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answers to cat body language questions

Expert Answers to Your Top 7 Cat Body Language Questions

When your dog runs up to you with her tail wagging when you come home from work, it’s easy to tell she’s happy to see you. Cats can be harder to decode, but it’s important for pet parents to be able to interpret their cat’s body language.

Knowing how she shows love can help you bond with her more, and her body language can also warn you if she’s feeling scared or sick. Here are expert answers to seven of your questions about cat body language.

Your Cat Body Language Questions Answered!

1. Why do cats hiss?

There are several reasons why cats hiss. People often think a hissing cat is an angry cat, but “uncomfortable” is more accurate.

Your cat may hiss if she is uncomfortable with the situation she’s in or if she’s scared. This is why your cat may hiss at the vet even if she’s sweet and loving at home.

Hissing is a warning. She’s scared and telling you (or another animal) to back off or she’ll have to attack. This doesn’t mean that she wants to attack. Cats don’t like confrontation, so she’d rather try intimidation first and then run away if possible.

Another reason why cats hiss is that they are physically uncomfortable or in pain. If you pet or pick up your cat and they hiss at you for no apparent reason, it’s likely they are sick or in pain. Please schedule a veterinary visit as soon as possible to rule out any life-threatening conditions.

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2. Why do cats rub against you?

Cats rub against you because they are, essentially, claiming you. You are their person, and they want every other cat to know it. Even if there are no other cats in your home, your cat will still claim you from any possible cats that might magically appear.

When cats rub against you, they are marking you with their scent glands. Not to worry, humans generally can’t smell it. This isn’t a strong scent like if your cat sprays.

Cats rub their faces on things in your house for the same reason. These are their things, and other cats need to know that.

If your cat likes to rub the top of her head against you or “head bump you,” it’s an extra compliment. Head bumping does transfer scent, but it’s also a sign of affiliation. That is, your cat is making you smell like her because she thinks you are a part of her group. You are her family.

3. Why does my cat knead me?

Kneading, or “making biscuits,” is one of those cat behaviors that is quite cute (but occasionally painful for the person they’re kneading). If your cat is a constant kneader, I recommend having a blanket close by for your comfort and theirs.

There are two main reasons your cat kneads you, and they’re both compliments.

First, kittens knead their mothers while they’re nursing. They feel safe and happy. When your adult cat curls up in your lap and starts kneading, she’s showing she feels safe and happy with you.

The second reason goes back to scent again. Cats have scent glands in their paws, so kneading is another way to mark you as their person.

4. Why do cats’ tails puff up?

This is part of a defense mechanism. Have you ever seen a bear stand up on his hind legs? He is trying to appear larger and more intimidating. Your cat’s puffed-up tail is doing the same thing.

As mentioned above, cats don’t like confrontation. They’ll fight if they have to, but they would rather run away or get their attacker to run away.

If your cat is scared or she thinks she is about to be attacked, she may puff her tail to appear bigger – and hopefully, her attacker will be scared too, and run away. 

You’ll often see your cat’s tail puff up when you also see this next staple of cat body language.

5. Why do cats arch their backs?

Like when a cat puffs their tail up, sometimes cats arch their backs to appear bigger. Looking bigger may be their best chance to intimidate whatever is frightening them, especially if they are cornered. If you see your cat arching her back and puffing her tail a lot when there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it, she may be suffering from anxiety.

Another reason cats arch their backs is simply to get a good stretch. Cats are experts at stretching, and you’ll often see the arched-back-stretch after a good nap.

If you’re petting your cat when she arches her back, it means you’ve hit the spot. Sometimes they’ll arch their back up to encourage you to keep petting them.

Playtime may also inspire your cat to arch her back. Your cat’s playtime back-arching can look very similar to her defensive back-arching. The difference is that you won’t see any hissing, growling, or bared teeth.

6. Why do cats lay on their back?

A cat’s belly is a very vulnerable spot, and cats instinctively protect it. When they lay on their backs and show you their bellies, they’re showing they trust you.

This is especially true if they go to sleep while lying on their back. When a cat is asleep, she is lowering her defenses. Going to sleep with her belly exposed shows she feels safe and protected.

Generally speaking, a cat lying on her back is a happy cat. Cats also lay on their back when they feel playful. This can mean they want to play with you or with other cats in your household.

You may be tempted to rub your cat’s belly if she’s lying on her back. Be careful, though. More than one pet parent has been drawn in by that fluffy belly and ended up a victim of a “Venus cat trap.”

7. Why do cats yawn?

Many cats yawn as part of their stretching routine when they wake up.

Even though it shows off all their teeth, cats don’t yawn to show aggression. Actually, it is usually the opposite. Yawns are more about comfort and contentment. Yawns show they feel relaxed and safe around you.

Unlike people, cats don’t usually yawn when they are tired. Your cat is far more likely to yawn when she wakes up in the morning than when she is tired at night.

If you have a shy cat, you can yawn to help her relax. You are telling the cat that you won’t hurt her.

For more ways to bond with your cat, download the free guide below.

Download the FREE Cat Bonding Ebook

Talking Back to Your Cat, and Some Cat Body Language Warnings

How to Talk Back to Your Cat

One way is to simply talk to them. Cats don’t understand our words, but they can understand our tone. In a way, it’s similar to how a pet parent understands their cat’s different meows.

Even though we don’t use cat body language, there are a couple of motions we can copy and use to “talk” to our cats.

One of the most famous is the “slow blink.” Cats will blink slowly to show trust and affection. You can do the same gesture back.

Here are other ways you can show your cat you love her.

Cat Body Language Warnings

Cats are predators, but they are also small enough to be a larger predator’s prey. They instinctively know that if they show weakness, it would make them vulnerable to attack by one of those larger predators. This is one reason why cats are very good at hiding signs that they are sick. It’s important for pet parents to recognize the subtle signs that something may be wrong.

Cat body language can be a big part of that. Is your cat sitting hunched over? Are her ears dropped down and her whiskers pulled back? Is her tail tucked completely under like she’s protecting it? She may be feeling sick or in pain.

If your cat is acting strangely or out of the ordinary, call your veterinarian right away. They will be able to tell you if it is nothing to worry about or if your cat needs medical attention.

Cats may not always be obvious in how they talk to us, but they are talking! When we learn about the different ways our cats use body language to communicate with us, we become better pet parents – and we enjoy our time with our feline family members that much more.

To learn more about how to keep your cat happy and healthy, download the free monthly checklist below.

Download your free monthly cat health checklist.

Kristen Levine is a nationally acclaimed pet expert, influencer, and Fear Free Certified® Professional with over 30 years of experience in the industry. She's helped millions of pet parents provide the best care at every stage of their pet’s life.

Her blog, Pet Living with Kristen Levine has been featured in Pop Sugar, Good Housekeeping, New York Times, USA Today, and more.

She's also the founder of FWV Fetching, the first marketing agency exclusively serving pet and animal health companies.

Her early work with the SPCA led her to a lifelong career in the pet industry, advocating for pet adoption and rescue as well as for pets and their parents here on her blog and in the media.

She’s frequently booked on satellite media tours and national shows, like FOX & Friends, Good Morning America, and Daytime, to talk about pet trends and new products.

Insanely passionate about pets since she was a little girl, Kristen has had more than 30 pets in her lifetime — including dogs, cats, goats, donkeys, a horse, a gerbil, mice, and chickens!

In 2022, she launched to help pet parents keep pet homes clean -- to love more, stress less.

Kristen is married and lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her dog Tulip.

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