Sure, kittens can purr, meow, hiss and communicate with nonverbal cues just like adult cats. However, their body language can have subtle differences from adult behavior. For example: A kitten may rush at you, leap in the air, come down with his back arched and tail fuzzed, then crab-walk away in a blatant play display of attack and retreat. In a kitten, this is sometimes a playful behavior that is usually an invitation for you to come and play, whereas in an adult, it’s more often a warning to please stay away. 

To understand what your kitten is trying to tell you, it’s important to look at all aspects of his body language, along with the context in which he’s doing it. Following are some guidelines to help you get started.

An arched back and sideways stance can be a defensive display or play behavior. In this photo, the posture looks more like a defensive display because the kitten's tongue is sticking out and he appears to be in the process of licking his lips. Lip licking can occur after a kitten has eaten or groomed himself but it can also occur if the kitten is scared or anxious. The context in which the behavior occurs provides you with more information regarding how the kitten is feeling.

Rolling over can be an appeasement behavior or an indication that the kitten is comfortable and relaxed. Sometimes kittens also roll over when they are playing. Be aware that if you reach out to touch the kitten, he may grab your hand and try to wrestle with it and bite.

When a kitten scratches, he can be marking his territory, exercising or trying to remove shedding sheath material from his claws.

Unsheathed claws can be a sign of aggression, but is usually part of play. In this particular picture, this may be interpreted as play behavior because the kitten has loose body language and is lying on his side.

A straight-up tail can mean a kitten is friendly or content.

If the tip of a kitten's tail is twitching, it could mean he's interested or stalking.

Eyes that are open wide can be interpreted as alertness or playfulness.

Ears that are facing forward with some swiveling can mean a kitten is attentive or playful. The way you determine the difference is based on the cat's overall behavior and energy level. A sick kitten is less likely to be interested in food or playing, whereas a healthy kitten probably will be more interested.

Whiskers that are pricked forward can be a sign of interest.

Yawning can occur when a kitten is sleepy or tired or it can mean a kitten is anxious, depending upon the context in which the yawning occurs. If your kitten yawns at the veterinary clinic, for example, that is likely a sign of anxiety.

Hissing often means that a kitten feels threatened or defensive.
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