Maybe you stare deep into your cat’s eyes, but it’s like being met with a blank wall. Or perhaps your cat is mysteriously swishing its tail or making strange clicking sounds. Regardless of the scenario, you’re probably dwelling on the same thought:
“I have no idea what my cat is thinking.”
If you’ve considered this, you’re not alone.
“It can be hard to interpret cat behaviors as they can be relatively subtle to someone who doesn't have much experience with cats,” Kelly Hicks, a medical oncology resident veterinarian at Oregon State University, tells Inverse.
Inverse spoke with four pet experts to break down the science of your cat’s weirdest, most common behaviors. Ultimately, there are helpful signs you can look for to understand their various forms of communication — but it will also take some patience on the part of the owner.
“Each cat is different in how they display their emotions, so it may take some time to fully understand the behaviors that are unique to them,” Hicks says.
How can you tell what your cat is thinking?
Cats communicate using four types of signals:
“Visual signals or postures — body language — is a form of communication signals that people can assess at near and far distances from the cat,” Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Inverse.
Cats are very expressive animals, Hicks explains, and “will typically show you their mood through their actions.”
But if you’re at a loss, pay attention to your cat’s body posture, ears, eyes, and tail for clues.
“The cat’s tail and eyes are probably the two most communicative body parts,” Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training and behavior specialist who runs Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse.
For example, a “cat’s eyes will dilate when they are frightened or very excited,” DeVoss says.
You may notice that your cat will often lower their tail when crossing a room until it reaches you — and then the tail will pop up in a greeting of familiarity, DeVoss says. Observations and research suggests this “tail up” cat greeting is an important gesture when cats approach humans.
However, a word of warning: It’s best not to rely solely on visual cues since some cat postures can be confusing or misleading.
“Cat posture can shift rapidly,” Pankratz explains — and cause ambivalent visual cues that could appear both fearful and aggressive.
“It is important to look at the entire cat and the context of the postures before interpretation.”
Some behaviors could have many meanings depending on the situation. For example, a cat will often raise its tail when exploring new environments, as a way to greet you, or when it’s frustrated.
“It is important to look at the entire cat and the context of the postures before interpretation,” Pankratz says.
When visual cues fail you, try paying attention to auditory or tactile cues, including common feline sounds, such as growling or hissing.
What are cats trying to tell you?
We’ve established generally how cats communicate, but let’s get into specifics of certain cat behaviors and what those mean for your feline’s state of mind.
“Sometimes people normalize signs of stress, so it's important to know signs of a comfortable cat,” Delgado says.
1. Cat behaviors that mean they are happy
“When a cat is feeling happy, typical signs an owner may observe would be seeing their ears in a normal, upright position, slow blinking, kneading, and slow swishing of their tails,” Hicks says.
Delgado says “it is pretty safe to say they are happy” if cats are:
- Blinking their eyes
When a cat is happy, they’ll “feel safe playing, sleeping, eating, and hanging out in the open,” Delgado says. “They groom and interact with other members of their household.”
A cat’s whiskers may be the most overt sign of their happiness — or unhappiness.
“When the cat is relaxed the whiskers will be forward and when the cat begins to feel fear or anxiousness, the whiskers are pulled back to the side of the face,” DeVoss says.
Other typical signs of a content cat are a loose tail and a relaxed body posture, such as lying on their side.
2. Cat behaviors that mean they are mad
In general, longer and lower frequency sounds — think of growls and hissing — signal cats want distance and warn of potential aggression, Pankratz says. These contrast with happy sounds, like meows and chirps.
To know if a cat is feeling stressed or threatened, experts say signs to look for include:
- Ears pinned back
- Tail swishing
Eyes can also indicate aggressive or attention-seeking behavior in cats.
“They will make intense eye contact as either a confrontational gesture or to get your attention,” DeVoss says.
A cat’s mood can also shift abruptly from contentment to irritation. For example, if you want to know when to stop petting your cat, pay attention to its tail.
“The tail will also tell you when they have had enough of your petting; it will begin to swish or twitch at the end as a signal that they want you to stop what you are doing and they find it irritating,” DeVoss says.
If you observe these behaviors, the best thing to do is to physically move away from your cat to give them time and space.
3. Cat behaviors that mean they are afraid
“If your cat walks across the room with their tail lowered, they are saying to you ‘there is something in here I’m uncomfortable with – or being cautious about,’” DeVoss says.
Similar to humans, “a shy cat may avoid a direct gaze, so as not to appear confrontational,” DeVoss adds.
Other signs of fear or anxiety may include:
- Crouched or stiffened body posture
- Open, panting mouth or rapid breathing
- Dilated eyes
- Ears pushed back or to the side
- Tucked or wagging tail
4. Cat behaviors that mean they are stressed
“The main warning sign that I see for when a cat is not feeling well is hiding and avoiding social interaction,” Hicks says.
If your cat displays these anti-social behaviors, it’s possible they’re feeling sick or stressed and need to see a veterinarian.
Delgado agrees. “A cat who spends most of their time under the bed is a cat who does not feel safe, and that is a sign that something is amiss,” she says.
But remember that each cat is unique — It’s important to keep in mind that these are all general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rulebooks to your cat’s mind. Each cat is individual, and a sign of happiness in one cat could be a sign of distress in another.
“Some cats will purr when stressed —say, at the vet's office — or even when in pain, so it's hard to say ‘every time your cat does X it means Y,’” Delgado says. “For example, tail swishing can indicate excitement or agitation, but some cats are just more ‘swishy’ than others, so that has to be taken into consideration as well.”
There’s no cheat sheet for your cat, but if you pay attention to your pet’s normal behavior — what they like to do, how much they eat, and their level of play and interaction — you’ll generally notice when things are amiss.
“If you are seeing changes in their typical behaviors, then yes, something is likely amiss,” Delgado says.
What to do if you still can’t understand your cat
“When in doubt, give them space,” Pankratz says.
If you’re unsure about your cat’s behavior concerned about the safety of yourself or your feline, it’s best to pause, back up, and move away from your cat.
“Then assess the situation and what might have prompted that behavior,” Pankratz says. “Think about how that situation could be avoided in the future.”
If you want to consult professional resources, experts recommended these to Inverse:
- Cat Talk Radio’s podcast on cat body language
- Maddie’s Fund course on feline communication
- Dr. John Bradshaw's book Cat Sense
- Gwen Bailey's What Is My Cat Thinking?
If you’re seriously concerned about your pet’s behavior, the best course of action is to consult a licensed veterinary behaviorist or a cat behavioral consultant. Find a veterinary behaviorist in your area through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
“They can help you assess your cat, their environment, and how you interact with your cat to ensure you have the best relationship possible,” Delgado says.
If you can’t get ahold of a veterinary behaviorist, it’s still a good idea to bring your cat in for a check-up with your local veterinarian to brainstorm.
Pankratz recommends you keep a diary of your cat’s activities and video record your cat’s behavior to help the veterinarian better assess what’s going on.
“Cats can portray very subtle signs when they are not feeling well, and a veterinarian may be able to help determine the route of your cat's behavioral changes at home,” Hicks says.