5 Keys to Decoding Your Cat’s Body Language

Portrait of a cat's face
When your cat is content, her pupils will be normally dilated and her eyes will be open or perhaps slightly closed, if she is especially relaxed.

The Eyes: A Window to Her Soul

Your cat’s eyes help tell the story of her inner state. When she is content, her pupils will be normal size (not dilated) and her eyes will be open or perhaps slightly closed, if she is especially relaxed. When your cat is at ease, she may make eye contact and will hold the gaze for a while before looking away in a nonchalant manner or blinking softly.

But if she is aroused and on the edge of being aggressive or fleeing, your cat’s pupils may change shape — either dilating or constricting — and her eyes may look hard or stiff.

If your cat is staring at something with a fixed gaze — for example, a squirrel or another cat — this is a sign that she’s getting ready to strike or attack. On the other hand, if your cat is feeling fearful, she may avoid eye contact and may exhibit a darting eye movement as she assesses the situation and searches for an escape route.

The Muzzle: The Face of Fear

When your cat is relaxed, her whiskers are set out from her face, where they are less noticeable. When she is interested in something, her whiskers may move out and forward, becoming more stiff. When she is frightened, she may hold her whiskers flat against her face.

Sudden licking can be another sign of an uneasy cat. If your cat is licking her lips — and isn’t eating — she may be afraid of something. By the same token, a nervous cat may start licking or scratching her body or grooming herself excessively.

The one thing your cat may not use her tongue to do if she’s stressed is eat. In fact, when she is anxious she may be unable to do or enjoy normal things, such as treats, petting, play or rest.

The Body: Reading Your Cat’s Posture

A relaxed cat’s breathing is usually slow and deep. She keeps her claws tucked safely away and moves in a loose, relaxed manner.

The more agitated or aroused a cat gets, the more tense her muscles will become. If your cat freezes altogether, it can mean that she’s about to fight or flee — or, in some cases, pounce. A cat who is stressed will move in a rigid, stiff fashion.

A frightened cat may slow her pace and drop low to the ground when afraid (although this slinking posture may simply indicate that she’s getting ready to pounce on something). Alternatively, she may speed up her movements in an attempt to get away from the situation or threat.

When your cat becomes nervous, her claws may extend. She may also breathe in a shallow, rapid manner.

A fearful cat may try to change the appearance of her size: Her fur may fluff out and you might notice excessive shedding. She might arch her back to look bigger or she may attempt to seem smaller by cowering or curling up with her extremities held tightly to her body.

A cat lying on her back may be showing you her trust or assuming a defensive posture — you will need to carefully consider the situation in order to know for sure.

Always pay attention to your cat’s physical reactions to a situation. For instance, if you are holding your cat and she is peering down at the floor, stiffening her body and leaning away from you, she is asking to be set down. Respect her request and let her down gently before she feels forced to resort to clawing and crying. After all, you would expect the same of your friends, right?

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