Cats are mysterious creatures. So it’s not always easy to know if your cat is feeling comfortable or nervous, but understanding the nuances of feline body language gives you an edge.
“Cats have very sophisticated body language,” says Dr. Alison Gerken, a clinical behavioral medicine resident at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach. “They communicate their emotions by positioning their ears, tails, whiskers and bodies, by changing their facial expressions and by moving their tails. Because these changes are subtle, they often go unnoticed by us.”
Dr. Gerken says a common misinterpretation of cat body language is the assumption that a cat is being “mean, evil or vindictive” when the cat is actually afraid. “By the time cats are growling, hissing, lunging, swatting or biting, they are so scared that they are panicking,” she says.
If you miss a cat’s early signals, it’s easy to assume the cat suddenly flipped a switch and became aggressive, but there is usually a long ramping up to such behaviors. The key is to learn to read these signs.
Cats display signals when they first begin feeling afraid. Though fearful body language is subtle, it’s not too hard to discern when your cat is worried.
“Licking of the lips (when not associated with eating) may indicate some level of nervousness, as is tucking the tail under the body,” says Dr. Terri A. Derr, founder of Veterinary Behavior Options of Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area. “Staring intently at something may indicate a cat is worried about it.
Our behaviorists break down some common signs of fear in cats.
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Most people are familiar with the “Halloween cat” pose, the cat standing tall with an arched back, lowered head and hair standing up straight away from the body (piloerect).
“Cats assume this posture when their sympathetic nervous system — the ‘fight, flight or flee’ response — is activated when they feel threatened or startled,” Dr. Gerken says. “This posture may allow them to appear bigger to the perceived threat. This is a signal that the cat does not wish to interact.”
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A relaxed cat’s ears face forward in a neutral position. If a cat flattens her ears against her head, heed the warning. “You better run,” Dr. Derr half jokes. “At the very least, do NOT reach toward this cat. A cat with completely flattened ears is fighting for its life.”
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Your cat’s eye shape can change depending on how she’s feeling, providing some clues about her emotional state. A relaxed cat will have a soft gaze with open eyes. A nervous cat may squint or narrow her eyes, and the pupils may be dilated. Squinting and dilated pupils can also indicate a medical problem, so have your cat checked out if those signs continue.
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Your cat’s tail position and movement can tell you a lot about how she’s feeling. “Cats may thrash their tails or thump their tails on the ground when they are angry, irritated or annoyed,” Dr. Gerken says. “This is a request to stop the interaction. Cats may wrap their tails tightly around their bodies when they are defensive, frightened, painful or sick.”
If you notice your cat sitting or lying with her tail curled tightly around her body, but you can’t see any reason why she might be feeling nervous or upset, she could be sick. Make an appointment with your veterinarian if the behavior persists.
Conversely, some cats might look away from something that’s making them nervous. Scared cats may also twitch their tails or pull their whiskers back flat against their faces. “Cats may also flop to their sides and expose their bellies,” Dr. Gerken says. “Many people assume this is an invitation for a belly rub and then are surprised when the cat strikes or bites them. This body posture is a sign that cats are fearful.”
According to Dr. Derr, cats prefer to remove themselves from a scary situation. “That’s why many cats disappear when visitors first arrive,” she says.
If your cat attempts to move away to a quiet, safe place, let her go. Don’t force her to stay and interact with new people if she’s feeling nervous, as this will almost always backfire. Respect your cat’s desire to retreat and let her come out again to investigate on her own terms.
If a cat can’t remove herself from the thing she’s afraid off, she may go from nervous and anxious to downright panicked. At this point, the cat’s body language is often loud and clear.
“A terrified cat becomes defensive; she tries to make herself smaller,” Dr. Derr says. “She crouches, wraps her tail under her or around her body and pins her ears back. The further back her ears go, the more frightened she is.”
Very scared cats may lean to one side and lash out with their claws or vocalize with a hiss or yowl, which means “Go away!”
If your cat begins displaying fearful body language, assess her environment for possible stressors and remove them or allow your cat to retreat from them. For instance, if your cat is upset when visitors or workers come to the house, let her hang out in a quiet room until they are gone.
©Casey Christopher/Instagram @ImogenTheKitten
“If you are unable to remove the stressors, it’s OK to comfort your cat,” Dr. Gerken says. “This may be petting, play or a grooming session. If your cat demonstrates fearful body language when you’re interacting, this is an indication to stop the interaction and give your cat some space.”
According to Dr. Derr, sometimes the best thing you can do to help your nervous or fearful cat is nothing. “Leave them alone, be sure they have a place to go where they feel safe, usually someplace up high where they can observe their environment easily,” she says. “They don’t want to be comforted; they want to be safe. They’ll calm down on their own and then resume normal, loving interactions.”
The Secret Language of Cats: How to Understand Your Cat for a Better, Happier Relationship (2018); published by Hanover Square Press. $12.47 / paperback.
Cat Body Language: 100 Ways to Read Their Signals (2017); published by Collins & Brown. $8.95 / paperback.
Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones (2020); published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 16.99 / paperback.
Cat Body Language app; available on Google Play.
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