The Ultimate Guide to Cat Body Language and Behavior

Understanding your kitty is a crucial point of being a good cat owner. Though it’s difficult, this isn’t an impossible feat. Like humans, cats have their ways of telling us what they need, and what they absolutely don’t.

In this ultimate guide to cat body language and behavior, we’re going to take some of the common cat moods and reveal how exactly you read them.

Specifically, we’ll guide you on:

  • Moods.
  • Sounds.
  • Positive behavior.
  • Negative behavior.
The Ultimate Guide to Cat Body Language and Behavior infographic

Cat Body Language: Moods

We’ll start off with what you’re probably wondering about the most: moods. How can you tell an anxious cat from one that’s just playing? Let’s start with the good moods and get progressively worse.

Happy

When your cat is happy you’ll know. Here, we mean actively happy and not simply passive or casually content. 

An actively happy cat will be in a relaxed position, looking a little tired with semi-closed eyes. They’ll have narrow pupils, an unmoving tail, and perhaps they’ll purr. Throw in some kneading and your kitty couldn’t be more content.

Playful

If that kneading turns into butt-wiggling, your cat is no longer happy. They’re playful! They’ll typically have their butt in the air, pupils wide, tail up, and their ears and whiskers forward. Basically, they’ll look about ready to pounce—but it won’t be on prey, it’ll be on play.

Defensive

Edging into the less pleasant territory now, a defensive cat is easy to tell apart from the rest. Tail between their legs, ears and whiskers back, their pupils are wide open. The cat will normality be in a crouched pose.

Irritated

If the defensiveness turns into irritation, or they become annoyed another way, their pupils remain wide. However, instead of being pushed back, their ears are so far back they practically face the floor.

You’ll notice a twitching tail as the main sign of irritation. A growl creeping in is another factor, too. If the growl is accompanied by the cat scratching or biting at you out of nowhere, then they may be over-stimulated more than irritated.

Anxious

While anxious, a cat’s body language is mostly the same as when they’re irritated, except their tail. Their tail will be still, and your cat might be pacing.

Scared

If the anxiety turns into actual fear, then their pupils stay wide and their ears back, but everything else stands on end. Their back is arched, their trail sticking up, their fur on end. Poor kitty.

Angry

Finally, if your cat’s ears are back but their pupils are narrow they may be angry. The tail doesn’t give away anger here, it might twitch, or it may be still in an up or downwards position. The fur will usually stand, though, giving away some anger.

a human hand plays with his cat
The Ultimate Guide to Cat Body Language and Behavior 4

Cat Body Language: Sounds

So what’s your cat saying when they won’t shut up!? Don’t dismiss your cat as annoying or whiny like we’ve seen some unpleasant cat owners do. Instead, let’s figure out what each sound means.

Meow!

Sadly, this is the most difficult sound to understand. You’ll usually get it by context—like your cat meowing as they come inside, enter the room, or look for pets and treats.

If the meowing persists, your cat most likely wants something, especially if it sounds like a trill or chirp. Follow them, they may lead you to a full litter tray or empty food bowl. Clever, cocky kitties may even take you to where they know you hide the treats!

However, if your cat doesn’t try to take you somewhere and sounds whiny, your cat may disagree with a new activity, person or something else you’ve brought into the house.

Yowl

If that whine turns into a yowl then it means pain, most of the time. Find your cat and help them at once.

However, if they’re old, yowling can be a sign of dementia when there’s nothing wrong. If they’re younger and nothing’s wrong and there are other cats around, then it can be a mating sound.

Purr

Cats purring means they’re happy or content. You’ll hear this if they’re eating, playing, being petted or otherwise.

If your cat starts purring while displaying anxious body language, then this is their way of self-soothing. Perhaps join in with some loving, petting and treats.

Hiss

The opposite of content, if your cat hisses then they’re annoyed, even aggressive. You should get away from a cat hissing at you, and back away if yours is hissing at something. The hiss may be accompanied by spitting and growling, the more serious the threat.

Cat Behavior: Positive

Does your cat do certain activities or behaviors that make you wonder, but why? Most of the time this questionable behavior is common, but let’s take a look at some of the actions and see what they mean specifically.

Rubbing You

Are you wondering if your cat rubbing off of you means they love you? It might, especially if your cat is jumping against your hand, actively seeking out petting or blatantly snuggling you.

On the other hand, your cat may be laying claim to you

Don’t worry, that’s not a bad thing. But if your cat rubs against your legs or ankles without actively looking like they’re affection-seeking, it may be claiming you. They’re rubbing their scent all over you, marking you as part of their territory.

Responding to Smells

Let’s say your cat was sniffing at something, then they respond in a very strange way. They raise their head, curling their lips back with their mouth open. Then they squint. It almost looks like a grimace or repulsed look.

This is known as the Flehmen response, and don’t worry, kitty isn’t repulsed. Kitty is learning about the object they sniffed, using the Jacobson organ.

This organ is an olfactory part, one that most creatures lack. It’s on the roof of their mouth, hence the open-mouth, and it’s connected to their nose. 

As your cat breathes in something’s scent through this organ the smell gets stronger. They use it to find out more information about an object they’ve been sniffing, but we don’t know what that information is.

Don’t worry if you notice your cat making this face. It’s not a sign you need to shower if they do it in response to sniffing you. But it may be a sign that your secretive little cat knows more about you than you do, now.

Kneading

Cats kneading isn’t something you can barrow down with a simple answer. Instead, we’ll touch on five.

Stretching

Some cats knead as they stretch, which is fine. It helps them keep their little limbs moving, especially considering how much they’re immobile while kitty sleeps.

Nostalgia

When cats are nursing they knead. Some people think cats knead when they’re older because it reminds them of their infancy—like a form of self-comfort.

Territorial Claiming

Like running against you, kneading you can mean your cat is claiming you. Cats have glands that activate while they knead you, so they’re marking you with their scent. 

This scent is telling other cats to back off. You belong to your cat just as much they belong to you.

Petting You

If not claiming you, your cat may be petting you as you pet them. The deeper and sharper the knead, the more they’re enjoying what you’re doing to them. Wear thick pants or hide under a blanket if you don’t want their beautiful embrace to turn brutally painful—they mean well, but those claws!

Comfort

If your cat is comfortable or trying to get comfortable, they may knead. They often do this before they go to sleep. Domesticated outdoor cats of the past needed to prep their grassy area for sleeping. Although it’s your lap and not grass, the behavior remains in today’s kitties.

Cat Behavior: Negative

Now let’s move away from the cute to the concerning. What are some common cat issues, and what do you do to deal with them?

Aggression

Your cat’s aggression could stem from boredom, illness, territorial issues and more. Take your cat to the vet to rule out if something is wrong, and neuter your male cat to see if that helps.

If it’s not a medical or neutering issue, your cat may be bored. Buy some more toys and find stimulating activities for your cat so they can take out that pent-up energy on something appropriate.

Separate your cat from others at home if that’s an issue. While doing that, never be aggressive back at your cat as it won’t help.

If nothing works, consider consulting a cat behavioral specialist.

Nighttime Activity

Do you ever wake up after hearing a weird noise, look up and see two horrifying, glowing eyes on your curtain pole? 

To stop your cat from (sometimes literally) climbing the walls at night, you may want to try feeding them before bed. This will possibly help them sleep. As well as that, make sure to tire your cat out during the day.

But remember, cats are nocturnal by nature so this may not work fully. If your cat is still acting up, then consider keeping them out of your bedroom and away from valuables at night. Also, make sure they have ample access to toys to take out their nighttime energy on.

Littler Tray Avoidance

Your cat avoiding the box may seem normal when they’re very young and still learning where their bathroom is. However, older cats can sometimes start ignoring or avoiding their box too. There’s always a reason for it though, thankfully. Here’s what it could be:

UTI

The most serious reason your cat is avoiding the litter box could be a UTI or some other urinary tract issue. These are painful and dangerous, so take your cat to the vet at once. In fact, take your cat to the vet as soon as you notice the avoidance issue. It may be down to one of the reasons below, but you want to rule out the dangers first.

If your cat has a problem the vet will treat it and your cat should go back to regular box use afterward. If your cat comes up clear but they’re still using the bathroom somewhere that’s not their bathroom, look below.

Unclean Box

Some cats are fussy. They use the box once, a minuscule amount, and won’t use it again until it’s clean. Try cleaning the box after every use and seeing what that does for your cat.

Ownership

If you have multiple cats, your cat may want its own box. This could again be fussiness, but it could be because your cat wants constraint, reliable access to their box. Cats don’t like waiting in line!

Get each cat their own box and see if this helps with the issue.

Preferences

Again, fussy! Maybe your cat just doesn’t like their litter box. The sides are too high, or it’s not private enough, or it’s too small. Maybe the color is wrong.

Try buying your cat a new box, one in a different style. Figure out which one your cat likes best, and keep that as your permanent litter box.

If when you find a litter box your cat likes, you still experience the problem, then consider changing litter, too. Litters can smell and feel different depending on the brand, so no wonder your cat wants to change things up.

Scratching

To keep your cat from ruining your belongings, invest in a scratching post. If your cat ignores it then cover it in treats or even catnip to make it a desirable object—have the cat work to scratch the food out of the fibers.

There are also solutions in trimming your cat’s claws, or putting on nail caps. However, we find this restricts your cat’s freedom and can be uncomfortable on them. Try the scratching post—it can be time-consuming, but it’s the fairest solution.

a kitten hidden under blanket
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The Bottom Line

Cats are complex creatures who deserve respect and understanding based on their various mods and behaviors. Hopefully this guide has helped you understand your kitty a little better.

Remember, cats are incredibly expressive and they never do something without reason. Be on the lookout for strange activity or blatant reactions to know how your cat feels about certain things in their world.

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