Understanding Cat Body Language

Understanding Cat Body Language

Posted by Pet Direct on 1st Aug 2022

Cats can be a little tricky when it comes to understanding their wants and needs from their meows and chirps. Over time you might be able to decipher a few of their meows, but you may still find yourself asking 'what exactly do you want?' or 'what is it kitty? what's wrong?'. Don't worry, cats are mysterious fluff balls, and just when you've think you've figured out one meow means play, next time 'round, it may mean food.

To understand a cat, you'll need to take their meows into account with their whole body from the tip of the ears to the top of their tails and the environment they are in. Here are some insights to help you understand your cat a little bit better...


When a cat vocalises, you can often gauge the emotion conveyed in certain scenarios. Meowing, purring, chirps or trills often mean your cat wants attention, food, pats, or is just content. Whereas a hiss and growl means back off or that they are angry. Sometimes a cat may yowl or shriek when feeling extremely threatened or as a last resort when trying to get their message across to you.

If you're not sure if your cat's vocalisation will match what you think your cat is trying to say, then take into consideration of their body language and their environment as well. If you cat is constantly yowling or if you are concerned about the way your cat is vocalising, consult your vet in case of any health conditions.


A cat's ears are more than just a way to hear their favourite wet food can open from under the neighbour's house. Their ears can express a lot depending on how they look and where they may be. If your cat's ears are propped up and forward facing, it's likely your cat is content, curious, and confident.

If you see your cat's ears swivelling side-to-side, it can mean your cat is quite aroused and figuring out if it is in a good or bad way. Backward facing/flattened ears (also known as airplane ears) can often mean you cat feels threatened or doesn't like whatever is going on. This accompanied with a hiss and swipe is a definite back off.

It's important to consider the environment the cat is in when deciphering their ears, as sometimes it may just be the way you're playing and stimulating your cat that leads to flattend airplane ears.

Eye contact

Cats say a lot with their eyes, especially through the dilation of their eyes and position of their eyelids:

  • Their pupil can tell you how relaxed or stimulated your cat is. Sudden dilation can mean your cat is feeling a strong emotion. This could be fear, excitement, or anger. You may have seen your cat's pupils dilate before the pounce when playing with them, meaning it's always helpful to consider the context to understand what your cat may be trying to tell you.
  • They’re staring without blinking (at another animal): a sign of control, dominance or aggression. You’ll probably see this happening if another cat (or other animal) gets too close to their food bowl or litter tray.
  • Their eyes are wide open and alert (when looking at you): your cat feels safe with you - this is a sign of trust.
  • They have a narrowed-eye stare: your cat is feeling uneasy, aggressive or fearful.
  • They have droopy eyelids: your cat is feeling calm and relaxed. Sometimes appears as slow blinking. Try slow blinking at your cat to see if they return slow blinks - this can be considered like a kiss as a sign of affection.

Head butting

Although a head butt between humans wouldn’t be counted as a friendly gesture, for your feline friend it is! A gentle head butt, when your cat smacks their forehead into yours, is your cat’s way of marking their territory (that’s you). By transferring their scent onto you, you’re being welcomed into your cat’s inner circle.

Face rubbing

Watch your cat for any length of time and you’ll probably see them rubbing their head or face on things. It might be the back of the sofa, the corner of a wall, or your legs. Face rubbing is natural cat behaviour. It’s a way for them to transfer their pheromones, which come from glands on their head and face, and mark their territory. It also creates a calming, comforting smell for your cat. If your cat rubs against your leg, they might be saying hi friend or they might be demanding attention.

Showing their tummy

Your cat’s rolled over and is showing their tummy - they’re asking for tummy rubs, right? Not so fast! If you try to rub your cat’s tummy, you’ll probably get one or two pets in before your hand will be clawed, chewed and bunny-kicked. That’s because touching their tummy kicks off an in-built behaviour to defend themselves. Afterall, their soft exposed bellies are the ideal spot to attack a cat.

Rather than asking for belly rubs, your cat is showing you that they’re very relaxed and comfortable - well done you for creating such a safe place for your cat to thrive in! Some cats may let you pat and rub their stomachs if they trust you enough to relax around you. Proceed with caution.

Body position

The body posture of your cat also contributes to the overall message they are trying to put out. Most cats you see will be in a confident neutral standing or sitting position (think of friendly cats that walk up and rub against your legs demanding pats).

But if your cat is crouched into a ball-like shape with its tail tucked cowering in the corner or under their bed, it's likely they are feeling uneasy, angry, fearful or worried. If their eyes are also narrow, pupils dilated and ears flattened, then best not to reach out towards them. Give them space for a while to breathe and calm themselves down.

An angry cat can also be standing with its back arched and hair raised with obvious tension in its body. The front paws may be slightly lifted, ready to pounce and attack. It can be quite obvious in identifying whether your cat is afraid or angry based on their vocalisations (hissing, growling, or yowling) and also if there teeth and claws are exposed. That's a definitie 'back off and give me space' sign.


If your cat's tail is standing straight and high, this can mean your cat is confident, happy, and friendly. You'll often see friendly cats walk around and greet others with their tail up high. Sometimes the tail is quivering as well when they are excited. On the other side, if you see a cat with it's tail low and tucked in between it's legs (or crouched wth tail wrapping around them), this can indicate fear, feeling uneasy or nervousness. Sometimes a cat will stick it's tail up high and puff their fur (think like a bottle-brush look) to make themselves appear bigger if they feel threatened.

Cat's can also swish their tails like a dog, except, a dog may swish their tail to show that they’re happy, a cat - not-so-much. A wildly thumping or swishing tail usually means back off. Watch out for it when you’re stroking your cat. If they get overstimulated, their tail might start to thump which can be a warning sign for you to stop. You might also see your cat swishing or thumping their tail when they spot a bird outside the window and they’re readying themselves to attack.

Showing their bum

If your cat turns around and shows their bum to you, it might not be the most pleasant experience. But it’s actually a good thing. Think of it as your cat putting themselves in a very vulnerable position as a way to show that they trust you.

Hopefully you now understand more about your cat’s body language, but remember every cat is unique and has their own personality. If you need any further help or have a question we haven’t answered, contact our friendly Pet Direct Customer Care team on 0800 200 240 or email support@petdirect.co.nz.

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