How to Read a Cat’s Mood

Katy Nelson, DVM
Jul 30, 2020
   |    5 min read   |    Share this:

Do cats have moods? Of course they do! From excited and happy to stressed and upset, cats can display a range of moods.

Maybe someday there will be a device that can easily translate cat behavioral cues so that we’ll know exactly what our cats are feeling. But until we have that technology, you’ll need to learn how to understand your cat’s body language and vocalizations to get an idea of your cat’s mood.

Cats use their whole body to communicate—from their tails to their ears and eyes. While feline body language can be complicated, a few general pointers can help you decode what your cat is thinking and how they’re feeling. However, keep in mind that each cat is an individual, so the exact manner in which they display some of these moods may be unique to them.

How to Read Cat Moods

The following guide will help you understand the basics of cat body language so you can determine your cat’s mood.

Relaxed and Content

relaxed cat

iStock/Maksymowicz

Cats should feel relaxed and content the majority of the time. Here’s what to look for:

Body: A relaxed cat will generally be lying on their side or on their back with their hind legs splayed out.

Tail: Their tail will be mostly still.

Eyes: Their eyelids may be closed or partly closed. When a cat looks at you with partially closed eyes, or if they are “slow blinking,” it’s a great compliment because it indicates that they trust you enough to not be on guard while around you.

Ears: A relaxed cat’s ears will be up and pointing forward in a neutral position.

Behavior: They may be purring and/or kneading their paws (also known as “making biscuits”). A content cat will often groom themself or you in a relaxed manner.

Happy

happy-cats-tails-in-question-mark

iStock/maximkabb

A happy cat will be a bit more active than a relaxed cat.

Body: They may arch their back when rubbing against you, but in a slow, relaxed way with no hair standing up (not like a “Halloween cat”).

Tail: They will usually have their tails straight up, but the hair on their tail will be flat instead of puffed up. The end of their tail may be curved like a question mark.

Eyes: They may blink slowly at you, head-butt you, and rub against you.

Ears: A happy cat will have her ears up and pointing forward.

Behavior: Many cats will meow and/or purr when happily greeting other cats, dogs, or people in the household.

Playful/Curious

playful-cat-curious-cat

iStock/LewisTsePuiLung

A playful and curious cat is a lot of fun to have around.

Body: Much of the body language seen in play reflects that of a hunting cat.

Tail: Their tail may quiver and twitch with excitement, or stick straight up if playing with another cat or person to indicate friendliness.

Eyes: A playful cat may be intently focused on an object such as a toy or laser light.

Behavior: Some cats will make chirping or chittering noises when playing, but they are generally silent. A playful cat may show hunting behavior such as stalking, crouching, pouncing, swiping a paw, biting, and kicking their back legs.

Growling, hissing, or flattening their ears may indicate that the play has escalated into frustration or anger, and the session should stop.

Stressed or Fearful

stressed-cat-fearful-cat

iStock/vanif

A stressed or fearful cat will often hide, as their instinct is generally to escape from the thing that’s causing them stress. However, if this is not an option, they may exhibit body language to indicate that there’s an issue.

Body: They may be in a crouched or tensed body position and may suddenly start to groom rapidly and repeatedly in the same spot.

Another surefire sign that a cat is fearful is the “Halloween cat” posture—an arched back with the hair on their back and tail raised to attempt to appear larger. They might also hiss and spit to try to scare away whatever caused the alarm.

Tail: Their tail may be twitching or thrashing around.

Eyes: They will have dilated pupils.

Behavior: Stressed cats may also urinate and defecate outside of the litter box. They may walk with a flat back with their ears, head, and tail down.

Angry or Aggressive

angry-cat-at-vet

iStock/DieLicS

Sometimes anger and aggression in cats isn’t recognized until it’s too late and the cat has already scratched or bitten someone. Cats can have short fuses, and their anger can escalate quickly when they are extremely stressed or afraid, but they do give warning signs if you know what to look for.

Body: Cats may freeze before attacking.

Tail: They may thrash their tail or hold it out straight.

Eyes: Cats often stare intently at the thing they are directing their aggression towards.

Ears: A cat with their ears flat back, showing their teeth, and hissing, is an angry cat.

Behavior: Cats show anger and aggression by growling, hissing, or even yowling.

If you notice your cat displaying these behaviors, you should calmly leave the area and give your cat time to calm down. You should never approach a cat that is showing this body language, as they are warning you that serious injury could occur.

Cat bites can become serious very quickly due to a type of bacteria present in a cat’s mouth, so please seek medical attention right away if you have been bitten or badly scratched by a cat.

If your cat is showing signs of aggression, fear, or anxiety on a regular basis, please call your veterinarian to rule out underlying issues that could be contributing to their mood.

A veterinary behaviorist is also a very valuable resource and could help with behavioral modification if your cat doesn’t seem to be happy, relaxed, and playful at home.

Ill or Injured

sick cat hiding under couch

iStock/Rawpixel

It can be very difficult to tell when a cat is ill or injured. Cats are a predatory species, but they are also prey to many other species. Because of this, they hide weakness, illness, and injuries very well, and you may not know that they are in need of medical attention until their condition is severe.

Signs that your cat may be sick include:

  • Hiding for extended periods (especially if they are usually social cats)

  • Lack of interest in food or water

  • Urinating or defecating outside of the litter box

  • Limping

  • Open-mouth breathing (panting)

  • Vocalizations (such as yowling)

If you notice any of these signs, please contact your veterinarian immediately.

Resources

https://cdn.ymaws.com/sites/dacvb.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/docs/Tip2-Feline_body_language.pdf

https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&catId=102901&id=8801625

https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/new-poster-the-body-language-of-feline-anxiety/

Featured Image: iStock.com/Linda Raymond

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