tell us in a comment.
Photo by Malingering
Cat body language is one of several ways by which a cat communicates. It is a form of visual communication and includes body postures and facial expressions. Many of the displays are “agonistic or to “inhibit aggression”1. Avoidance of unwanted encounters is typical wildcat behavior and the domestic cat is a domesticated African wild cat and European wild cat. A lot of body postures are directed at us and are an example of inter-species communication and/or communication between kitten and mother. Our cats are kept in a state of kitten-hood by us as their “mother”.
Other forms of communication include scent marking, scratching and vocalizations and simple routines (this is for us and it applies to domestic cats). There are many subtle and less subtle types of cat body language and the purpose of the article is to explore them but focusing on what affects us.
I’ll start with a piece of body language that I hadn’t seen before until I found my cat companion on the streets of London some 17 years ago (gosh time flies, it’s hard to believe). Anyway, she saw me and I saw her on a cold November night. She was under a car outside my home. Her tail quivered excitedly, rapidly. I have seen it quiver many times since but never quite so quickly. I called her Judders because her tail juddered (a pretty poor name for a cat!). I now call her Binnie.
The Tail Quiver: The first piece of cat body language I’d like to mention then is tail quivering. Based on my own experiences this occurs when Binnie is excited and pleased. Another example of when she might quiver her tail is when I am about to feed her. Or when I am about to brush her. That kind of thing. It is a signal that she is excited in expectation of things to come, it seems to me. The Iams website author says it is a gesture of love reserved for those who are closest to their cat. I am not sure that is true because Binnie’s tail quivered when I met her for the first time, indeed before we formally introduced ourselves to each other. Maybe it was love at first site!
The Roll Over: OK, on to the next piece of body language. This is the request to rub and make contact. But it is primarily an act of submission – body language that says I don’t want a fight. It may have been developed beyond that (in the cat to cat encounter) to mean more in the cat to human encounter.
Lets say my girl cat companion is sitting on the floor. I walk by. She would like me to stroke her. She will lie on the floor and stretch out fully arching her back. She may yawn because she has been sleeping and wants to interrupt that to make contact with me. She might exercise her claws by gently scratching or grabbing a nearby piece of furniture. She will look up at me. There are variations on this. Some will go belly up and stretch. Sometime she might twitch her tail slightly. This would indicate a conflict in decision making; do I stay or go over to my human companion? There is only one thing to do, gently rub that soft inviting furry belly. This is a trusting and relaxed posture. We should be honoured. She is relaxed and making a request to do something that she has liked before. It is a passive and friendly action. A more active version might be coming to you and doing the body rub (see below). One word of caution. The cat’s belly is a well protected area and a sensitive area, stoke with caution and care. I think we need to know our cat’s limits and remind ourselves that they are cats.
The Leg Hop: This takes place when a cat greets us. The usual greeting, cat to cat who are well acquainted is the head rub or head butt. How can a cat do that in a land of giants – humans? The cat can’t so he will hop up onto his hind legs and get as close as he can. We lower our hand and rub the head. And so we have a modified head rub or head butt. The reason for the contact from the cat’s point of view is to mingle and share scents to create a family atmosphere and environment.
The Paw Trample: This is kneading. The cat rhythmically tramples your knees (if he or she is on your lap) one paw after the other. The cat’s claws will open and she will push them gently into you while trampling. This may be irritating or painful. We should resist the desire to stop our cat as it is treating us as its mother. This is a close moment. The cat is kneading for milk as if it was a kitten still. This is because we keep our cats in kitten hood in providing for her every need. Sometimes our cat will knead a smelly jumper or a piece of clothing of ours. Or it might be the bedding. This is for the same reasons as mentioned. When we sit down this can be interpreted by our cat companion as her mother cat lying down to give milk to her kitten and as our cat is a perpetual kitten the response is to knead for milk.
The Tail Twitch: I am talking about tail wagging but in a short sharp way when upright. This signifies an uncertainty of decision making for the cat; a state of mental conflict when two courses of action are in balance. It might be accompanied by a nose lick (see below) and a skin twitch (see below). Tail wagging indicating mental conflict originates in the tail’s use as a means of balance when the cat is in what could be described as “physical conflict” i.e. an unbalanced physical state. The tail counterbalances the cat’s action, say when on a branch. This evolved to becoming a shorter, sharper action and a piece of cat body language.
The Tail Swish: This is another demonstration of mental conflict. When my cat is on the lawn and she sees what she perceives as prey her tail swishes side to side along the ground. This is because she is (unnaturally for a cat stalking) in open grassland rather than long grass. She wants to stay immobile under cover but there is no cover. She can’t creep nearer because there is no cover. She is in mental conflict. The tail swish starts.
The tail is very expressive. I have written an article called: The social function of tail up in domestic cats that might interest visitors!
The Skin Twitch: This is another form of displacement behavior (see nose lick).
In the above video you will see two massive head butts – scent exchange greeting.
The Head Butt: This is a form of scent exchange referred to below (the body rub).
The Body Rub: To make friendly contact and to exchange body scent and in doing so making you part of the family. This reassures the cat making her feel more at home.
The Arched Back: This is pre-fight cat body language or a way of avoiding a full blown fight. It can be confident of fearful. A confident cat tries to appear larger. The cat stretches its back legs fully. The back becomes arched. The ears are flattened to avoid damage. The gaze is at the opponent. The tail is held down and it may wag (fagging action). The cat stands and moves sideways-on to the aggressor for full effect. And her hair will stand on end to further magnify size.
By contrast, the nervous and fearful cat shows a defensive threat posture. The cat is feeling fear and aggression.
This charmer is, it seems, practicing the arched back and/or is a little scared of the camera person
The Flat Ears: These are seen on the defensive cat. They flatten them to protect them from the impending fight (see damaged cat ears ).
Serval ear markings are clear. The Serval hiss does not necessarily signify aggression but can indicate friendship.
The Rotated Ears: A cat who is aggressive and hostile will flatten his ears slightly and rotate them forward to show the backs of the ear as near as possible. The ears are in a position where they can be flattened quickly. The cat is ready to fight. Wildcats have bright markings on the back of their ear flaps to deter other cats under these pre-fight circumstances. See for example the Serval. F2 Savannahs have a vestige of this as well.
The Agitated Ears: The ears may twitch when the cat is in an agitated or anxious state. The signal given off by this action is magnified if there are ear tufts (the hair on the tip of the ear). In the wild certain cats have long tufts (e.g. the Caracal comes to mind). Most domestic cats have modest ear tufts. There are exceptions; Maine Coons being one. See these: Miss Kate.
The Alert Ears: The cat’s eyes and pricked ears point forward towards the source of the sound. If there is another sound to one side the ear nearest will swivel to point in the direction of the source of the sound.
The Relaxed Ears: They point forward and outward slightly. Our cat listens passively.
The Cat Sneer: The cat is not sneering but opening her mouth to let air pass more freely into the mouth and then over a special odor detecting gland (Jacobsen’s organ) in the roof of the mouth to better pick up the scent. It is called the “flehmen response”. You will see it performed by males when they pick up female urine scent when sexually aroused. The cat’s tongue may flicker inside the mouth to aid the process. The cat looks mentally focused.
The Slow Wink: When I am talking to my cat (saying nice things of course) she might gently and slowly close and open her eyes. This to me tells me she is receiving warm vibes from me and is relaxed (the objective of me talking to her).
The Turn Away: Most cats don’t like eye to eye contact. They turn away. Maine Coon cats are more likely to look at you intently and hold it. You can see this is some of Helmi Flick’s photographs of Maine Coon cats. They sometimes look straight into the camera with a piercing gaze. When my cat wants food for example, one thing she will do is look at me asking with her facial expression. But she will not hold that. If I look back at her (eye to eye) she will turn away and then turn back briefly and do that again. The eye to eye contact won’t last more than a second. We shouldn’t be surprised at this because we as humans don’t like it either. If someone looked me in the eye for more than a fleeting moment, I would feel uncomfortable. Why? Probably because it signalled a threat of some sort.
The Nose Lick: You know how we bite our nails or scratch our head when we are unsure and thinking about something. This is displacement behavior. We are doing something to alleviate the uncomfortableness of the situation. Cats don’t do what we do; they lick their nose. You will see this often. It happens quickly enough and often enough that we hardly recognize it. But if we do see it we can then relate to why it has happened. Think of the surrounding circumstances and there will be something that comes to mind that has caused it. For me and Binnie one of many occasions might be when she is going out. She wants me to let her out into the garden. I open the door. She looks out. It is raining. I say, “go on then, if you want to.” She is uncertain. She looks up at me and licks her nose. We should be aware of how our actions affect our cat’s emotions/feelings.
The Tucked Tail: I rarely see this but a tail tucked under the body is a sign of fear and anxiety. If we are causing it we should consider what we are doing and make adjustments and in the meantime not to force any issues. Best let things calm down in the cat’s time.
Cat Body Language — Associated pages:
– see Cat Sounds WAV, WMA, MP3.
– another earlier page on cat sounds: Cat Sounds
1. The Cat, Its Behavior, Nutrition & Health
2. Photo top of page: published under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs creative commons License — this site is for charitable purposes in funding cat rescue.