Cat Body Language: What It Tells You

by Melissa R. on March 11, 2010

Ritter the Ocicat kittenWhen we introduced our newest kitten, Ritter, into the family, I became curious about cat body language. I am very familiar with dog body language, but cats are new to me so I started researching their body language, to see what it all means. Here’s a few common cues I’ve seen our cats doing:

Head-butting and rubbing against each other or us:
This is actually the cat depositing his scent around, and “marking their territory.”  This is a good sign – if your cat rubs up against you that means you are “his.”

Rolling Over On Back:
Both Cirrhi & Ritter are commonly found rolling over on their backs or sides when in a “lull” of playing, or if getting some quality petting time. I was very curious to figure out what this meant. Turns out it means they trust you, and are being submissive and welcoming. However, it is a little different when they do this when playing. While it means they are welcoming to play, it also means business because this is the best position to use the back legs for extra clawing if attacked.

Cirrhi and Ritter often seem to hold silent Staring Contests with each other. As it turns out, making eye contact like this with a cat is an aggressive sign. Whoever blinks or looks away first is the submissive one. What I found most interesting was how this relates to people! Do you know how that one person who “doesn’t like cats” always gets the cats coming to them Ritter the Ocicat kittenfirst, and not you, who stares and calls the cats like crazy? It’s because that person isn’t looking at them – which is not aggressive to a cat. While we’re all staring at them begging them to come…we’re doing the opposite of what we should be doing!

Tail Position:
This was MOST interesting. I had no idea there were so many tail positions with meaning! Here’s a rundown of some of the common ones:

  • Tail high & straight up: happy & content
  • Tail horizontal (straight out): stalking, wary, but not aggressive
  • Hooked tail at end: happy, but a little unsure
  • Swishing, twitching tail: Irritable and angry, but also a warning sign for play “I’m going to get you!’
  • Tail down, and tucked under legs: submissive

Sleepy Ocicat kitten Ritter
The Ears:
The position of the cat’s ears is key in figuring out how they are feeling. A lot of times you have to combine the tail along with the ears to figure out what is going on:

  • Ears forward: happy, curious, alert
  • Ears flat against head: feeling defensive
  • Ears flat against head, but tips twisted front: feeling aggressive

Arching Back & Puffing Tail:
This means I’m scared, and trying to make myself look bigger and more threatening! We don’t want this situation.

In the end, you need to put all the signs together to really figure things out – but I’m not sure even then you can! These are at least some signals to help figure out what your cats are telling each other. There are many more signals for their eyes, and of course a whole dictionary of vocal sounds that have meaning! At least we all know what a good purr means.

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About the author: Melissa is a devoted pet owner with several cats: Kai, Cirrhi & Ritter; and the newest addition, Emme a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Melissa is an avid dog agility enthusiast, and hopes her new pup will someday be an agility champion! She is a Graphic Designer and Project Coordinator for the and websites. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Michigan State University and is a lifelong pet lover and owner. See more articles by Melissa R.

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Cat Body Language: What It Tells You | BodyLanguagesite
March 16, 2010 at 6:43 pm

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Tricia April 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Just like people, a certain animal’s body language differs significantly from another animal. I’m fond of cats, so I’m more familiar with their gestures and other sounds they make. Cats are really adorable.

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