Understanding Feline Behaviour

two dogs hissing at eachother

The ability to read feline body language will help you understand what the cat is communicating, and then implement the proper intervention such as enrichment, socialization, or modification.
Understanding what cats are communicating through their body language is essential for cat caregivers:

  • It enables them to more accurately “read” the cats and understand their emotions and motivations for their actions and behaviours
  • It helps them respond more accurately to behaviour issues like aggression

Body language is made up of cats’ body postures, facial expressions, and the position and carriage of certain body parts, like ears, tail and even whiskers. Cat body language is more subtle than dog body language and can be harder for people to interpret. Knowing the basic postures and what they mean can help cat caregivers deal with problems more effectively and enjoy their cat’s company more fully because they can understand feline communication.

Threats and aggression can be either offensive or defensive. An offensively aggressive cat tries to make himself look bigger and more intimidating, whereas a defensively aggressive cat adopts a self-protective posture and tries to make himself look smaller. A rule of thumb is to not touch, attempt to reassure, or punish cats showing these postures! (Adapted from the ASPCA)

Offensive postures include:
  • A stiff, straight-legged upright stance
  • Stiffened rear legs, with the rear end raised and the back sloped downward toward the head
  • Tail is stiff and lowered or held straight down to the ground
  • Direct stare
  • Upright ears, with the backs rotated slightly forward
  • Piloerection (hackles up), including fur on the tail
  • Constricted pupils
  • Directly facing opponent, possibly moving toward him
  • Might be growling, howling or yowling
Defensive postures include:
  • Crouching
  • Head tucked in
  • Tail curved around the body and tucked in
  • Eyes wide open with pupils partially or fully dilated
  • Ears flattened sideways or backward on the head
  • Pilo-erection (hackles up)
  • In an anxious cat, whiskers might be retracted. In a fearful cat, whiskers might pan out and forward to assess the distance between himself and the danger
  • Turning sideways to the opponent, not straight on
  • Open-mouthed hissing or spitting
  • Might deliver quick strikes with front paws, claws out
Overt aggression, whether defensive or offensive, includes:
  • Swatting, striking with paws
  • Biting
  • Fighting
  • Growling, shrieking
  • Scratching
  • Preparing for an all-out attack by rolling onto side or back and exposing all weapons: teeth and claws
  • In this position, your cat might attempt to grab your hand and bring it to his mouth to bite it
  • Displays a slow, partial blink, referred to as an affiliative blink
  • Eyes are soft with undilated pupils
  • Ears face forward
  • Forehead is relaxed
  • Mouth is usually closed
  • May meow, purr, chirp
  • May engage in kneading
  • Lying sternally with front legs curled under
  • Head-butting and cheek- or body-rubbing on objects and people
  • Tail relaxed and may be held high
  • Lick people or other cats/animals

Feline Body Language Chart

Feline Communication

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