Cats have a reputation for being difficult to read. They communicate differently, and often more subtly, than humans so it is easy for us to miss their signs. But with a little practice, it can be easy to read how your cat is feeling. As cat guardians, it is important for many of us to ensure that our cats are not just surviving; we want them to be happy, too. We may never know whether cats experience “happiness” like humans feel, but we do want to maximize their positive emotional states. It takes some practice to determine whether your cat’s mood is positive (confident and relaxed) or negative (scared, angry, or anxious).
Relaxed Body Language
First take a look at the cat’s body language to determine their mood. For a happy cat, we want to see signs that she is relaxed and content in her environment.
- Body posture: Generally, the more open their body posture, the more relaxed the cat is. If they are laying down, they might be stretched out or laying on their back. (Keep in mind that this posture is not an invitation for a belly rub – most cats dislike having their belly scratched. Exposing their underside is just an indication of comfort.) They might have their paws folded under their body or stretched out in front of them. When moving around, they will walk loosely with their head held up.
- Tail: A cat’s tail is a good indication of their mood. When relaxed, the tail is typically held horizontally or half-lowered. A tail held straight up, often with a slight curve at the tip like a question mark, is an indication of a friendly approach to a person or another animal.
- Ears: In a calm state, the cat’s ears will be pointed forward and relaxed. They might slowly rotate their ears to focus on sounds around them.
- Eyes: A relaxed eye will look soft with an almond shape (as opposed to wide-open and round). Pupils will generally be small and vertical, although this can also change based on the lighting. In a dark room, the pupils can expand to nearly round. They might slow-blink at you to demonstrate comfort with you and their surroundings.
There are also behaviors that will help identify a happy cat. At a minimum, content cats will be able to perform their natural maintenance behaviors like using a litter box, scratching regularly, sleeping on a normal schedule, and grooming themselves. You might see them rub their cheeks on furniture around the home, indicating that they are comfortable in their territory and are marking it with their scent. Happy cats will readily engage in play and will initiate social interactions with humans or other pets.
Signs of Stress or Fear
On the other side of the emotional spectrum, we have negative feelings like stress and fear. Body language that might indicate negative emotional states include:
- Body posture: If open body posture shows a comfortable and confident cat, the opposite is true for cats showing stress. They may crouch or lower their head below their shoulders to make themselves appear smaller. Their feet are often flat under their body, ready to spring into movement if needed. Their skin might ripple, especially in response to an unwanted touch. In cases of extreme fear, cats will make themselves look larger by arching their back in the classic Halloween cat shape.
- Tail: An upset cat may flick or whip their tail back and forth. If fearful, the tail may be tucked under their body. In even higher fear levels, the fur on the tail may stand on end, giving the tail the appearance of a bristle brush.
- Ears: A cat on alert, whether merely interested in something or concerned about it, will have ears pointed forward and held tense, pointing straight up. As fear increases, their ears will flatten to the sides, known as “airplane ears.” Ears may also flatten back against the head, typically as an indication of aggression.
- Eyes: The eyes will be either held wide open with large, circular pupils when on high alert or squinted when more upset. The skin around the eyes and nose will be tense, especially if accompanied by hissing.
Behaviors that could indicate generalized stress or fear are the opposite of comfortable behaviors. These cats may not use their litter boxes regularly or eat in front of people or other pets. They may become withdrawn and rarely initiate social interactions. Rather than confidently moving around their territory, they might spend the majority of their time hiding and sleeping. They are less likely to engage in enrichment or play.
Context is Key
All of a cat’s body language and behaviors should be read together to get the whole picture. A cat’s ears might look relaxed, but her tail is twitching as if she is upset. Does that mean she is experiencing a positive or negative emotion? We have to look at the context to decide. If you were petting her when the tail started twitching, it may indicate that she enjoyed the attention initially, but she is starting to get overstimulated. Or if she is playing with a wand toy, that tail flick might mean she is getting excited about her hunting practice. During play, we may also see ears fold back or pupils dilate, which would not be signs of negative stress in this situation. Different contexts will influence your cat’s mood and will help you understand how she feels.
Contact me at Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training for personalized help interpreting your cat’s body language.