Cat Body Language - Examples and Pictures

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: December 13, 2018
Cat Body Language - Examples and Pictures

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Cats are reserved animals who hide their emotions much better than dogs, who tend to be more impulsive and expressive in their behavior. Their elegant movements towards us are very restrained, so you need to carefully study them to work out the meaning of each of their actions or movements. It is hard to understand cats in general, but it becomes very important when they are ill, because they hide it tremendously well.

To help you with this, AnimalWised will give you a series of guidelines that will help you to decode your cat's body language, with the help of examples and pictures.

You may also be interested in: Most Popular Cat Breeds - With Pictures!

The basics of body language.

Even though we're talking about cats, the tail is a symbol of expression. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that it's only dogs who wag their tails excitedly when they see us, or hide it when they're in discomfort. Cats can also express themselves in the same way. Common gestures include:

As shown in the drawing above, the tail indicates many emotional states. Besides this, cats show their emotions through other movements. For example, it's well known that they greet us and demand our affection by rubbing up against us. If they want your attention they'll make themselves very visible, even by climbing up on your table or computer. A cat won't let a keyboard get in the way if it wants you to see it or pay it attention.

You can also treat its small nibbles and head butts as signs of its unconditional affection, and when they lie belly up on the floor they're showing you that they trust you.

Moreover, you can't ignore a cat's facial expressions just because of its natural sphinx-like expression, because they also give you information.

  • Face 1: Natural expression
  • Face 2 (upright ears): Anger
  • Face 3 (downward ears): Aggression
  • Face 4 (half-closed eyes): Happiness
Cat Body Language - Examples and Pictures - The basics of body language.

Myths of cat body language

Animal behavior expert Nicky Trevorrow published a video through the British organization Cats Protection showing the real meaning behind cats' movements, stressing that many things we considered to be true are actually not so.

The tail raised vertically is a greeting, as seen above, and a way your cat has of telling you that it is well - a fact which 3/4 of the 1100 survey contestants weren't aware of.

On the other hand, lying on their backs doesn't mean that your cat wants you to rub its tummy, which is something that it finds annoying and doesn't take very well. Rather, it's simply showing you that they trust you, and will enjoy a stroke on the head instead.

Other discoveries include that a cat's purr doesn't always mean the cat is happy; it can sometimes mean pain. Similarly, when cats lick their mouths it doesn't necessarily imply hunger - as human beings have widely came to believe - but sometimes stress. These findings aren't earth-shattering, but they can help you lots to understand your cat in each moment.

Cat mood matrix

As seen in the image beneath this text, it is possible to classify your cat's level of aggression or alertness according to its body posture. In the following matrix, you can see that the bottom right image is the cat's most alert position, and the top left position is its most relaxed and natural state. The other axis on the matrix associates the cat's positions with fear levels.

If your cat is behaving strangely and has abnormal body language, feel free to leave your question in the comments section.

Cat Body Language - Examples and Pictures - Cat mood matrix

If you want to read similar articles to Cat Body Language - Examples and Pictures, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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1 comment
My 4 year old male maine coon recently started hissing at my 7 year old daughter. Sometimes he would do it after she would come home from my moms, as she has 4 cats. Since this started she becomes fearful of him sometimes and when her fear is intense he hisses and sometimes even tries to swat. So my question is, could he be sensing this fear and reacting?
Alice Tapiol Breeze (AnimalWised editor)
Hi Carrie,
It has not been scientifically proven that cats sense fear, though there are several studies that show that they can perceive adrenaline, testosterone or cortisol, which take part in the process of fear.
If your daughter has acted in a certain way repeatedly, then your cat may sense the pattern and defend itself before your daughter "does" anything (cats react aggressively when they are scared so that their opponent does not act first).
This could be one of the reasons but there are many more, which is why we advise you to visit a qualified ethologist so he/she can re-educate your cat and find the source of his conduct with your daughter.
Hope this helps

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