Basic body language your cat uses to communicate with you

From the flick of a tail to a look that could kill – there are basic gestures that cats use to communicate with us. While dogs try to please us with every action they take, cats can’t give a dime about your feelings. They make it quite clear how they feel, and they almost expect you to know what they are thinking.

Cats use their bodies to communicate with us, and any cat owner will agree that their voices, eyes, ears and tails are their main communication tools. Feline communication falls broadly into three categories: vocal, postural and marking.


Cats can make over 100 different vocal sounds, while dogs can only make 10. These sounds encompass a variety of meows, purrs, gurgles and ‘meeps’. The more you talk to your cat, the more your cat will talk back and extend her vocabulary. This will help deepen your bond too.

Hissing, spitting and growling are obvious signs of hostility. In other words, your cat wants the threat to go away. Spitting is usually accompanied by a quick forward swat and retreat. Cats who are trying to avoid being attacked or who are protecting their young display this sort of behaviour.

All cats purr at the same frequency of 25 cycles per second. Exactly how they do this remains a mystery.


A cat’s tail plays an important role in communicating with us and her fellow felines. A tail that is swishing from side to side is clearly indicating that she is unhappy. When your cat is happy to see you, her tail will be held erect.

If she is feeling threatened or nervous, her tail will turn into something akin to a duster – she is trying to look bigger and scare you off. Fighting cats may hold their tails in an L-shape.

If the tail is straight and tilted to one side, it means your cat is very interested and intrigued by something.

Like her tail, your cat’s body (specifically her back) will also puff up in an attempt to look threatening. Cats who are in this mode will also usually stand sideways in order to enhance the ‘I’m bigger than you’ look.

In contrast, if your cat is scared, she may try to make herself appear smaller and non-threatening. She will probably also prepare to flee by planting her back legs well beneath her.

The posture of a cat’s ears is another sure sign of her mood. Never try to touch a cat whose ears are flat. A cat with flat ears usually goes hand in hand with fear or aggression. Flicking ears indicate uncertainty, while pricked ears equal attentiveness.


Marking such as spraying is one of the more drastic ways your cat tries to tell you something – a terribly offensive practice that never sits well with humans and is impossible to wash out of the curtains. There is, however, a reason behind this odious exercise.

Cats are very sensitive creatures and do not enjoy changes to their environment – such as the addition of a new cat. Unable to deal with the change, cats will spray in order to strengthen their smell profile and ultimately boost their ego.

Cats also use less drastic ways, like rubbing, to mark their territories, which usually includes you. This is why they will rub their chins, heads and backs on you so as to impart their own brand of cologne on you. Cats have subcutaneous glands in these areas, which produce oily secretions and a specific scent.

Kneading is also a common scent-related activity whereby, in a state of contentment, they will push the surface on which they are standing with their front paws. It is thought that this action goes back to their ancestors, who would have had to tread down grass or foliage in order to make a temporary nest in which to rest. Kittens also knead to stimulate milk from their mothers’ teats.

Greetings and salutations

When confronted with somebody new, many kitties tend to run away. However, this is not the golden rule as many will make friends with a stranger quite easily. If a cat skitters off, rather wait for her to come to you – that way you are not invading her territory. Some cats prefer only being stroked on their faces or backs. A shredded hand is a good indicator that a cat doesn’t enjoy tummy rubs.

Look out for these gestures

The following gestures are a guideline, and there could be a mixture of gestures. The best is to consult a behaviourist for your cat’s unique communication language.

If she’s angry, you can expect:

  • Hissing, spitting or growling – signs of hostility
  • Tail swishing from side to side
  • Flat ears

If she’s happy, you can expect:

  • Purring
  • Erect tail

If she feels threatened or scared, you can expect:

  • Puffed body and/or tail
  • Cowering and tail down


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