How to Understand Your Cat's Feelings and Emotions
For anyone who has been around an infant, you know that it's pretty easy to tell what the baby is feeling. A smile means she's happy. When she scrunches up her face and cries...not so much.
But when it comes to furry felines, figuring out emotions can be a bit more difficult. "Cats are always talking -- not verbally, but with their bodies," explains Carole Wilbourn, cat therapist and author of The Total Cat: Understanding Your Cat's Physical and Emotional Behavior from Kitten to Old Age (Collins). "You can get to know your cat's language. Be an astute observer, and you'll be better able to understand what your cat is expressing."
Here's how to read your cat's communications and understand how it really feels.
Purring Properly Defined
Ever notice your cat purring not only while you're petting it, but also when, say, the vet is administering a set of shots? "A cat doesn't always purr when it's happy," says Wilbourn. "A purr simply means that the cat is over-stimulated in some way."
Brushing is Kitty's Way of Cuddling
When your cat rubs against your legs, the rubbing is sometimes a sign of begging, or at least of requesting your attention. But rubbing can also signal that your cat is marking you with its scent using the glands located around its mouth and elsewhere. Congratulations! This kind of rubbing is a form of affection. In kitty's mind, it is now the owner of you and not the other way around.
The Tail's Tale
"A cat punctuates its communications with its tail, just like some people talk with their hands," says Wilbourn. Like human hand movements, a wagging tail can mean a number of things. If it wags when another animal walks into the room, it may be expressing anxiety. Meanwhile, a wiggle when its dinner is served can signal happiness. "You have to see what's happening at the moment. Unfortunately, you can't categorize a tail movement," Wilbourn adds.
That said, tail positions, on the other hand, are easier to classify across the board. Here are explanations for just a few:
- A tail standing tall means your cat is confident and happy.
- A tail parallel to the floor signals your cat's mood is low.
- A tail pointing down signals something akin to depression.
- A bushy tail means your cat is quite angry.
Pause to Study Your Cat's Paws
While you may not appreciate being kneaded by your cat's paws and claws, this is actually a sign of contentedness for your cat. (This reflex begins during nursing, when a kitten kneads its mother's nipples to stimulate her milk production.) And if your cat ever lifts or shakes its paws, this means the animal is dissatisfied. You'll see this motion after your furry friend steps in liquid, for example. And when your cat has its paws up in the air while lying on its back, "it's at your mercy. It is very trusting, and in a good mood," says Wilbourn.
More paw-related shorthand:
- Your cat shows its love by stroking you with its paws.
- Your cat nags you ("Hurry up and feed me!") by poking you with its paws.
- When your cat wants to fight, usually playfully, it will "paw punch" you.
Ears, Eyes and Tongues
Everyone knows that when a cat's ears are flattened and pointed back, it is feeling threatened and is ready to attack. But other ear positions are also a cat's way of signaling its intentions. Alert ears mean that your cat is ready for fun -- it's playtime. Flattened, sideways pointing ears mean your cat is curious about what's going on in the environment. Flattened ears (not pointed backwards) say your cat is gearing up for the possibility of a threat.
When it comes to eyes, cats use them to communicate specific messages to other cats. So, for example, while we humans might say hello to our friends by waving, cats blink their eyes to say hello to other cats. They'll also blink at you as a way of saying hey, or engaging you in conversation. If they follow this blink with eyes wide open, they're letting you know they're listening for your response. Half-closed eyes signal sleepiness, while intense stares are a sign of unpleasant things to come: a stare from a cat is a challenge.
As for your cat's tongue, it too is used to reveal its feelings. Short, sharp licks signal your cat is okay. An embarrassed cat will lick itself quickly and incessantly. A bored cat will lick itself deeply and intensely. A nervous cat will lick itself with short, shallow movements. Finally, when your cat is licking you, it is showing you its love. And that, perhaps, is the best cat communication of all.
is a freelance writer, Ph.D. candidate and proud pet owner in Brooklyn, New York.