Communication Skills Purrfected: Feline Body Language

by Andrea Dobras

You’re sitting there, minding your own business and the cat strolls in. She runs up to you, throwing her body into your leg, so you bend down to pet her and she gladly accepts a few rubs. Then, out of nowhere, she throws a jab cross at your exposed leg and she’s got your hand clenched between her jaws. You walk away emotionally and physically injured, not to mention, confused and angry about why this just happened. As cat owners, we tend to generally accept that cats are finicky, very particular, and often live by a “what I want, when I want it” type of mentality. That’s what we love about them, right? RIGHT???
What if I told you that I could give you the power to know what a cat’s actions will be before they make them? Well you are in luck! The majority of cat communication is done through body language and, by learning how to identify the basic signals, you can live happily in peace and avoid those scratches and teeth marks that, thankfully, did not quite break the skin . . . this time.
Cats communicate with much more than their vocal cords, giving off signals with their eyes, ears, body and tail. We will look at charts and easily identifiable ways to quickly assess the current mood of your feline.
Green light = go ahead and pet that cat. Yellow light = proceed with caution. Red light = stop and back away.
Green light: When cat’s eyes are partially closed with slow blinks, this is a comfortable, content, trusting kitty. “Relaxed eyes” (normally dilated pupils) are also usually a good sign.

Yellow light: Partially dilated pupils mean proceed with caution. The cat is attentive and on the verge of becoming nervous, aggressive or playful in a hunting kind of way.

Red Light: Fully dilated pupils (large black centers): Back off and stay away. This cat is extremely nervous, stressed or angry. Seeing this in a cat’s eyes can indicate unpredictable behavior.
Green Light: When cat’s ears are forward (in their normal position), they are generally content, relaxed and aware.
Yellow Light: Twitching, swiveling, back and forth ears represent a potentially nervous feline. They are cautious, uneasy and alert.
Red Light: Backwards, twisted or flat ears are telling you to back off. These ear positions mean irritable, aggressive or fearful.
Green Light: When a feline rubs their body against you, this is a content cat and also a cat harmlessly “marking” his/her territory. When a cat kneads or “makes bread,” this is a sign of ultimate happiness/contentment that stems from being a kitten and pushing on their mother’s stomach for milk.

Yellow Light: There are two main “yellow light” body positions to be aware of. First is when the cat is arching its back. It’s important to notice whether their fur is normal or standing upright. Normal, flat fur is an indication that they want to be petted. Spiked fur or “Halloween” pose is a reaction to being frightened or startled. The second body position is when a cat is lying on his/her back with stomach exposed. A cat is NOT like a dog when it comes to having their belly rubbed. A cat who is lying on its back can be in a relaxed, welcoming pose or a highly-defensive fighting pose. I recommend not rubbing his/her belly unless you know whether that cat enjoys it or not. Cats are often very sensitive and particular when it comes to their feet, belly and back/rear area.
Red Light: Back away from any cat in “Halloween” pose or a cat lying on its back showing several other body language signs of being upset (growling, dilated pupils, twitching tail, flat or twisted ears).
Green Light: I find that the tail is the most accurate of all the body parts in determining your cat’s mood. A highly held tail with normal, flat fur, shows that the cat is confident, friendly and approachable. A cat will often curl his/her tail around you in a flirting manner to show happiness.
Yellow Light: When a tail is held angled it may indicate that the cat is unsure.
Red Light: When the cat’s tail is upright and the fur is standing on end (looks like a bottle brush), stay away. This cat is feeling threatened and aggressive. Stay away from a cat who is thrashing its tail back and forth or up and down against the floor. Any signs of thrashing or thumping of the tail is a warning sign that they are getting irritated. In my personal experience, if you continue to pursue a cat with a fast flapping tail, you should prepare for a bite or a claw to immediately follow.
Note: It’s important to evaluate all of the body language as a whole, as they may be giving off contradictory signals. If a cat is showing any of the yellow or red light behaviors, it’s best to give him/her space.

I do want to remind you to “listen” to your cat. They will often have a different pitch in their meow or will give you a full blown “hiss” to indicate that they are irritated. Take this as a polite way of telling you that they need some space. Just because you want to keep petting a cat doesn’t mean he/she wants to receive your attention. Cats are very sensitive to overstimulation and overstimulation is a no-win situation. It’s important to respect signals and boundaries if you want to have a successful relationship with your feline.