For the past two weeks, my two young kids and I have been visiting my parents in Michigan. My parents have an elderly cat named Jasmine, who typically runs away and hides the entire time we visit.

This time, before we left on our trip, I talked to my kids at length about how to read a cat’s body language. I gave them the very basics: A frightened or anxious cat will have her ears back, tail wrapped around her body (or it could be twitching) and she might growl or hiss – leave this cat alone. A content cat will be sitting or lying down with a still tail, ears forward and purring – go ahead and pet this cat – gently.

Lisa Acho Remorenko

My kids took my words to heart and we noticed Jasmine was much more welcoming to all of us. She has been letting the kids pet her and she has even been coming to them to initiate contact. I’m so glad my kids paid attention to my advice about how to read a cat’s body language.

Here are some ways you can read your own cat’s body language and understand her emotions. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a cat communicates with the noises they make as well as their body language.

What your cat is trying to say with her sounds:

  • ”Meow” can mean many things. Cats may greet you with a meow or they may meow when they want something (more food, to be held, etc).

  • Chirps are typically what a mother cat does to get her kittens to follow her. If your cat chirps at you, you may want to follow to see what it wants.

  • Purring usually means a cat is happy. Though I’ve witnessed cats purring when they are anxious, which is a way to comfort themselves, similar to how a child may use a pacifier or suck his or her thumb. Assess the situation and it’s easy to tell if a cat is purring because they are content or if they are trying to pacify themselves.

  • Growling or hissing is a sign that a cat is frightened, angry or annoyed. Leave this cat alone.

  • Yowling indicates that your cat is in distress. They could be stuck somewhere or in pain. Unneutered and unspayed cats also make these noises as part of their mating behavior. It could also mean your cat is disoriented. I had an elderly cat who yowled because he was suffering from dementia and would become confused.

What your cat is trying to say with her body language:

  • Ears. If your cat’s ears are forward, that means she’s interested and happy. If they are backward, sideways or flat, that means she’s angry or frightened.

  • Tail. If your cat’s tail is standing straight up, she’s most likely inquisitive or happy. If her tail is held very low or tucked between her legs, she’s insecure or anxious. If her tail is thrashing back and forth, that means she’s agitated. The tail “wagging” would confuse my young kids since dogs wag their tail when they’re happy. The faster the tail is thrashing, the angrier the cat.

  • Rubbing. When your cat rubs her body against you, she’s telling you that she loves you, but she’s also marking her territory. Cats also rub up against chairs, doors, toys, etc. She’s putting her scent on everything to let other animals know that it’s her stuff. Including you!

  • Kneading. Kneading is a flashback to kitten-hood, when a kitten would massage her mother’s teats to make milk flow when she was nursing. Cats do this when they’re very happy. I’ve not only seen cats knead other cats, but a lot of cats will knead their owners.

In general, it’s pretty easy to understand your cat’s moods. If you can read your cat’s body language and figure out what they are trying to communicate, it will make for a much happier relationship with you and your cat. And it may even come in handy if you visit other people’s cats!


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