Pet Behavior Tips: Understanding Feline Body Language

Domestic cats have advanced far beyond their wild ancestors in the capacity to develop new forms of social organization and communication. They use their bodies and facial expressions to communicate their intentions to all around them.

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Body: A stretched body can indicate that the cat is sure of herself or prepared to attack. A contracted body indicates fear. The arched back conveys the idea that the cat is in readiness for defense. Aggression is expressed with erect ears, constricted pupils and tail swings in low arcs close to the body. A defensive cat crouches in a cringing position with her eyes averted and ears flat and thumps the top of her tail on the ground. A happy cat relaxes her whiskers, perks up her ears and holds her head and tail high in the air.

Head: A head stretched forward is ready for contact. Facial expressions and other gestures indicate whether the encounter is antagonistic or friendly. A cat feeling dominant raises her head, and inferior feelings cause the head to lower. If the head is lowered in a jerky manner and the chin is pulled in or the head turned sideways, the cat is displaying a lack of interest. The cat uses this gesture if she desires not to provoke or be provoked when encountering another cat. When meeting another cat that is being very persistent, the cat that wants to avoid contact will raise her head high and pull it far back.

Legs: Stretching legs to their full length is a sign of self-confidence. Depending on the facial expression, this gesture could also mean a readiness to attack. A cat bends her hind legs to convey her uncertainty or timidity. By bending the forelegs, the cat is expressing her desire to avoid conflict, while stating she will defend herself if necessary. Complete defensiveness is communicated by bending both fore and hind legs. A slightly raised paw indicates readiness to defend herself.

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Tail: The tail is one of the best barometers of feline mood. A still, raised tail means a friendly greeting. A sudden whip of the tail shows a threat of impending attack. The highly excited cat waves her tail from side to side in jerky, rapid motions. The top of a tail moving means slight dissatisfaction or impatience. A relaxed cat allows the tail to hang straight down. A tail held straight out behind indicates caution. The top ships back and forth in moments of great excitement.

Hair: When the cat is afraid, the hair on her body stands erect, fairly evenly all over the body. A cat who is ready to attack or trying to threaten will raise its hair in a narrow strip all along the spine and the tail. In this mood the hair will incline slightly toward the middle of both sides, forming a sharp ridge.

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Cheek Ruff: The cheek muscles pull the cheek ruff downward and toward the throat during excitement or expectation mixed with fear. A pulsing rhythm is sometimes present. This is easy to see in cats with prominent cheek ruffs, such as those with Persian ancestry.

Ears: Ears pointed forward can convey friendly interest and different degrees of attentiveness or suspense. Ears that are pricked up and turned slightly backward indicate a warning that an attack is contemplated. Ears that are raised and twisted back combined with hissing mean that a cat is ready to attack. Ears fully erect but furled back indicate anger. A frightened cat lays the ears down flat. Ears that are bent back and drawn down sideways can signal a defensive attitude, fear or readiness to take flight. A cat playing or hunting will hold the ears open, erect and slightly forward.

 

Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado ©1999 Dumb Friends League All rights reserved.