Do you speak cat? Common feline postures decoded
Tail twitches, flattened ears and other body language your kitty would like you to acknowledge
If you speak to almost anyone on the street — even a person with little to no time spent with dogs — they seem to have a hardwired ability to understand how a dog is feeling. They know that a scared dog tucks its tail, that an angry dog bares its teeth or shows its hackles, that a worried dog looks, well... worried. If you ask those same people to describe how a cat is feeling, you'd be met with blank stares and sometimes laughter. It might surprise the average public to discover that cats do, in fact, spend a lot of time communicating with their bodies in the same way that dogs do. A quick search of the term 'cat postures' will yield many diagrams of classic cat body language at what it means. We decided to turn to some real cats of Instagram for our analysis of common cat postures and what they mean.
On its side, with its head lying down on the floor, and its legs out to the side bent or straight, it's hard to mistake this cat's posture for anything other than super chilled out. Truly relaxed doesn't necessarily mean sleeping — often relaxed cats could be slowly playing by lazily batting at a toy or a dangling thread. The face is usually relaxed as well, with the eyes closed just a bit, and the head resting on the floor, over the edge of a chair, or in a comfy lap.
As you can see, the big differences here lie in the way the cat's head and tail are carried. Often, alert cats are still lying down, but their heads are upright and it almost looks like they've noticed something. The eyes are slightly rounder, as opposed to the almost-asleep eye of the relaxed cat, and the ears are just a touch farther forward. As far as the tail goes, we start to see some twitching and the tail curves away or up and even sometimes around the body.
Remember those legs that were so gloriously stretched out in the relaxed cat? Well now we start to see them draw up and in toward the cat's body. The tail draws in too and, of course, it's twitching, only now the tip of the tail might be moving up and down or from side to side. The head? Well, now it starts to press down into the body a little bit, perhaps reminiscent of a turtle heading back into its shell. Those big cat eyes get even bigger and rounder but the pupils are still business as usual.
The anxious cat looks ready to bolt. Its legs are right under its body now, and its ears are beginning to flatten a little bit. The tail isn't taking any chances either, as it curls itself up close to the body while perhaps moving a little bit from side to side. By now the pupils are wide and dilated and the eyes are as round as a saucer of milk. The head is even with the plane of the body as it becomes more still and since Kitty is standing, the back end is lower than the front in a kind of "slinking" motion.
The distinguishing feature of a cat that is afraid is the crouch. It tries to get low to the ground by bending all four legs and is by now likely shaking. The ears are flattened to the head and most interestingly, those whiskers have moved back and plastered to the face. While staying as still as possible, and breathing fast, the frightened cat just wants the scary thing to go away.
Now that your cat has realized the scary thing isn't going anywhere, it tries to make itself bigger. Picture all those Halloween images with a high, curved back and straight legs. Kitty's tail puffs up along with the hair on its back and those ears and whiskers are really and truly lying flat to its head now. It's your cat's last stand by this point and it wants anyone nearby (especially your goofy lab) to know that it means business.
Danielle Hodges is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for Dog, baby, and toddler safety. She has been training dogs and writing about them since 2007.