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What’s Your Cat Telling You?

Cats are smart and independent pets, but no matter how well you think you know your cat, it can sometimes be challenging to understand what they are trying to tell us. They use a complex system that comprises sound, touch, scent and body language to communicate how they feel.

By careful observation and with a little practice, it’ll be a breeze to decode your cat’s true feelings. Here are some of the more common ways cats communicate their feelings to us. 

Non-Verbal Communication

The Body

What does a relaxed cat look like? Unprovoked, a calm cat displays relaxed muscles of the body, breathing slowly and evenly. If they arch their back, this can mean she’s in the mood for some petting or interaction with you. Conversely, a cat who is angry, fearful or stressed will have its fur standing on end, also with an arched back. 

Tip: You may assume that like dogs, if your cat lies on her back with belly to the sky – she’s asking for a belly rub, right? You may be surprised. This can be defensive stance for cats. If this happens, you might want to observe her for a little while longer before you go in for a full on, happy belly rub.

The Tail

The tail-o-meter is a superb indicator of your cat’s mood. The tail of a relaxed cat follows loosely behind her. If she’s in a good mood, she may hold her tail up. Again, you want to be on the lookout for standing fur! A raised tail with fur standing on ends could indicate that your cat is stressed or fearful too.

As it is with dogs, a tail held low between their legs indicate that they are feeling anxious or uncomfortable. Give your cat some physical space and not overwhelm them with your presence, if this is the case.

Another good tail observation – your cat might be curious about something if she is moving her tail slowly. But if she is flicking her tail quickly from side to side, there’s a high chance she’s feeling provoked.

The Eyes

The eyes are windows to everyone’s souls, even cats. A happy cat will display normal-sized pupils  that are neither dilated nor constricted. Cats also blink slowly or have their eyes slightly closed if they are feeling secure and comfortable. 

If there is something your cat is unsure or afraid of, her pupils may dilate or constrict. If her eyes are firmly fixed on one thing, she could be prepping for an attack! If you’re a cat owner, you’ll be familiar with that feral stare your cat gives when she’s in a hunting mood!

The Ears 

Who knew ears can communicate? Humans don’t do much with our ears. They just… sit there. It’s a different matter for cats. Ears that are held in a forward-facing position indicates a friendly and content cat. If they’re pointing straight up, she’s definitely interested or excited (in a good way). Ears that swivel left and right are trying to pick up sounds that are putting them on high alert (like when you’re opening up a pack of food).  

One thing to note in particular is when your cat’s ears are pinned far back, or down by the sides – she’s communicating fear, defensiveness or anger. This is a good time to give them some space to regulate their feelings and calm down. 

Verbal Communication

Most of us have heard cats meowing, yowling or purring. This is them vocalizing their feelings. A cat’s growl, snarl or hisses are easy to interpret (fear or anger), but the regular meows can have a whole gamut of meanings and emotions behind them. 

A short meow and your cat’s greeting you.

A mid-pitched meow is can be a plea for something they need – like if they need to access their litter box or very likely, hungry and need some food. (If the meow is held for a longer duration, this plea has now become a demand.)

A low-pitched meow is usually a complaint to let you know something is wrong – is the water bowl empty?

Finally, a high-pitched screech-like meow is a knee-jerk sound of pain or anger – this is the sound you’ll hear if you step on your cat’s tail by accident! (Don’t try it.)

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