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Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language: Their Head & Posture

April 2, 2013

Photo courtesy Mink

When it comes to a cat’s body language, some aspects can be difficult to analyze. Today we’re going to look at messages your cat is conveying with his actual body and head, and thankfully, those are a bit easier to understand.

Let’s start with the cat’s head and move back from there.

Understanding your cat’s head’s body language

Stretched forward: If your cat stretches his head forward, odds are he’s ready for contact. Your cat is encouraging you to touch him, or is curious and is trying to get a closer look at you or another cat.

Lowered head: If a cat is feeling aggressive, he’ll lower his head, as will cats who feel inferior or submissive.

Lowered head, chin is pulled in: When your cat does this, he’s trying to convey a lack of interest. He’ll also do it if he’s trying to avoid conflict (provoke or be provoked) with another cat.

Raised head: Cats who raise their heads are trying to convey assertiveness or confidence. Cats who are feeling defensive / defensively aggressive will raise their heads to show they’re up to the challenge.

Headbutts, nose-bumps, and body-rubs: These are all friendly signs, which can sometimes be a greeting.

Again, these actions can be best understood when all of a cat’s body language is taken into account.

Understanding your cat’s posture

I feel like these postures are pretty universally understood, but sometimes they can be a bit confusing!

Photo courtesy teresia

Generally, a cat’s size and posture will reveal if he’s feeling aggressive or scared. This is usually combined with making his hair to stand on end, depending on how he’s feeling. For example, defensive cat will puff up and arch his back to make himself appear larger than he really is. A cat who’s feeling dominant may also do this (along with a bit of a swagger). Cats who puff-up for these reasons are likely bluffing and want to avoid conflict. They want the other cat or aggressor to think twice about their possible attack.

An aggressive cat will stand tall with his legs straight – his rear will actually be higher, since the hind legs are longer – and make his hair stand on end along his spine and tail. Again, this is so he looks more impressive and intimidating.

One reaction to this is that the victim may move away sideways, like a crab-walk. This is commonly seen in kittens while they’re playing. This is so the cat can move away while still looking large and keeping his eye on his attacker.

Another reaction may be completely different: A submissive cat will want to appear small and nonthreatening, so he may make himself as small as possible by crouching down.

A cat may also raise a paw as a sign of defense, too.

Photo caption _af_.

That crouch position may lead to the cat turning over to one side, again, showing submissiveness. If the aggressor persists, the cat may roll on his back. While this may appear cute and cuddly, it’s actually an attack position when cats do this out of submission and fear. That’s because they’ve moved their greatest weapons front and center: All four paws with claws and the mouth. An aggressor would really have to think twice about attacking a cat in this position, as the hind legs are especially dangerous.

But, that position isn’t always one of defense. A cat’s belly is vulnerable, so exposing it reveals that he’s comfortable with you and trusts you. Your cat may very well roll over on his back while playing with a toy. He may also roll over to get belly scratches. Unfortunately, this can sometimes end with our cats going into attack mode while we’re scratching their bellies. Try to watch your cat’s entire body language so you can stop before it reaches that point.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lemonmelonn permalink
    April 2, 2013 8:27 am

    I’ve been getting mixed messages from Dotty. Lately she’s been rolling over and exposing her belly and she lets me rub it a little, but then sometimes I’ll be petting her and she’ll roll over belly up in the attack mode–so I really have to assess what’s going on before I stick my hand in that soft white fur. She’s had an aggressive streak since she was a kitten, and I’ve worked hard with her to get it under control–after two years, she’s greatly improved and loves to cuddle and be petted–but do something she doesn’t like, and her first reaction is to bite. But now, instead of biting hard, they’re much more gentle, almost symbolic bites, and sometimes she’ll bite me and then immediately follow it with a few licks–kisses. Very silly kitty. I love her so much ❤

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