What Do Cats Think and How to Understand Cats

The following article applies only to domesticated cats.

I’ve researched and compiled vocal and non-vocal communication signals exhibited by cats. By observing their behavior and these clues we become better cat owners.

Here is a list of different emotions and their respective vocal and body language cues identified with those emotions.

To become a better cat owner, your job is to observe your cat.

Relaxed, ambient mood, complacent, trust, high comfort level signals:
- Purring, murmuring.
- Pupils are constricted.
-Eyes are semi closed, fluttering blinks. It’s an indication of trust, like saying “I don’t have to keep my eye on you, I trust you.”
- Tail held at half-mast and moving slowly from side to side indicates mild interest
- The meow sounds like a little kitty, wishing for attention.
- Tail is in a lowered state says that he is relaxed and content.
- Cats groom other cats, and their significant humans. It is an affectionate gesture and indicates close relationships or mutual bonding.
- A cat that curls up on your lap is signaling its trust and affection.
- Rolling over and baring its belly is a sign of relaxation and submission. (Unlike a dog, it doesn’t mean that you have permission to rub its belly…you may be sorry for that decision.)
- Rubbing their heads is an affectionate gesture. It is actually marking the object with special scents.

Alert, ready for action signals:
- Wide opened eyes.
- Ears are erect and forward.
- Tail vertical or straight up (indicates anticipation and / or greeting.)
- Tail vertical but curved to one side (indicates playfulness.)
- A tail held high above a cat’s back is a sign of dignity and self-respect.
- When they want to be fed, cats will often walk in front of their owner as if trying to trip them up.
- Wrapping themselves around their owners’ legs indicate that they are ready for food or attention.

Intimidating, aggressive signals:
- Ears are swiveled sideways like a fighter plane.
- Open mouth (serious warning.)
- Shows teeth and hisses.
- Walks directly toward his subject with head low, moving slowly with eyes fixed on his target, stiff body.
- Tail held low with tip frantically twitching in wide side to side swipes. (Indicates a stalking, predatory stance.)
- There is a fixed look of malevolent intent.
- The following sounds communicate aggression: growl, shriek, hiss and spit. All sounds will grow in intensity to indicate “the line in the sand has been crossed.”

Defensive signals:
- This cat is ready to scare off an intruder and/or go into an aggressive mode.
- Ears are pressed backward and flat on the head.
- Pupils are dilated.
- Hunker down, back is up.
- There is a sideways glance.
- Raised hair.
- Tucked tail.

Being Territorial:
Marking territory is prevalent with cats and done through the following techniques:
- Rubs or pushes its face against the object with forehead, cheek, or chin. This usually indicates affection.
- Scratching furniture. This is a form of visual and scent marking, not claw sharpening. Their paws have scent glands.
- Marking with urine or feces. This signals extreme fear, anxiety, frustration, and warning.

Other Communication:
Chattering – sometimes we think they are talking to the birds or imitating dogs. This is a reflexive chattering of the teeth brought about by frustrated predatory feeling, like seeing a bird or a squirrel through a window.

A Bit About Staring – Like us, animals think staring is intimidating and aggressive. cat will stare at another cat he wishes to challenge or threaten. To prevent your cat from feeling menaced when you gaze at him, slowly blink your eyes to indicate that the look is benign rather than belligerent.

A Bit About Vocalization – The more rapid, intense, and loud are the vocalizations, the more panicked, scared, and anxious your cat may feel. (I hear that loud meows when I put her in the car on the way to the vet.)

Pain – A rapidly flicking tail indicates annoyance and ambiguity.
– dilated pupils.

A Bit About Pupils – Enlargement and constriction of pupils also depend on the amount of light around the cats. In dim light, their pupils always enlarge and dilated. Outdoors, their pupils always constrict.