How to Understand Your Cat’s Language

One of the most important aspects of walking your cat on a leash is training yourself to understand how they are feeling and acting accordingly.

If they are happy and content, keep the activity going. But your cat is scared, it’s time to see what you should change, perhaps more to a new location or away from a dog, people or sounds.

How do you read your cat to understand how they feel? It’s not like they can turn to you and talk to you like a human (as much as we sometimes wish they could – imagine that!).

Instead, our cats communicate their feelings through their body language and meows.

We asked the Catexplorer Community to share how they read their cats’ body language.

How Do We Know What Our Cats Are Feeling?

We would love to tell you that each cat displays their feelings the same way. But the reality is that cats are like humans, they’re all different and show emotion in different ways.

Some cats like to meow when they are happy, and when they are exploring it is a “look at what I see” meow. But other cats meow when they are distressed or upset when they need protection.

Context – What Is Your Cat Doing?

A big clue to understanding how your cat feels is to look at what they are doing and where they are. Are they in a place that they like, that is familiar to them or one that is new? Are they doing an activity they love or one that seems a little scary and new?

While adventuring one cat may head butt and cuddle next to you to show they are happy, while another may do the same to show they are scared and need your protection. The only way to understand the difference is from context and their other body language.

Perhaps your cat was in their favourite garden, happily bouncing around in some grass, tail swishing happily and then came for a cuddle – they're happy. Maybe they were in a new unknown place, they were crouched down low, tail down, looking around, and then came for a cuddle – they're scared and feel like they need protection.

They may also exhibit similar mannerisms in different situations, which highlight different meanings.

Your cat may do a certain tail swish when they are happily playing with you and their favourite wand toy. But that tail swish also comes out in force when they are angry with a dog who has got into their personal space.

It all comes down to reading the situation together.

It Takes Time to Get To Know Your Cat

Think about someone you know well. How long did it take you to read them? To understand the small mannerisms that show they are ticked off? Or that they are proud?

Probably a while.

It also takes some time to get to know your cat and the way they communicate with you while you are exploring the world together.

It is important that we spend time learning how they communicate with us, from what different tail swishes mean based on what they are doing. You can do this while you are training your cat to explore with you.

Watch how they react the first time you take them to somewhere new. Chances are that they will be a little nervous and slowly get more comfortable (just like a human would feel). Watch for their behaviour and mannerisms as they go through this process.

Even before you take your cat out, you can watch how they interact with their toys and siblings or humans around them. This will help you pick up how they show their happiness playfulness and so much more.

 And remember, you will always be learning more about your cat.

Say, your cat is a great hiker and has been hiking for several years. When they are happy, they are walking in the middle of the trail, tail up and ears perked. But then they slow down, walk to the side of the trail, they seem like they want to go hide in the bushes. Their tail is down, they don’t look too happy. Our first assumption is that they want to go home. They’re done with this hike.

But what if, your cat just really needs to go to the toilet? What if they are looking for a private place to dig?

And this is an easy situation to misread. It's happened to several members of our community.

However, over time they learnt to read the tiny signs that their cat’s exhibit when they need to go to the bathroom and realised that their cat was doing this while pulling to the side of the trail.

The kitty wasn’t done exploring, just need to go to the potty and then they were off hiking again, tail up with happy ears.

It comes down to experience, spending time with your cat and watching them react to situations and stimuli.

And we’re not saying that you should expose your cat to something that would traumatise them. Do not do this! But watch their reaction when they hear an unexpected noise like a motorbike going past. Learning that fleeting body language will help you in the long run.

Translating Our Cat’s Language?

There are some basic areas of your cat that you should pay attention to help you understand how they are feeling.

How to Read Your Cat’s Tail

A cat doesn’t use it tail just for balance, it also shows how a cat feels.

If your cat is walking in their favourite spot and has their tail up, waving slightly with a kink – they’re likely to be happy.

It’s important to bear in mind that not all cats carry their tails up when they are happy. In fact, Persians and Scottish Folds tend to carry their tail low, even when they are playful.

But a tail that is fluffed up and high is also a sign of aggression or fear. They are trying to make themselves look bigger to scare off the danger. If your cat naturally has a fluffy tail, perhaps see if they have seen something that would scare them, a dog or something they have never come across before. Many cats also arch their back when they are fearful.

A cat may swish their tail while watching something intently. It shows that they are interested in the object.

The next level is the whipping tail. If there is something that makes your cat angry, scared and feel aggressive nearby this may be what is going on. But perhaps, they are playing very aggressively with a toy and are doing the same whipping tail.

Have you noticed that your cat tucks in their tail under them? This is a sign of fear or submission and indicates that something is making your cat feel uneasy at that time.

Reading Your Cat’s Ears

Unlike people, cats can move their ears in many directions and this helps highlight how they are feeling. After all, they have 24 muscles in there that are used for more than hearing!

If your cat’s ears are facing forward, they’re relaxed and content. This is how your cat’s ears are most of the time.

Ears that are up in the air and tilting forward suggest that suggest that your cat is in a playful mood or may even be hunting.

Cats have an amazing ability to move their ears in different directions. This highlights that they are assessing their situation and are trying to decide what to do. They’re unsure and are thinking with their ears. It is likely that you see your cat do this while you are walking in a new place with them.

Twitchy ears indicate that your cat might feel nervous. Perhaps they feel like they might be attacked by a sibling soon, or there is something that is scaring them. While exploring with your cat, it would be ideal to assess the rest of their body language, your location and the activity they are doing to see if they need any reassurance from you. They may need a cuddle, a pat, verbal reassurance or even the opportunity to jump back into their pet backpack or pet stroller.

When your cat is starting to feel aggressive, their ears will point backwards. While you are adventuring with your cat, this might mean that there is something they may want to attack, so it is time to diffuse the situation. In this case, make sure that you are safe too.

When their ears start pointing diagonally backwards, it is a sign that your cat is attacking something. Bear in mind that while they are in this mood, they may attack you too.

What Your Cat is Telling You With Their Whiskers

The better-known use for whiskers is to enable your cat to decide whether they can fit in tight spaces. But you may have noticed that their whiskers change position based on their mood.

If their whiskers are hanging loosely on the side, they are probably relaxed and content.

Whereas, if their whiskers are flattened against their face, they are getting ready for a fight or are scared and are using this tactic to prevent their whiskers from being damaged.

If your cat is alert or hunting, their whiskers are fanned out and facing forward to help them detect their prey.

When your cat is interested, their whiskers pull forward and fan out.

Meaning Behind Your Cat’s Eyes

The saying that “eyes are the window to your soul” really ring true for our cats. Often their eyes & particularly pupils show what they feel. However, often you will need to read the rest of their behaviour and the context of where you are to understand the full picture.

A fixed gaze could mean aggression if their ears are pointed backwards. However, a fixed gaze with a purr may indicate that they want something!

If your cat’s pupil suddenly contracts, it is a sign that they suddenly feel a strong emotion like fear, aggression or even excitement and happiness.

Wide eyes indicate that they trust you or are comfortable.

What Your Cat’s Posture Indicates

If your kitty has an arched back, they could either be scared (when paired with a tail up and fluffy) or they could be happy to see you (with a happy waving tail).

If they are crouched low, slinking on the ground, they may be trying to make themselves small and hidden from whatever is scaring them.

A kitty butt wiggle is a sign that they are about to pounce on prey. If this is an actual bird or animal while you are out and about, we suggest you distract your cat when you see this! (even if it is super cute).

What Your Cat is Saying To You

While our cats are usually non-verbal communicators, they do make a variety of noises – meows, chirps, purrs, growls and hisses.

Typically a growl or hiss is out of aggression while a purr is from happiness. A chirp indicates that there is a prey out of reach.

However, your cat probably has a large range of meows. Each cat uses their meows in different ways. While exploring, some cats meow to indicate that they are done, or tired, or unhappy while others will use it to show their happiness.

Deciphering your cat’s special meows takes some experience and practice.

What Your Cat’s Eating Behaviour Says While Exploring

Most cats are only comfortable eating when they feel comfortable. If they are nervous they won’t eat.

Or perhaps they feel like there are too many other things that are taking their attention away from food.

Whether your cat eats snacks while on a walk may indicate that they are happy. However, once again, this may vary from each cat.

I Know How My Cat Feels, Now What?

As you begin to understand how to read your cat’s body language, it will help you decide how to approach their adventures.

If you notice that they are constantly nervous or scared in a certain location, determine what is making them scared. Perhaps they shouldn’t be around that stimuli or you can find a way to slowly introduce them to that stimuli.

It is up to us to either decide to slowly build up their confidence or to understand that particular adventure isn’t suitable for our cat.

It is also important to remember that sometimes our cats’ emotions may vary significantly during a walk. Our favourite analogy is that on one adventure a cat can go through more emotions that a Taylor Swift album!

When reviewing a day of exploring, it is important to look at the big picture. Perhaps there was a fleeting moment where your cat was unsure but then they confidently continued the rest of their walk.