How to read your cat’s body language from top to toe (and tail)

If you've ever wondered why your cat keeps head butting you, or what those tail movements or ear flicks mean, our guide to cat body language will reveal all. Let’s take it from the top...


When a cat is content, her ears will point upright and slightly forward, sometimes swivelling towards sounds around her. If your cat’s ears are stiff and flattened to the sides, it could be a sign that she’s feeling nervous or frightened. If her ears are pressed back, watch out, because she’s feeling aggressive.


Slow blinking is your cat’s way of saying she trusts you – she doesn’t need to watch you constantly, as you don’t pose a threat. She might enjoy it if you slow-blink back! If her eyes are heavy-lidded or half-closed, it’s a similar indication that she feels relaxed and comfortable in your company – a true sign of feline affection

Your cat has scent glands all over her head – around her ears, cheeks, mouth, chin and neck – and chances are she’ll love to rub these on you and items around the home to give everything her familiar smell. She might hop up on her back legs to get her head closer to your hand or headbutt people and objects to transfer her scent – behaviour cat experts call ‘bunting’.


Usually your cat’s whiskers will stick out sideways, but you’ll notice them pointing forwards when she’s alert and excited. Perhaps she’s about to pounce or sniffing something tasty? If her whiskers are flattened back against her cheeks, she may be frightened or angry. (Find out how to tell if your cat is unhappy.)


Two of the most common questions cat owners ask online are ‘Why does my cat like to be stroked?’ and ‘Why doesn't my cat want to be stroked?’ Evidently not all felines have the same petting preferences! Many enjoy having their back stroked, probably because it's a similar sensation to being groomed by their mother or another cat. But some cats are sensitive, particularly around the tail area, and won’t tolerate stroking.

If your cat has her back arched high and fur on end, she’s in attack mode and trying to make herself look as big and fierce as possible. Crouched stiffly, with her back curved and tail tucked in tight, means she’s feeling uneasy. In both situations, don't touch, shout or stare at her, but instead give her the time and space she needs to feel calmer.


When she rolls over and shows you her belly, you may think your cat is saying ‘tickle my tummy’. But, in fact, most cats don’t like to have their tummy rubbed. By exposing the most vulnerable part of her body, she’s showing that she trusts you – but she’d probably rather be tickled around her head.


Some cats love to be the centre of attention. She might sit on your laptop when you’re working, weave through your legs while you’re cooking, or nudge the newspaper you’re reading out of the way. Her behaviour may be distracting, even annoying – but it also shows she enjoys your company and affections. If you want to discourage her, don’t give her attention or treats when she’s inconveniencing you. Instead, save these for a more appropriate time and place.


Have you noticed your cat kneading her bed (or your lap) with her paws when she’s about to settle down? This may be a throwback to kittenhood and the safe, comforting feeling she enjoyed when kneading her mother’s belly to encourage milk-flow. The kneading motion also deposits her scent from glands between her toes onto her bedding – or your jeans. When your cat scratches the furniture, she isn't just sharpening her claws, but also stimulating these same scent glands.


When your cat greets you with her tail up, she’s pleased to see you. If she’s really excited, her tail may even quiver or vibrate. If her tail is down low between her back legs, she’s probably fearful or anxious. And if you see her tail wagging, thumping or swishing, she’s annoyed and telling you to back off. Learn more about how cats communicate with their tails

Understanding your cat’s body language takes time, as well as close observation. There are also differences in feline postures and behaviours between breeds (for example, Persian cats are more likely to carry their tails low; Siamese cats often like to play fetch). And every cat has their own individual body language quirks. Be patient, pay attention, and respect your cat’s preferences – and, before long, you’ll be a feline body language expert!