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Body Language

Just on the odd chance there is anyone left who is reading my ramblings…I am moving on to cat body-language. For this section I am indebted to the fine folks at Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter in Alameda, California. I was first a volunteer, and then a trainer at this wonderful non-profit organization where I had access to their extensive library of animal related materials. The following hints are ones I used extensively when training new feline volunteers (that sounds as though the volunteers were cats, but you know what I mean!). Many of the following body-language cues are familiar to any cat owner, but some are not so self evident, and may be useful when greeting an unfamiliar cat or instructing a young person in safety precautions to use when handling a kitty for the first time.

The Wagging of the Tail:

Just to confuse us, dogs and cats had a meeting and decided that the tail wag would be the first of many ways in which humans misinterpret cat behavior. As many of us know, a wagging tail (as opposed to a twitching tail) signals NO TOUCHING! The faster the tail, the angrier the cat.

Tail Twitching:

Early stage of Tail Wagging. However, tail twitching also indicates heightened interest, as when a kitty spies a bird perched just outside of the window. The twitch usually subsides and the cat goes into Crouch Mode—a pre-leap, hunting posture. Airplane Ears (sideways and flat) may also accompany the hunting stance. Flat ears reduce the cat profile, which facilitates the successful hunt. The window glass also helps!

In General:


Forward: alert and happy

Backward, sideways, flat (airplane ears): irritable, angry or frightened

Swiveling: attentive and listening to every little sound


Pupils constricted: offensively aggressive, but possibly contented (Cats are tricky)

Pupils dilated: nervous or submissive (if somewhat dilated), defensively aggressive (if fully dilated), but possibly playful


Erect, fur flat: alert, inquisitive or happy

Fur standing on end: (The Hallowe’en hairdo) angry or frightened

Held very low or tucked between legs: insecure or anxious

Thrashing: see above

Straight Up, Quivering: excited, really happy expectant

(in an unaltered cat, he or she might be attempting to scent mark) Spay/Neuter Please!


Back arched, fur standing on end: frightened or angry

Back arched, fur flat: welcoming your touch

Lying on back, purring: very relaxed

Lying on back, growling: upset and ready to strike

Tummy Display behavior is generally confusing to us humans. What seems flirtatious and inviting may be met with overt aggression when we presume to give a belly pet. Relaxed cats frequently stretch out and roll over, but a cat “cornered” in this position (by a child, dog, other cat, or beloved human companion) may fully extend claws and use those sharp teeth in a highly defensive manner. Best to be cautious when approaching a bared belly!


When your cat rubs his chin and body against you, he’s telling you he loves you, right? Well, sort of. What he’s really doing is marking his territory. You’ll notice that he also rubs the chair, the door, his toys, basket, scratching post—everything in sight. He is telling everyone that this is his stuff, including you! But he does love you too!


When a cat greets another cat or a person with slow, languid blinks, it is communicating affection. Why? Because in the feline world, closing one’s eyes in the presence of another is the ultimate sign of trust. By blinking slowly at your cat, you are communicating that you are aware of its presence and pose no threat. Next time your cat blinks at you, try returning the compliment!


Often called “making biscuits”, this charming behavior is a holdover from kittenhood, when kneading the mother’s teats makes milk flow. Your cat does this when quite happy and contented.


Have you noticed times when your cat—perhaps while sniffing your shoe—lifts his head, opens his mouth slightly, curls back his lips and squints his eyes? He’s not making a statement about how your shoe smells; he’s gathering more information. Your cat’s sense of smell is so essential to him that he actually has an extra olfactory organ that very few other creatures have: the Jacobson’s organ. It is located on the roof of his mouth behind his front teeth and is connected to the nasal cavity. When your cat gets a whiff of something really fascinating, he opens his mouth and inhales so that the scent molecules flow over the Jacobson’s organ. This intensifies the odor and provides more information about the object he is sniffing. What he does with that information, well, we’ll never know.

A KEY TO YOUR CAT’S MOODS: A user’s guide

Content: sitting or lying down, eyes half-closed, pupils narrowed, tail mostly still, ears forward and purring. A VERY happy cat may knead on a soft surface.

Playful: Ears forward, tail up, whiskers forward and pupils somewhat dilated—playing is hunting behavior; your cat may stalk her prey (a toy, a housemate or you), then crouch down with her rear end slightly raised. A little wiggle of the butt, then…pounce! Your cat will grab her prey, bite it, wrestle it to the floor and kick it with her hind feet! Hunt Over!

Irritated or over-stimulated: Pupils dilated, ears turned back and tail twitching or waving—your cat may growl or put his teeth on you as a warning to cease and desist. Intense play can quickly turn into overstimulation in some cats, resulting in biting and scratching.

Nervous or anxious: Ears sideways or back, pupils dilated and tail low or tucked—your cat may slink through the house close to the floor, looking for somewhere to hide. He may turn his face to the wall to shut the world out.

Frightened or startled: Think Hallowe’en cat—Ears back and flat against the head, whiskers back, back arched, fur standing on end and tail erector low. She may yowl, growl, hiss or spit.

Defensive: Crouched, ears flattened, whiskers back, tail between the legs or wrapped around his body, and pupils dilated—he may meow loudly, growl, hiss or spit.

Angry, aggressive: Ears back, pupils very constricted, tail may be up or down, fur standing on end—an aggressive cat will stare down another cat, and growl or yowl until the other cat gives way. Cats don’t really want to fight; they prefer standoffs, but this can progress to fighting if one of the cats doesn’t back down.

Most of us know our cats quite well. Quiet observation is both enjoyable and sensible and I believe cats appreciate being given the psychological space to develop their unique personality. Over a long lifetime of cat companionship, I have come to cherish those moments when I observe my housemates in their unguarded state—just being cats. So, thanks for listening—I am going to go now and knead some soft stuff and take a nap!


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