How to read your cat’s body language

white angora cat on leash
Tail held high? Your kitty is likely enjoying himself. (Photo: denrz/Shutterstock)

Cats may seem like mysterious creatures that are impossible to read, but our felines are actually communicating with us all the time. Through their body language and facial cues, cats can tell us if they’re comfortable, afraid, aggressive or even ready to play.

“Cats are constantly communicating their pleasure, displeasure, boredom, anxiety or illness, but it can be nuanced and easily missed if we don’t take the time to notice,” said holistic cat behaviorist and celebrity cat consultant Layla Morgan.

Being able to accurately gauge your cat’s mood is especially important when taking him outside. If you can tell that your cat is truly enjoying himself, you may want to extend your hike and venture into new terrain, but if your cat seems frightened or on edge, you’ll know it’s time to head back indoors.

The illustrations below will help you better understand felines’ nonverbal cues. However, it’s important to take other factors into consideration when assessing a situation, including the environment, your cat’s personality and your cat’s comfort level with being harnessed and outdoors.


Tail upcat tail held high

A straight-up tail with flat fur and a tail held high with a curve at the tip like a question mark both indicate a happy, playful, approachable cat.

cat with tail held lowTail down

A cat that’s carrying his tail low to the ground may indicate that he feels threatened and could act aggressively. However, some cat breeds tend to carry their tails low, so it’s important to know what’s typical behavior for your pet.

3Tail tucked between legs

This tail position means a cat is anxious or fearful. There’s likely something in the environment that your pet is responding to negatively.

scared cat with puffy tailTail straight up with fur on end

If your cat’s tail suddenly becomes big and bushy, you’ve got a severely agitated animal on your hands. Cats puff up like this in an attempt to look larger and frighten off the perceived threat.

cat with slow-moving tailTail moving slowly back and forth

This slow-swishing tail often means a cat is curious, and the animal’s attention may be focused on something in particular, such as an insect. You may see this tail movement occur just before your cat pounces.

cat with thrashing tailThrashing tail

When a feline’s tail is whipping back and forth rapidly or slapping the ground, this indicates an irritated cat that may act aggressively.


cat with forward earsEars forward

A happy, relaxed or playful cat’s ears will point up and be positioned slightly forward.

cat with ears held straight upEars straight up

When a cat’s ears stand at attention like this, the animal is alert because something has caught his attention.

Ears sideways and partially flattenedcat with sideways ears

This kitty’s ears indicate that he’s irritated, anxious or frightened.

cat with flattened earsEars turned back or flat

When a cat’s ears go back like this, it’s a sure sign that the animal is fearful or angry and may act aggressively.


cat with normal eyesAlert and blinking

This kitty is actively taking in the world around him.

constricted cat pupilsConstricted pupils

This may indicate that a cat is agitated; however, cats’ pupils will also constrict in brighter light.

Dilated pupils

cat with dilated pupilsA cat’s pupils will dilate when he becomes fearful or angry. However, pupils may also dilate in low light.

cat doing slow blinkSlow blinking

This action indicates that a cat feels safe and comfortable. In fact, the slow blink said to be a cat’s way of smiling at you.

cat in harness illustration

Happy trails (and tails) to you!

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Illustrations by Liz Cox.