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How To Tell What Your Cat Is Feeling

May 26th, 2023

Looking to decode your cat?

Cats are fickle creatures, but not totally impossible to understand. Felines are very expressive and, if you know where to look, you can figure out what they’re thinking behind their angry little eyes.

This is the second part of a series on understanding your cat’s mannerisms, so be sure to check out our article on how to understand your cat’s feelings through their eyes, ears and tail.

More ways to decode your cat’s body language

Bristled and arched back

The classic Halloween movies are pretty accurate when it comes to cat hair and arched backs!

We already know that cats will try to make themselves seem larger and more intimidating if they are feeling threatened, and bristling hair (often accompanied by an arched back) is a part of that tactic. A cat with its hair on end is frightened, threatened, scared or angry, and it’s a big sign that you should absolutely not try to pet it!

Lying on its back

While we’re talking about body language, let’s go to the other end of the body orientation spectrum.

If an arched back is a sign of fear, anxiety or fright, then a cat lying on its back with its belly exposed is a sign of vulnerability, relaxation and trust. If your cat is reclining under its favorite beam of sunlight with eyes closed, paws curled and belly facing up, then your cat feels safe enough around you and its environment to let its guard down. 

Be warned, though! If your cat is laying on its back but is staring at you with death in its eyes, then your cat is getting ready to swipe at you with its vicious claws if you even think about scratching its belly. Do not touch!


Cats are excellent bakers, what with all the biscuits they make!

Kneading, or “making biscuits” as it’s often called, is a comforting behavior that comes from kittenhood. Kittens knead their mothers while nursing in order to get more milk, and the behavior becomes associated with comfort, happiness and contentment up through adulthood. 

You may notice your cat kneading a blanket, pillow or soft surface right before lying down, too. Animal behaviorists believe this may be a leftover behavior from the days preceding feline domestication, back when wild cats would stomp down grass or leaves to create a soft sleeping spot. 


Cats scratch for a variety of reasons, none of which are to intentionally irritate us (even though our poor couches may say otherwise). 

Scratching helps a cat’s body by sharpening its claws, strengthening its muscles, stretching its backs and relieving pent-up stress and tension. It also harkens back to the days when cats needed to mark territory in the wild, though domestic cats have less need for that. 

Though it can be annoying for us furniture-owning humans, scratching is an important and necessary behavior for cats’ health and should be encouraged — though there are plenty of scratch pads, cat towers and other cat toys that can do the job of your favorite couch just as well. 


Cats lick us to show affection — in the same way we pet them to show ours!

Cats lick themselves for grooming purposes, but licking other cats or humans is a sign of affection and self-comfort. It harkens back to their kittenhood when their mothers groomed, licked and comforted them, so continuing the behavior into adulthood brings them a sense of familiarization and comfort. 

It’s okay if you don’t like the licking, of course, but if you respond negatively or punish your cat for licking you, then they will take it as a sign that you reject their affection and, therefore, don’t want their love. Don’t break their little kitty hearts — just redirect the behavior!

There are other reasons cats may lick you, such as the taste of sweat (ew), a sign of anxiety or, if your cat changes their licking behavior suddenly and dramatically, a sign of illness.


Cats are talkative creatures, though each cat may express their voice differently. There are a few common sounds and patterns that most cats use, though, such as meowing, purring, trilling, chirping and hissing.

This feline language involves much more than just the words, though. Pay attention to the volume, intonation, body language and context (as well as the cat’s personality) to figure out what exactly your cat is trying to tell you. 


Meows, yeows, rrrrrows and other related sounds can mean a lot of different things. They can be used to get your attention (“Um, hello, my food bowl is empty”), they can be used to greet you (“Hello measly human, welcome to my home”), they can be used to find you or respond to your call (“I’m here, human, what do you want now?”) or they can be used to call for help (“Human! I’m in this tree! Get me down!”).


Purrs are another comfort behavior that comes from a cat’s kitten days. When a cat is happy and relaxed, purrs are a sign of contentment; when a cat is in pain or is sick, purrs are a sign that they’re trying to comfort themselves.


These short, sharp chirps and chitters are often accompanied by staring at birds, squirrels or bugs nearby. These sounds are part of a cat’s hunting behavior and are usually done when they are interested in prey (or toys) that they can’t attack. 

Growls, hisses and shrieks

Cats go through a series of vocalizations as they get progressively angrier. Growls usually come first, warning their recipient that the cat is not amused and that you should move away. Hisses are the next level of warning that say, “Hey, seriously, back off bud — just look how sharp my teeth are.” If that doesn’t work, then yowls and shrieks are the loudest and most aggressive sounds that accompany a good fight or a fast escape.

Of course, part of understanding what your cat is saying involves combining these patterns with your cat’s personal personality. The more you know about them and their behavior, then the easier it will be to decode their vocalizations and body language. 

Good luck!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Shanon

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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