Everyone knows those people who insist on choosing sides: they’re either “dog people” or “cat people.” Ask the dog people about their reasons, and they’ll often tell you that cats just don’t show their feelings the same way dogs do. Cat expressions, they may say, are just harder to read than those of dogs.
Feline faces might not seem as emotive as dogs’. And in fact, they may have evolved to hide feelings of pain as a protective measure.1 But that doesn’t mean they’re expressionless.
Most people aren’t cat whisperers. You might find it difficult to decipher cat facial expressions, but there are signs you can look out for.2 If you want to be better at reading your cat’s emotions, read on.
The Body Language Of Cats
Like a lot of animals (even humans), cats express their emotions using their whole bodies. You might fidget or tap your toe if you’re nervous. But cats manifest their emotions quite differently.
Your cat’s body language may include engagement of:
- The ears
- The eyes
- The mouth and muzzle
- The tail
- The whiskers3
For example, when a cat’s tail is perked up, that may be a positive sign. But if the cat’s fur is puffed out, the raised tail could be a sign of fear. (That’s especially true if the cat’s back is arched to make it look bigger.)4
Being human, you may find yourself trying to read a cat’s facial expressions. Not everyone can be a cat whisperer. But with a little practice, you may find it a little easier to understand cat idioms.
The Face Of The Contented Cat
You may think it’s easy to tell when a cat is happy. If they’re purring and their tail is raised, they’re probably in a good mood, right?
It’s true that it’s easier to tell when a cat is in a positive emotional state versus a negative one.5 But cat activity can be confusing: for example, a cat may sometimes purr when it’s in pain.6 If you have any doubts about how your cat is feeling, you can search for clues on its face.
When a cat feels confident and happy, their ears will most likely be standing upright. Pupils may be normal-sized, or even a little wider (as opposed to contracting into narrow slits).7 Your cat may also tilt their head or gaze to the right. This may be another sign that they are relaxed.8
The relaxed cat may also give you a slow blink. Though there is no human analog for this behavior, a slow blink may be a sign that the cat trusts you.9
Ready To Pounce
Cats are generally very aware of their surroundings. You’ll often find them in what looks like a state of alertness — but that doesn’t mean they’re in a bad mood. The alert but relaxed cat may have its ears pricked up and pointed forward. If they’re relaxed, your cat’s pupils will probably be smaller, too. But dilated pupils may indicate that your cat may not be in the best of moods.10
The Scaredy Cat
An alert cat can also be an unhappy cat, but there are ways to tell the difference.
Your cat may react fearfully to unfamiliar stimuli, like sudden movements or loud noises. Often, a scared cat may bolt for the nearest hiding spot. But just because a cat stays put doesn’t mean it’s not afraid of something.
If your cat is blinking or half-blinking a lot, that may be a sign that something has them spooked. (This would be different from the slow blink of the relaxed cat.) But if you have trouble distinguishing between different types of feline blinking, there are other signs to look out for.
A scared cat may tilt their head and gaze toward the left (as opposed to the gaze to the right of the happy cat).11 They may also flatten their ears back and down against their head.12
The Angry Cat
If your cat is angry about something, you’ll probably want to know about it before you get too close. Thankfully, there are some signals you can look out for on your cat’s face. A frustrated feline might part its lips or drop its jaw. It may also wrinkle its nose.13
Sometimes, a cat may be frustrated because it’s in pain. Cats are very good at hiding pain, but it may be easier to tell if you know what to look for.14 Flattened ears, for example, are generally a sign that something may not be right.15
Get To Know Your Cat
Just like humans, cats are individuals with unique personalities of their own. Some cats are more openly expressive than others. Some are more nervous and guarded.16 Not every relaxed cat will slow blink; not every scared cat will tilt their head.
Cat parents like to think they know their cats, and many do. But every cat parent sometimes wonders what’s going on behind those big cat eyes. The more you look for subtle cues on your cat’s face, the better you may be able to understand their unique personality.
And of course, if you’re looking for clues about your cat’s facial expressions and what they might mean, ask the experts. Your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist might be able to help you decipher what your beloved feline is trying to say (or not say).