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Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language: The Whiskers & Mouth

March 23, 2013

In December, I wrote about how a cat’s claws were considered the “Swiss Army knife of the feline toolbox.” Well, watch out claws, because you have some competition.

Photo courtesy dano272

While looking into the body language behind a cat’s whiskers, I read that they could also be considered “Swiss Army knife of [a cat’s] sensory and communications tool kit.” Basically, like a cat’s claws, a cat’s whiskers are incredibly versatile.

In addition to the large dozen or so whiskers on either side of a cat’s nose, there are also shorter whiskers above her eyes, on her chin, and even on the backs of her lower front legs.

All of those whiskers, which are rooted much more deeply in a cat’s skin than fur, are quite sensitive. So sensitive that they can detect even the slightest change in the direction of a breeze. Consequently, some actions, like eating out of a small food bowl that pushes back on their whiskers can actually be painful.

And the whiskers’ versatility doesn’t end there. Just like a cat’s eyes and ears, the whiskers and mouth serve many purposes, especially when it comes to revealing their mood.

Here’s a look at how to analyze your cat’s whiskers:

Normal / neutral / relaxed / friendly: When a cat is in a good mood, the whiskers will be held straight and slightly to the side. This could be a friendly sign, or even a sign of indifference.

Interested / excited / alert: As a cat becomes interested in something, his whiskers will come forward and fan out, ultimately extending past their muzzle. As this happens, the cheek pads also appear to puff up as the muscles pull the whiskers forward. Expect fanned out whiskers when your cat is playing intensely. Cats will also push their whiskers forward when they’re hunting prey.

Fearful / timid / shy: Like with his ears, a cat will pull his whiskers back against the sides of his face. This is a non-threatening sign that makes the cat’s face look smaller.

Photo courtesy rockmixer

Now a cat’s mouth is a bit of a different story, and a little easier to understand.

Nearly all of us (I hope!) understand the powerful negative emotions behind a hiss or bared teeth, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, an open-mouthed yawn can signal contentment.

You may also notice your cat sniffing with his mouth open. This is called flehmening, and it’s a way for your to smell something more clearly. It may look like a grimace, but don’t worry, there’s nothing to fear!

Some cats also get into the habit of letting their tongue stick out a bit. While it may make them look silly, it can be a sign of relaxation or that your cat is interested in something. Cats may also lick their lips as a signal of anticipation or anxiety, depending on the situation. Take a look at what’s going on around your cat to get a better idea of what he may be feeling.

Along those lines, some say a cat’s lips may also be indicative of a cat’s mood. For example, if the mouth is slightly open and the nose is barely wrinkled, this could be a sign of displeasure or disgust. Another lip gesture signals embarrassment: The lips are drawn back and not too far upward, the nose isn’t wrinkled, and the head will swing from side to side. This is supposed to be a friendly rejection to other cats, so they leave the cat alone.

Like with all body language, looking at the whole picture can help you better understand what your cat is feeling.

Is your cat especially expressive with his or her whiskers or mouth? Please share your stories in the comments!

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Shoshanna permalink
    March 23, 2013 11:30 am

    I love whiskers.
    Wish I had some.

    Don’t get me started on tails.

    xxoo. Sho

  2. Lauren Torggler permalink
    March 24, 2013 7:42 am

    Every once and a while mimosa will leave her tongue hanging out. The other day she slept with it it for a long time. Of course I couldn’t stop laughing and taking a 1,000 photos. She also starts licking her lips when she sees a snack or wet food that she wants. I find it adorable.

  3. afaria permalink
    February 17, 2015 10:19 pm

    When my big male cat Buster is feeling affectionate, he blinks and PUFFS UP HIS NOSE !
    Not a great deal but I notice it. Does anyone’s cat display this unusual behavior? I’ve owned many cats but Buster is the only one to do this.

    • maria rosa permalink
      April 4, 2017 10:57 pm

      one of my cat does this too. He loves food so maybe hes just intrigued of whats in my hand when i go in to pet him

  4. Lauren Allinson permalink
    June 11, 2017 11:48 pm

    My cats have ways to show their expressions. One of my cats will push all of his whiskers forward when I am petting him, and he is very happy. Along with that, he raises his tail. Almost erect and straight up.

  5. Lauren Allinson permalink
    June 12, 2017 1:17 am

    My cat Bruce is weird, she doesn’t like pets, any answers?

  6. March 13, 2019 1:48 pm

    My scooby cat when he’s playing with toys gets so into it he hisses at it and when he is waiting to pounce his whiskers are so fanned out and forward it’s like his whiskers are waiting to grab the toy as well! It’s so amazing how in control of everything from there claws to the whiskers they are!!


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