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What Your Cat's Body Language Is Saying

6 clues to help you interpret your cat's posture.

4. The Direct Stare

Although people can use direct eye contact to show affection, most cats find it threatening. That's why in social settings, a cat usually gravitates toward the one person in the room who is trying to ignore it.

The more fearful a cat becomes, the wider its pupils expand, says Myrna Milani, DVM, an animal behaviorist at Tipping Point Animal Behavior Consulting Services in Charlestown, N.H.

When dilated, the pupils take in as much visual information as possible. This bug-eyed, saucer look signals that a cat is very frightened and wants to retreat.

In an aroused or angry cat, the pupils may become narrowed or constricted to focus more effectively on detail. But cats’ eyes also respond to ambient lighting, Sueda says, so it's important to observe the body language as a whole and not single out any one element.

Once a cat realizes that he is being watched, he may stop what he is doing and assess the situation.

5. I'm Going to Get You

Even the most mild-mannered cat may retaliate if feeling threatened or aroused by too much play or petting. "Cats are stimulus-driven predators by nature," Milani says. 

So when they see something move (whether a mouse, cat toy, or human hand), they are hardwired to pursue it.

Closer and closer, they inch forward until they reach arousal threshold. Then they pounce and kill. 

If the prey happens to be your hand, the wisest thing to do, Milani says, is to freeze. That stop-action will interrupt this inbred stalking pattern.

When you see these telltale warning signs: dilated pupils, low twitching tail, and flattened ears, your cat is telling you, in the only way it can, to back off. 

"That is not a time to get in its face and do ‘the nice kitty’ thing," Milani says. "And don’t add to the problem by stroking it, especially if the cat is in defensive mode."

6. Audio Cues

Cats may have adapted their meows to manipulate people in order to get their needs met. 

"Cats don’t do much meowing to other cats," says Sueda, calling meows "an attention-getting device" to express greetings, approval, demands for food, and more. 

Learn the nuances of your cat’s vocabulary so you can detect the difference between a plea for dinner and an urgent cry for help. For instance: 

  • Purring usually signals contentment and may also be a comfort-seeking behavior when the cat is recovering from illness or close to death.
  • High-pitched gurgling or chatting indicates friendliness.
  • Growling, hissing, or spitting are emphatic warnings to stay away -- at least until the cat has calmed down.
  • Caterwauling is a very loud, guttural sound that cats (especially males that have not been neutered) make when threatened by other cats. This sound is common in deaf cats.

Still, every cat is unique. "I always tell clients that nobody knows your cat better than you do," Milani says.

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Reviewed on April 21, 2012

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