Do you know what your kitty is trying to say?

People have got cats all wrong. Cats aren't anti-social, nocturnal predators who are out for a hostile takeover every time your back is turned. The memes and articles mocking cats' vindictive nature aren't any more true than those stories that insist dogs are simply wolves in our midst, constantly vying for the role of alpha. Hogwash! We are here to set the record straight about cat behavior and body language. 

Like all pets we live alongside, cats share their feelings by way of their body. We can determine when our cat feels scared or stressed, is in a huntress or playful mood, or happy and wanting some cuddle time if we pay close attention to their body language.

cat stretching up on woman's legs
Credit: marieclaudelemay / Getty

If you're concerned about some aspect of your cat's behavior, addressing it starts making sure your feline pal feels well. If you notice sudden, unexplained changes in your cat's behavior, consult your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for this change. 

Fearful Cat Behaviors

"Cats' fear can often be caused by exposure to unfamiliar or unpredictable things, such as loud sounds and sudden, jerky movements," says Mikel Delgado, PhD, CAAB, co-owner of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consulting firm. To form a trusting connection, leave any force or frustration out of your relationship.

Cats who might find a human frightening may exhibit one or all of the following behaviors: 

  • Marking: Marking is generally done on a vertical surface to calm a cat's nerves or stake a claim in an unfamiliar environment. 
  • Swatting: Cats use their claws to defend themselves when they feel trapped, frightened, or to enforce personal space.
  • Vocalizing: Cats yowl, hiss, or spit when they're threatened or afraid. They will hiss as a warning before biting. 
  • Mature Cat Biting: Cats usually bite in response to extreme pain, panic, or frustration. 

How to Recognize if Your Cat Feels Stressed

Cats who feel threatened or under distress may show it with an arched back and raised hair. "Cat body language is complex and also can vary from individual to individual," says Delgado, who is also co-author of the book Total Cat Mojo. "Some common signals of stress in cats include dilated pupils, ear movements, tail swishing, and crouching with a tight body." This chart can help you interpret other aspects of your cat's body language. 

To foster a feeling of security with your cat, always be mindful of sudden changes in his environment that could distress him. "Cat parents can make sure to remain calm and provide positive attention to their cat when stressful situations occur, such as if moving homes or taking the cat to the veterinarian," Vitale says.

Hunting Cat Behaviors

Although cats are vulnerable preying animals, they are also skilled hunters. Their sharp predator skills don't stop at mice and birds; small kittens will "hunt" your hands and feet, sometimes unexpectedly (hello kitty claws from under the couch!), and may get especially scratchy during intense play sessions or mock "hunting" excursions.

Here are some behaviors cats may exhibit when they are on the prowl: 

  • Scratching: Cats use their nails to grab, grasp, and gouge prey.
  • Predatory Play Biting: Cats kill their prey (or their favorite toy) with a swift bite to their neck.
  • Vocalizing: Cats sometimes make a chirping sound while hunting and when prevented from stalking their prey.
  • Ankle Ambush: Don't be surprised if your kitty ambushes your ankles when you least expect it. "Give your cat a different way to vent this predatory play," Sally Foote, DVM, says. "Toss a stuffed animal for your cat to 'kill' before you walk through the room. Tossing the food so the cat pounces on this will also teach the cat to put the 'kill' on the food."

How to Recognize if Your Cat is on the Prowl

A cat with body language that includes a direct, unblinking stare, a stiff tail lowered toward the ground, and stiff, raised haunches is a cat ready to strike. "When cats are feeling predatory, you will see them crouching, staring and stalking their prey, watching closely, often while very still," Delgado says. "Their pupils may be dilated, and their whiskers will be outstretched forward. They may 'chatter' at their prey, and before pouncing, they may do a little 'butt-wiggle.' If they decide to attack, they will suddenly pounce."

Affectionate Cat Behaviors

If you are patient, kind, and always prepared for your cat's everyday needs—you'll share a close bond and a lifetime of loving companionship with your feline companion. A study in Current Biology showed cats form attachments to their owners, just like dogs do. "The bond between human and cat is not all that different from the bond between parent and offspring," says Kristyn Vitale, PhD, a researcher at Oregon State University and the leader of the study.  

Here are some behaviors that a cat may exhibit when wanting some one-on-one time with their human parent: 

  • Headbutting: Headbutting, aka bunting, is one way cats show affection, greet, and mark their family. Leading with their heads, they bonk the people they love gently, smudging their scent along as they go. 
  • Vocalizing: If your cat's vocalizing to greet, interact, or get your attention, they trust you to listen. The all-purpose meow could be anything from a greeting, a request, or even a complaint.
  • Slow Blinking: This non-verbal communication includes relaxed eyes and a slow blink. It's equivalent to a calm, loving gaze. 
  • Belly Displaying: A cat's rollover invites different interactions than a dog's but cane be an indicator your kitty wants your attention. A cat's belly skin is thin and highly sensitive, Ingrid Johnson, CCBC, says. For some cats, showing their belly doesn't mean they want you to pet it, though. If their belly is touched or scratched, they may feel the need to protect their vital organs and that may mean they use their claws (ouch!). It's for this reason Johnson suggests always petting or scratching a cat gently along their chin, ears, or head instead of reaching for their belly
  • Kneading: Kittens would initially knead their mama's belly while nursing. When relaxing, many cats will knead blankets or even your skin as they drift off to sleep.

How to Recognize a Relaxed, Happy Cat 

In addition to exhibiting the above loving behaviors, a happy cat's body language will show you their trust. "Relaxed cats may be laying on their sides or with their paws tucked, their eyes may be softly blinking," Delgado says. "Their ears and whiskers will be forward but not 'on alert.' You might even hear a purr!" 

Not all cats share their opinions as openly and obviously as you might wish so don't hesitate to seek the help of a certified animal behavior consultant or a feline veterinary behaviorist to learn more about your feline family member. Your cat buddy will appreciate you taking the time to listen to what they are trying to communicate.