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You see a cat in the corner of the yard. She is hunched up, head lowered, whiskers flat against her muzzle, looking directly at you with dilated pupils. You want to pet her, but then you notice the tip of her tail is swishing from side to side.
What should your next move be? Should you go ahead and pet her, or is it best to back off?
If you read her body language right, you were wise and left well alone. The cat is giving out subtle signs that she’s feeling tense, and if you reach towards her, invading her personal space, she’s liable to lash out.
Of course, what you didn’t know was that just before you arrived, she’d been chased and cornered by another cat, which is why she was feeling so tense.
Looking deeper at the situation above, what are the tell-tale signs that the cat isn’t happy?
- Body Posture: Being hunched up with a lowered head is a sign of vigilance, especially when the cat seems ‘tense’. However, some cats just like resting with all four paws beneath them…but more about the vagaries of confusing cat body language shortly.
- Whiskers: Whiskers send out messages.
- Bristled forwards are usually a sign of curiosity or that the cat has seen something to hunt.
- Drooping down in a neutral position and the cat is relaxed.
- Flattened back against the muzzle means the cat is anticipating trouble and keeping them out of the way.
- Pupils: In cat language, a direct stare is a challenge to a fight. If a tense looking cat meets your gaze then she is prepared to attack if given provocation. Cats go to great lengths not to get into fights, but a frightened cat backed into a corner will come out fighting in order to protect herself. This is also why you shouldn’t stare directly at a cat you are trying to befriend: you are actually threatening her, rather than acting friendly.
- Tail: An agitated tail, especially one flagging to-and-fro is a sign of agitation. This isn’t a relaxed cat eager for a fuss, but an anxious, fearful cat in a state of inner conflict.
Body posture is an important way cats tell each other how they are feeling. This makes sense because they can read the shape of the body from some distance away, and thereby avoid entering into tricky situations that could end in injury.
Feline body language can be broadly divided into two groups:
- Distance Reducing Signals: These mean the cat is relaxed, curious, and wants to be friends.
- Distance Increasing Signals: The cat wants to be left alone.
We now understand that in our opening scenario the cat was showing distance increasing signals because she was frightened and wanted you to stay away. So let’s look at some more body language signs and what they mean.
Distance Reducing Signals
You know the cat with the flag-pole tail that comes strolling to meet you. Well that vertical tail is a strong sign that the cat is curious and prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. Another sign of friendliness (and no surprises here) is head bunting and rubbing against your shins. Whilst doing this the cat is spreading her scent on you, and making herself feel at home.
Another distance reducing signal is rolling over to display her belly. Unlike in dogs where this is a submissive gesture, for cats it’s a sign she wants to play. However, as anyone who has rubbed a cat’s belly will tell you – watch out! To the cat, clamping onto your hand with all four paws with claws out is a great game, so be aware the feline idea of play is very different to ours.
Much is written about eyes and pupils sizes, but in truth dilated pupils can be a sign of both anger and relaxation. A better determination of a cat’s mood is to look at her eyelids. Heavy, half-closed eyelids are usually a sign of trust, and if accompanied by a purr then you’re on safe ground.
Distance Increasing Signals
A fearful or an aggressive cat will display signs intended to keep the challenge at a distance. The classic Halloween cat, with straight legs, arched back, upside-down ‘U’ tail, and fur on end is a master class in distance increasing signals. This cat is frightened and doing everything in her power, including staring and hissing, to make herself look big and intimidating.
The aggressive cat preparing to defend her territory presents an altogether different silhouette. When faced directly with a cat intruding on her territory, she will crouch with her back end underneath her, ready to provide power for a split-second lunge forward. Her ears and whiskers are flattened back to keep them out of harm’s way, and her tail wags and lashes as an overt signal that she’s angry. The fur along her back stands on end, and she’s likely to lift her lip to display her canine teeth. This is a cat you really don’t want to mess with.
Practical Cat Body Language
When reading your cat’s body language, take a look at the bigger picture. When you focus in on pupil size or ear position it’s easy to miss other conflicting signs that better convey the cat’s mood.
When wondering if it’s safe to pet a strange cat look for signs of tension such as the whiskers slightly drawn but ears rotated backwards, and a ticking tail. If you need to approach for some reason, then talk to the cat first so that she’s 100% aware of your presence. Nothing will trigger a cat to lash out faster than being caught by surprise and talking to the cat may give them a chance to shake off the grumps and be friendly.
Of course nothing beats getting to know your cat purrs-onally, because all cats are unique individuals with their own behavioural nuances that only you can understand.
How good are you at reading your cat’s body language? What signals does your cat give you to tell you to come closer or to keep your distance?