We get it, you’re a curious. You’ve got questions and we’ve got answers. For this series, we send your burning kitty q’s to our panel of experts who can help you get inside your cat’s high-held head.
We consulted Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. Mikel has worked professionally with cats for almost twenty years, starting in the Cat Behavior Program of the San Francisco SPCA, and more recently through her cat behavior consulting partnership, Feline Minds. She’s also co-author with Jackson Galaxy of the 2017 book “Total Cat Mojo,” and has published her research in several academic journals.
Cats might not speak our language, but they can tell us how they are feeling - through their body language.
The first thing to consider is the situation or context. The environment can provide clues about how your cat might be feeling. For example, if they are at home and snoozing, versus at the vet’s office, or watching a squirrel out the window. Which of these contexts are more likely to cause your cat to be relaxed, stressed, or excited?
When assessing your cat’s mood, you can look at their overall body language, then you can zoom in to specific body parts, like the eyes, ears, tails and whiskers as well as vocalizations to get a more detailed sense of what is going on.
While we don’t have space to go over every possible scenario and mood that your cat might be experiencing, we can go over some of the major things your cat might be feeling and how you can tell!
Saying hello: Cats often greet humans and cats they are friendly with by approaching with an upright tail. The tail may look a little like a question mark. This “tail up” gesture is considered a peace signal that indicates trust and curiosity.
Feeling lazy: A relaxed cat will have a relaxed body -- slow breathing, perhaps laying on their side, and with closed or blinking eyes. Movements are slow. This cat feels safe and is not contemplating whether or not they should be prepared to run for cover. They might instead look like they are melting into the floor! Relaxed cats may be purring.
Curious and taking in information: Cats can be alert, but calm - with head upright, perhaps with paws tucked or stretched out in front of them. They could be ready to take off if a threat suddenly happened, but they are most likely just feeling observant and curious. Their whiskers are forward, and their ears are upright. Eyes are open but not overly wide.
Ready to play: An alert cat might have a flashing tail, or dilated pupils. Whiskers are forward, ready to detect prey! You might see head-bobbing, rolling, and a focus on moving objects (like a toy or another cat). Cats who are really ready to pounce may even wiggle their butts.
Getting stressed: As a cat becomes more threatened, they become more tense. They might be curling their body up tight to appear smaller, or they might be puffing up to make themselves look bigger and more threatening. The tail may be lashing, between the legs, or even puffed. Ears are often held back against the head, and the eyes can have a “frowning” appearance. As a cat becomes more frightened, they are more prepared to go into fight or flight mode, and may bite or scratch push comes to shove.
Pain: A cat who is in pain often has a tense face, and a tight body. They may not relax, and instead are often in a crouching position with a tucked tail. Their head is often held low and may appear to be wincing.
No one signal can tell you everything about what every cat is feeling. Some cats are naturally more “expressive” with their tails, and other cats are just more laid back! So be sure to take these three steps to better understand your cat: