Your cat has his own way of telling you when he’s feeling defensive, affectionate, or even when he’s in pain. Learn how to interpret your cat’s behavior to build your best relationship with him.

By Sarah Hodgson
August 24, 2020
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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! I’m here to set the record straight about cat behavior.  

Ultimately, cats assign people into one of three basic categories: predator, prey, or nurturer.

If you’re concerned about some aspect of your cat’s behavior, addressing it starts with understanding how your cat perceives you. One reminder: If you notice sudden, unexplained changes in your cat’s behavior, consult your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for this change. 

Cat Behavior that Indicates You Might Be a Predator

Have you ever swatted at your cat for exploring a bag or jumping on the counter? While your reactions to your cat’s behavior might make sense to another person, cats don’t understand the value we place on objects. To your cat, your reactions seem threatening and unpredictable. This might make him see you as more of a predator than a parent. 

“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 fear their people might exhibit the following behaviors: 

  • Marking: Marking is generally done on a vertical surface to calm a cat’s nerves or stake a claim. 
  • Swatting: Cats use their claws to defend themselves when they feel trapped 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 Threatened

Cats who feel threatened usually 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. 

Cat Behaviors that Indicate You Might Be Prey

Although cats are vulnerable preying animals, they are also skilled hunters. Their sharp prey instincts don’t stop at mice and birds; small kittens will “hunt” your hands and feet if you playfully provoke them. That might be cute when they’re little, but if you roughhouse instead of redirecting your kitten or cat’s playful energy, don’t be surprised if they ambush, stalk, or attack you later on. 

After all, cats raised with the mentality that you’re just an animated plaything will treat you like a prey animal instead of a parent. These cats will grow up with a more predatory worldview, often standing their ground when you have had enough. 

Here are some behaviors these cats exhibit: 

  • Scratching: Cats use their nails to grab, grasp, and gouge prey.
  • Predatory Play Biting: Cats kill their prey 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: If your cat views you as prey, don’t be surprised if they ambush 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 Thinks You’re Prey 

Aggressive cat body language includes a direct, unblinking stare, a stiff tail lowered toward the ground, and stiff, raised haunches. “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.”

Cat Behaviors that Indicate You Are Their Nurturer

Baby kittens love their mama. She is gentle, calm, and above all, nurturing. Domestic cats, especially when they’re neutered at a young age, develop a similar attachment to their caregivers. If you choose this nurturing role—one of limitless patience, kindness, and care for your cat’s everyday needs—you’ll share a close bond and a lifetime of loving companionship. 

A recent 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. 

To foster a feeling of security with your cat, pay close attention to his body language, and 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. 

Here are some behaviors that trusting cats show their parents: 

  • 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: The ultimate in trusting gestures, a cat’s rollover invites different interactions than a dog’s. A cat’s belly skin is thin and highly sensitive, Ingrid Johnson, CCBC, says. If their belly is touched or scratched, cats will try to protect their vital organs. She suggests always petting or scratching a cat gently along their chin, ears, or head instead of reaching for their belly and breaking their trust.
  • 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!” 

As with most pets, changing a cat’s behavior starts with examining what we as pet parents do. Changes you make today will dramatically affect your cat’s outlook tomorrow, and you’ll both be happier in the long run. Rest assured, cats are very forgiving and would rather live with a kind, cheerful parent than a moody, reactive one. If you still need more help learning how to communicate more gently and openly with your cat, locate an animal behavior consultant or a feline veterinary behaviorist. You don’t have to settle for anything but a loving relationship with your cat.