Understanding Cat Body Language is important when you live in a multiple cat household. Because a cat’s body language can be quite complex, it can take years to fully understand all of the subtleties. Fortunately, there are a few, very clear indicators of cat emotion that all cat owners can learn to easily understand and interpret. In a multiple-cat household, recognizing these clear signals will be invaluable.
Cat Body language is the primary method of communication for cats. Because we lack tails, whiskers, etc., we humans rely on vocal communication. In other words, we talk to our cats and they learn to communicate verbally with us.
But they still use cat body language to communicate how they feel, especially when they communicate between themselves. Learning this unspoken form of communication will help to increase the bonds of trust and friendship between you and your cats. After all, if they are willing to learn to communicate with us by using our preferred method (vocal), the least we can do is to understand their preferred method of communicating – cat body language.
In a large, multiple cat household, being able to recognize the subtle visual cues of cat body language will go a long way toward keeping the peace between your cats.
It is important to note that while body language is important when interpreting what a cat is communicating, you should always take everything into consideration including vocalizations and actions. Attempting to decipher a cat’s emotions by observing only one aspect of communication can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. And possibly a few scratches and bites!
‘ARE YOU LOOKIN’ AT ME?!’
Have you ever noticed that cats tend to gravitate toward the one person in the room that doesn’t like cats? There is a reason for that. Cats do not like eye contact, especially with those they don’t know. People who like cats tend to look at the cat, talk to them, try to get their attention, etc. People who don’t like cats tend to ignore the cat. To a cat, this is an invitation to visit.
The eyes are considered a part of cat’s body language. To cats, eye contact is often perceived as a threat or challenge. It is used to intimidate another cat, to hopefully prevent a fight without backing down. Staring is one-way cats communicate dominance. Stare at a cat unfamiliar with you and he is likely to run away from you. Once a cat gets to know you, however, looking at him will not be perceived as a threat. We make eye contact with the majority of our cats and they look right back at us – some even come closer and demand attention!.
While staring is considered ‘rude’ and considered a threat, slow blinks are viewed as comforting and considered a sign of affection. Slow blinks are sometimes referred to as ‘cat kisses’. This type of cat’s body language is cute! Once your cats are comfortable with you looking at them, try giving them cat kisses and see if they kiss you back!
The pupils also play a role in cat body language. Pupil size communicates a cat’s emotions. In our opinion, the most important thing to watch for is pupil dilation. When a cat’s pupils dilate (become very big) especially in a well-lit room, it means that he is either interested and excited or that he is fearful and feeling aggressive. And the difference between these emotions can lead to very different reactions from the cat!
Murry loves to play fetch with paper balls. While playing, we hold the ball up and say “Ready, Ready, Ready!” just before the ball is thrown. As he watches the ball and hears us speak the words, his pupils dilate to the size of saucers!. His cat’s body language is telling us he is excited and ready for the chase!
Buddy, on the other hand, likes to think of himself as the boss of everyone, including us! When his pupils dilate, he is getting ready for aggressive action – usually toward another cat but he sometimes considers getting aggressive with us. He never takes aggressive action until the pupils dilate so we watch for this.
For those of you who may be concerned, Buddy has never hurt any person unless we are trying to give him medication. We now wear thick leather work gloves when we have to medicate him so no one gets injured. He has never hurt another cat either but he can be very intimidating and has, on occasion, upset the entire cat household. While using behavior modification has helped calm this, it is something we are always on the lookout for with him, especially around newcomers. If his pupils dilate, we intervene!
‘I AM NOT A DOG!’
When a dog wags his tail, he is indicating that he is happy. When a cat ‘wags’ her tail, she is most definitely not happy! Tail movement in cat body language is not referred to as ‘wagging’. The terms used are flicking, lashing, and thumping. The movements are sharp and lack consistent rhythm. Tail movement meaning is very clear in cat body language.
If a cat starts flicking her tail while you are petting her – stop! Tail flicking is an indication of mild irritation. If the flicking turns to tail lashing (big back and forth movements), she has become agitated and could easily progress to aggressive action. A lashing tail is a warning to back off or suffer the consequences!
A thumping tail indicates frustration and is usually seen when a cat is chattering at a bird that is out of reach. To a cat, an out-of-reach bird is very frustrating!
Cat body language also includes tail position. An erect tail, slightly curled at the end indicates friendliness and a desire to interact. If the tail is wrapped tightly around her body, the cat is indicating that she does not want to interact. She may even be afraid.
A puffy tail (hairs standing on end) usually indicates increased anxiety. Our Chloe puffs up her tail (and meows) when she wants attention and we are busy with something. We suspect she may be anxious that they won’t get attention. (Of course, she always gets the attention!)
A tail in an inverted ‘U’ position or that is low to the ground and flicking indicate aggression. If the tail is arched and over the back, the cat is usually on the defensive. If a cat tucks her tail between her legs, she is indicating submission.
The relaxed tail is usually carried horizontally or slightly low to the floor.
A cat’s tail is also used to provide you with the biggest compliment you will ever get from a cat. When a cat wants to express his great joy and love for you, his tail will be pointing straight up and will start vibrating like mad! It is the cutest thing!.
Herbie will do this whenever we come home from errand running. He hops up on the counter and starts vibrating his tail like crazy. Murry will do this when he walks into a room where we are and we greet him. So if your cat vibrates his tail at you, take it for the great compliment it is and lavish praise accordingly!
‘THEY ARE NOT JUST DECORATIVE!’
A cat’s ears and whiskers are also part of the cat’s body language and can indicate emotion. They are not just sensory organs (ears for sound, whiskers for touch). The ears and whiskers often work together.
If the ears are rotated back, especially back and flat, and the whiskers are going forward, the cat is indicating aggression. If the ears are to the side (like airplane wings) and the whiskers are flat along the cheeks, the cat is expressing fear.
We watch for these 2 ear positions. In a multiple-cat household, aggression and fear are emotions we want to keep to a minimum. And with lots of cats, the potential for aggression and fear are increased. If 2 cats seem to be challenging each other, but the ears are erect, then we know it is just playing. If either one has ears that are flat and back, or to the sides, we intervene because at least one of them is afraid of being aggressive. Both aggression and fear can lead to physical confrontation!
If the ears are erect and facing forward, and the whiskers are also facing forward, he is alert and expressing interest – such as spotting prey!
Since a cat is normally alert, the ears facing forward are their normal position. With the whiskers pointing out to the sides at the same time, he is relaxed and comfortable.
‘MY BODY IS BEAUTIFUL!’
Cat body language also includes body position to provide an indication of how a cat is feeling. Body position usually communicates 1 of 2 things – ‘come closer’ or ‘go away.’
A crouching cat with her tail wrapped around her body is feeling defensive and fearful. Standing straight with the rear slightly elevated is an offensive posture.
Contrary to what many believe, the belly-up position is actually a defensive posture. In this position, the cat is able to use all of his claws and teeth on his nemesis. It is not a submissive posture like we see with dogs.
The belly-up position is also not always an invitation for a belly rub. Some cats like having their belly rubbed and others will grab, bite, and bunny-kick you to death if you rub their belly. Whether a cat likes belly rubs depends completely on the cat – so beware!
Bunny kick refers to a cat on its back with the back legs kicking and scratching together in unison. The movement is similar to the hind legs of a hopping bunny.
The stereotypical ‘Halloween cat’ position (arched back, hair standing on end) indicates that the cat is ready to react to whatever comes next. It is both a defensive and an offensive position.
If a cat is crouching with its tail tucked around her and another cat is standing erect with its hind end slightly raised, the standing cat is issuing a challenge of dominance and the crouching cat is waiting for its moment of escape. If both cats are standing with the rear ends up, chances are they are vying for a dominant position and a fight may start. We will usually walk in-between the cats and distract them. Calm is usually restored pretty quickly.
All of the positions mentioned are ‘go away’ or ‘leave me alone’ indicators. Even when issued as a challenge, the challenger is hoping to intimidate the other cat into leaving the area.
A crouching cat with the rear slightly elevated, sometimes the rear is wiggling back and forth, is getting ready to pounce. Often accompanied by stalking movements, this is most often a play posture. However, a cat in this posture that is facing forward can indicate a cat on the offensive. Facing sideways can indicate a defensive posture – the cat is ready to flee the scene. The tell that indicates play is the little ‘butt wiggle’!
On the back and rolling from side to side is a greeting or a request to play. This is a ‘come closer’ posture. Just keep in mind that rubbing his belly, even though the cat is indicating he wants to play, can still lead to grabbing, biting, and bunny kicking! Barney loves to do this. He rolls around to get someone to rub his belly then he grabs hold and starts kicking and biting. While he considers it plays and has never really hurt anyone, he has gotten a little over-excited and caused a few scratches!
A cat, just sitting or lying in a relaxed position, is usually OK with you coming closer. But always be aware that a cat’s emotions can change very rapidly. A cat can go from ‘yes, please pet me’ to ‘touch me again and I’ll scratch your eyes out in the flick of a tail!
Remember, when interpreting cat body language, it is important to look at the whole picture including actions and vocalizations. (See Cat Sounds)
Observe your cat’s behaviors. Watch them as they interact with each other, with people, and when by themselves. Look at their facial expression. Do they look happy and playful or do they seem upset?
Cat body language, indeed, cat communication itself, can be quite complex but by watching what they do and when they do it, you will be able to tell quickly if trouble is brewing or if your cats are just brewing up a game to play!