Have you ever looked at your cat and wondered, “Why are you doing that?” Let’s face it: cats are weirdos. That’s why we love them so much! They invade our homes, win our hearts, make our days infinitely better, and sometimes knock a glass of water over for no good reason.
Believe it or not, there is a rhyme to cats’ reason most of the time. From everyday body language to unusual behavioral quirks, there’s a reason for almost everything your cat does. Read on for an insider’s guide to cat behavior.
Does your cat have a lot to say? Even if you don’t speak their language, you can learn to interpret their sounds. Here are some of the more common cat sounds and their meanings.
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Meows come in many styles and are your cat’s all-purpose vocalization. They might meow when they’re happy, upset, agitated, or any other emotion. A short meow can mean “hello” or “pay attention to me!” A drawn-out meeeeeow can be a complaint, like “I have a tummy ache” or “pay attention to me!” And a series of meows can be a conversation starter, i.e. “hey! seriously! pay attention to me!”
Some cats are more vocal than others. If yours isn’t much of a talker, don’t worry—they’ll ask for your attention in other ways.
Purring is commonly considered a sign of contentment, and cats do purr when they’re happy. But they also purr as a way to comfort themselves when they’re hurt or sick, or to soothe themselves when they’re anxious.
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Chirping and chattering
Your cat’s tail is her antenna and barometer. It helps her balance and explore the world, and works as a visual representation of her emotional state. Once you learn to “speak tail,” you’ll be able to gauge your cat’s mood with one look.
As you can see in the image above, a high, gently twitching tail expresses contentment and a willingness to be social. If the tail is gently curved, that signals happiness. A curved, question mark tail indicates a relaxed and inquisitive cat. And if the tail is sticking up and back, your cat might be sensing something unusual or stressful.
Lower tail positions can signify lower moods. Take a look at the above illustration: a mid-height tail, sticking straight back, can mean “is everything okay?” As your cat’s comfort or contentedness lowers, their tail may droop. And a low, tucked tail is a sure sign there’s something up.
For more detailed information on what cat tail movements mean, check out the complete Visual Guide to Cat Body Language from Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit organization working to save feral and stray cats and kittens.
Ears and Eyes
Second to the tail, your cat’s head tells you all you need to know.
- Ears up and forward mean your cat is alert, interested, or engaged
- Ears laying back flat or sideways shows irritation or fear
- Ears swiveling back and forth mean your cat is listening hard (maybe for the sound of a can opening somewhere)
- Wide, soft eyes paired with occasional blinks show comfort and curiosity
- Slow blinking or droopy eyelids show trust and love (sometimes called a “kitty kiss”)
- A wide, hard stare shows alertness or alarm and can be a threat, especially to other animals
- Narrow, slit eyes show fear or aggression
Of course, cat people know that our kitties sit, stand, lie down, and roll over for a reason! This illustrated chart from artist Lili Chin shows the most common cat body language.
In general, a soft tail and wide, alert eyes show friendliness and relaxation. An arched back and poofy tail express fear. And then, there are all sorts of body positions in between!
Common Behavioral Issues
Some cat behaviors are frustrating to people. It helps to understand why your cat is engaging in unwanted behavior.
Scratching the furniture
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I’m not supposed to scratch on wood. Mom says I’ll get splinters (whatever that means). …that’s how cool my mom is: I’m permanently scarring doors and doorways, but she’s worried about splinters in my paws. I think I picked a good place to cultivate human servants ? . . #catscratching #scratching #catsofinstagram #catsagram #tabbycat #rescuedcat #cats_of_instagram #lifewithcats #catsdontcare #catsbeingcats #catsbeingjerks #catslife
If your cat is scratching in all the wrong places, try a cat tree or scratching post. Use gentle redirection and positive reinforcement (i.e. treats or pets) to teach them that cat tree=good and couch leg=off limits.
Jumping on counters
Cats love to live vertically. Jumping is a natural behavior, and of course, they’re famously curious. So, it’s no wonder cats love to explore countertops.
To keep your cat off the counter, give them an alternate spot to jump and perch. Cat shelves, a cat tree, or a window perch offer height and a great view for your curious cat. You can also cover the counter in aluminum foil to make it unappealing for kitty feet.
Going outside the litterbox
Inappropriate elimination is one of the most frustrating cat behaviors to deal with because of the mess. But it’s even more distressing for your cat, as it’s often a sign of underlying medical issues or stress.
If your cat is having recurring accidents, schedule a vet appointment right away. For more information about why cats pee outside of the box and how to clean up cat urine, check out this post.
Funny behavioral quirks of cats
Some cat behaviors are just downright weird. But even these unusual-to-us behaviors have an explanation!
Knocking stuff off the table
Chewing or licking plastic
Smelling with their mouth
Have you ever noticed your cat doing a funny sort of grin while sniffing around? They’re in super-smell mode! Cats have an extra olfactory organ located on the roof of their mouth, and they use it when smelling something extra-interesting. When your cat open-mouth sniffs, scent particles flow over the organ and intensifies the odor. Pretty cool!
Sitting in boxes
Does your cat sometimes enjoy the Chewy box more than the toys that came in it? In the wild, cats hide out to watch for predators and prey alike. For house cats, “if it fits, I sits” is an instinctual response.
More resources about cat behavior
- Think Like a Cat by the “queen of cat behavior” Pam Johnson-Bennett focuses on how to understand your cat’s cat-ness, and use that understanding to bond with them and correct unwanted behavior.
- Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat by Jackson Galaxy is a best-seller for a reason. It covers common cat behaviors and teaches you how to help your cat harness their natural instincts to hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, and sleep.
- Naughty No More is a beginner’s guide to clicker training for cats. Expert Marilyn Krieger explains positive reinforcement techniques to discourage unwanted behavior, and even teach your cat some fun tricks.
Understanding your cat’s behavior can help you bond with them and address behavior issues successfully. We hope this guide brings you and your kitty even closer together!