Apr 142012

Cat Body Language – What Is My Cat Saying?

Cat are way more flexible that you or I could probably ever hope to be. Therefore, they can get into positions that mean so many different things. And, with their tail, they have a cat tail language all their own. While cats don’t have speech like we do, they can convey quite a lot simply by what they do and how they use their tails.

There have been whole books written on cat body language, therefore it would be madness to try and cover every aspect in this one article. However, I do believe it is possible to cover the most frequent messages you will get from your cat – the things they do the most often, and they way they use their tails most often.

Why does my cat flick her tail and purr at the same time?

The Cat Behavior Answer Book: Practical Insights & Proven Solutions for Your Feline Questions

Cat tail signs, such as a flicking tail, can mean many things. If a cat is flicking it’s tail and is crouched, it’s usually an indication that they are stalking, or watching prey, ready to pounce.

At other times, the flicking tail will indicate that the cat is annoyed and you should keep away.

A cat will also sometimes flick his tail when he is being petted even though he is purring at the same time.

In my experience, a flicking tail means caution. If you are playing with your cat, it’s a sign that they are really into playing and you shouldn’t get too close. This is a great sign, in that they are really engaged with the play and they should be interested for several minutes. On the other hand, it also means they may overshoot and hit your foot if you aren’t careful.

If you come upon your cat, and want to pet them, or call them and they sit still and flick their tail, this means that they don’t want to be disturbed. In this case of cat body language – tail flicking is a definite warning.

When my cats flick their tail while being petted, and they purr at the same time, I still take this as a warning not to make any sudden moves, or pet them too harshly. Usually, when my cats come up to be petted, they don’t flick their tail and they seem to be pretty “blissed out” with the petting. But, when my cat is flicking her tail, she doesn’t get that “blissed out” look, even though she is purring. She shifts position several times, as if trying to get comfortable, and generally doesn’t stay for a long time. To me, this indicates that she likes the petting, but something is “off.” Who knows if it’s the temperature in the room, the way I’m sitting, or some subtle sign I’m giving her that I’m annoyed. Of course, the longer she takes to try to settle, I’m bound to actually get annoyed, so this isn’t far off.

While my cats don’t flick their tail all the time, other cats do. In this case, it is probably their way of saying they are happy, like a dog’s tail wagging. Only when you watch your cat for awhile and get to know him or her will you be able to determine if the tail flicking is a warning, or a sign of happiness. When it doubt, consider it a warning and tread carefully. At the very least, it will let your cat know that you aren’t threatening them, and they will be more comfortable with you.

Why does my cat come up to get petted, then turn around and present her behind to me with her tail straight up? Does she want me to check out her behind?

Cat Body Language Phrasebook: 100 Ways to Read Their Signals

As a matter of fact, yes she does want to you to check out her backside; it’s a way of greeting.

Cats use scent to recognize other beings the way we use faces. Cats will greet each other by sniffing noses. Then if your cats get along (mine don’t!), they will move on to rubbing their cheeks together and then smell each others’ tails and tushes. Sometimes, you will see them go straight for sniffing each others’ hind ends as a way of greeting and making sure who they are.

So, when it comes to humans, they treat us with the same greeting ritual. They don’t realize we don’t recognize others by sniffing their “tails”, so they think they are just giving us the opportunity to greet them. You won’t break them of the motion; the best you can do is gently turn them and pet their head. As I say to my cat that does this most often, “Could I please have the head end? I’m not that fond of the tail end.”

There is one advantage to this though – as pet owners, we need to check out our cats’ whole bodies, including their tails and behind. When they give us their butt, with tail held high, it’s an opportunity to make a quick visual inspection to make sure everything looks good.

So, see straight up cat tails meaning a greeting, and an opportunity to do a quick health check.

Why does my cat “knead” me?

This is an instinctive motion, also called “making biscuits.” Depending on the cat, they will knead with claws extending out on the “push” and retract them on the “pull.”

Kittens do this as they snuggle against their mothers. It may help them to get the milk started. At one time, it was believed that this motion meant the cat was weaned too early. However, all adult cats do so, regardless of when they were weaned.

No matter whether it relates directly to kitten-hood or not, when cats do it, they are happy. Often, they will purr at the same time.

Since it is instinctive, you won’t be able to break them of it, nor is it a good idea to punish them in any way for it. They will do it on many soft surfaces, be that a blanket, pillow, pile of clean clothes, or your lap.

The best way to handle it, if the claws coming out hurts when they are in your lap, is one, or both, of two ways:

  1. Trim your cat’s claws so that they don’t hurt during kneading.
  2. Place something between you and the cat’s paws. Perhaps a blanket, or what I like to do, is see if I can get my cat to settle on a pillow in my lap. It gives her something to knead instead of my leg. It also gives her a stable place to lie, so she doesn’t keep shifting, trying to get comfortable on my legs.

Why do cats rub against you, or rub their face against things?

What Is My Cat Thinking?: The Essential Guide to Understanding Pet Behavior

Cat have scent glands on their heads and cheeks. By rubbing against things, like furniture, door frames, and even you, they are distributing their scent and marking you as theirs.

If a cat is rubbing against your face, or as my cat does, sniffing around my lips, this is part of a greeting. Just like when they offer you their behind to “sniff”, they are checking out your scent, making sure you are you and checking out any changes they can find in your scent.

Cats may also do this if you return from somewhere you have been petting or interacting with another cat. They will sniff you and smell the other cat. Then sometimes will rub all over you, in order to erase the smell of the other cat and mark you as theirs again.

Why does my cat roll over on her back and show me her tummy when she doesn’t want it petted?

The belly is a very vulnerable area. In a fight, if another cat was able to turn over his rival, slashing at the belly could cause severe harm. Therefore, a cat rolling over on his or her back and exposing their belly indicates that they trust you not to hurt them.

However, most cats don’t actually like to have their belly rubbed. My cats will usually let me stoke their tummies 2 or 3 times before wrapping themselves around my hand and lightly scratching/bite me. They trust me not to hurt them, but they want to send a clear message that they want me to stop.

So, with respects to this cat body language – it’s a good thing, just be aware that your cat many not actually want their belly rubbed.

Why does my cat lick me?

One way cats show affection and mark you as part of their family is by grooming you. I have 3 cats and only one of them likes to try to groom me. I find it feels weird and tickles when she licks me, so I don’t mind that she doesn’t do it very often. However, since my husband doesn’t seem to mind, she will climb up on the back of the chair and lick his head all over, clearly grooming him. Since he has short hair, like hers, she won’t stop until she’s pretty much gone over his whole head. While she likes me, as my husband says, she’s clearly “Daddy’s little girl.”

Why does my cat nip me?

The Body Language and Emotion of Cats

Unlike when a cat full on bites you, sometimes cats will seem to nip you. They may hold on for a few seconds. This is a way of telling you that they like you and they are being affectionate.

This could also be a sign of playing, and that they enjoy playing with you.

Through other clues in the cat’s behavior, you can usually tell if this is aggressive. If they are tense and their tail is flicking, it’s probably a sign to back off. Although in these instances, they are more likely to break the skin. If it’s just a little nip out of nowhere, especially when you are petting them, then it’s a sign of affection.

If you don’t like it, it is possible to stop your cat from doing this. May cat used to do this a lot more, but it hurts when she does. I simply stop petting and say “ouch”. She usually looks up and me and I say something like “That hurts, don’t do that,” then begin petting her again. She has gotten to the point where she rarely does it, although she still comes up to me for petting, so this reaction has trained her not to do it.

Why does my cat head butt me?

In the same way that cats rub against things to spread their scent, head butting can do the same thing. It’s also a big sign that the cat wants petting. Only one of my cats does this, and it is clear that she wants petting when she does it. She will even butt her head against me and hold it there. It’s as if she’s saying, “Here’s my head, pet it. I’ll just hold it still so you can’t miss it, Ok?”

Sometimes it can be difficult to interpret cat behaviors and what they mean. Cats have so many different body language displays that can mean so many things. And, the same action can mean one thing if they are playing, and something else if they are happy. As you get to know your cat, you’ll learn what their different signals mean. Or, if in doubt, presume it’s a warning and move cautiously and slowly. Your cat will then move or make some sound that helps indicate what they really want or are trying to convey. If all else fails get creative with interpreting cat body language – meaning you’ll sometimes have to just guess!

  37 Responses to “Cat Behaviors And What They Mean – Tail Flicking, Nipping, Kneading, And More”

Comments (37)
  1. My cat does most of these it nice to know what hes doing my cat constantly licks me and headbuts me to wake me up thanks for all the information :)

  2. Very useful piece of information. My cat is always headbutting me n licking my hair. She has been kneeding her blanket since she was a baby but has recently started kneeding my leg…I just put her blanket inbtween. The tail thing is really tricky. My cat is always running about with her tail up…or semi up ..I’ve just gotten another wee kitten and they are always flicking their tails at each other.

  3. When my cat kneads me, she does it when she snuggles up into my armpit in bed. She also sucks on one of her hind paw toes when she does it. She does this until we both fall asleep. I always kinda took this to mean she felt like I was a maternal figure to her (even though I am male). She has done this since she was a kitten.

  4. hi i had two beautiful cats 12 years old 2 weeks ago maggie got really sick and we had to put her to sleep iam so upset but molly her sister is crying all the time i i donot know what to do she is soo losesome i try to pet her and she keeps turning her back to me what does that mean

    • I’m sorry I’m catching this reply so late, I hope you get it.

      First, I’m very sorry for your loss. Cats are part of our family and it hurts to lose them as much (or perhaps even more) than it hurts to loose a human member of the family. Allow yourself to grieve, even if others think it’s not appropriate. *hugs*

      Second, I’m not a cat behaviorist, so I don’t know for sure why she is doing this. However, based on my experience with cats, I would have to agree with you that she is lonesome and sad. She is probably also protesting because she doesn’t like the changes around the house.

      Therefore, I think the following may help:
      ~Try not to change too many things. Let her have the same toys and beds/sleeping spots (if you they aren’t somehow contaminated due to your other cat’s illness.)
      ~Pay extra attention to her – if she lets you. She may want to be left alone. If she seems to be irritated when you pick her up, then let her come to you.
      ~Unless she has become destructive or has other behavior problems (litter box avoidance, attacking), I would let her do what she needs to do to grieve in her own way.

      The closest I’ve come to having cats protest to change is when I’ve moved. This isn’t the same thing, but I imagine similar reactions on our part are appropriate. In my experience it took a week to two weeks before they accepted the changes and were back to “normal.”

      Good luck and I hope that you both feel better soon!

    • This means your cat wants to spend more time with her sister; she is in terrible grief.

      • I am very sorry for your loss. Though I only have had one cat. I have had dogs in the past and it upset my dog Maggie. We moved to another neighborhood and behind us and she has gotten much happier. I might recommend a playmate if it is okay with her.

  5. I have two kittens, they came from the same litter. Only one of them kneads me. She almost goes into a trance when she does this and does not retract her claws when she pulls. If I try to pull away she starts to cry. As you can imagine it’s a somewhat painful experience so I hope there is some advice you could give on how to make her stop using claws when kneading.

    • Since kneading is an instinctual action (as far as I know), there isn’t a way you’re going to get your kitten to stop kneading *you* without making her afraid of you, which I presume you don’t want to do. :) (She’ll still knead other places, however.) And, as putting out her claws is an integral part of kneading, there isn’t going to be a way you can get her to stop using them. My cats all put out their claws at least on the “down stroke” of the knead, so I do get clawed and understand how it can hurt. In order to stop it from hurting, you’ll have to take other measures.

      This isn’t as difficult as it seems, though. As I mentioned in the article, trimming her claws or having something between you and her (blanket, pillow, etc.) can help. Another thing that has really helped me is to put plastic tips on their claws.

      I believe that declawing is cruel so none of my cats are declawed. I have one cat that scratches where she isn’t supposed to, despite the fact that she has plenty of places she is allowed to scratch. I put the tips on her claws to stop the damage when she scratches, since I can’t stop the scratching. A happy side effect is that it doesn’t hurt when she kneads, or grabs my shoulder when I pick her up.

      The tips come in lots of colors and several sizes, including extra small for kittens. If you get the right size (you may have to try more than one – I had to try two), as well as enough glue (it will take practice to figure out how much) the tips will stay on for several weeks.

      Cats don’t particularly like it when you fuss with their paws, but even with verbal protests, all of my cats let me do it. Sometimes it takes a few sessions over the course of the day or a couple of days before they allow me to get all 10 claws, but it does get done. You may have more luck since you have kittens.

      I’ve also heard that starting them as kittens really gives them a chance to accept claw trimming as a regular routine before they are completely set in their ways. I presume this would extend to putting the tips on as well.

      Good luck!

    • Hi,
      My cat does this all the time i just put a pillow or a blanket on your lap, it helps.

  6. My cat will come sit next to me and will start purring if you pet him or scratch around his ears. However he almost immediately moves out of the way like he doesn’t like being petted, even though he is purring. It’s very strange.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with being scared. He follows us around the house like a puppy and cries if we go into a different room than where he is. He also sleeps on someone’s bed every night. He even does the same thing after rubbing his face against us which we take to mean he wants to be petted… But he starts purring and leaves your reach when you pet him… Even if we are extremely gentle and just on top of the head or around the ears.

    Any idea what is going on?

  7. Thanks for the info now I have a better understanding of my little baby Coco 7months old. I must say she is one understanding little light of my life and I adore her, and you have help me a lot understanding her more, this is a very good book.

    Thanks again

  8. My cat sleeps on the bed with us, When I make a fuss of my cat she lays on top of we tail and begins to suck and bite it while pawing the bed, she is 6 months old and has done it since I’ve had her, why does she do this I’ve had cats before and none of them sucked and nibbled their tails?

  9. When ever I per my cat on the back his back legs stand up but not his front. Why…

    • That’s a good question – I guess it’s just that cats are weird sometimes. Mine do the same sometimes. I think it’s when I hit a certain spot, like when you scratch a dog’s back and they wiggle.

  10. Our 2 year old male neutered cat just started peeing in our bed. What’s up?

    • Not sure, you will probably want to take him to the vet.

      I have a coworker who was ready to give away her cat because he had started peeing on her new baby’s things. Fortunately, when she took him to the vet, they discovered the problem. She said that a combination of medication (she didn’t say but my guess is anti-anxiety meds) and a new kidney health boosting formula cat food made the problem stop.

      Good luck!

    • Your cat may just be in discomfort.

    • Hi,
      My cat used to do this and we figured it was because we suddenly didnt let him in my room because of my gran coming(more complecated), and he started peeing but he will do it sometimes but we regularly let him in and he has stopped. We didn’t let him in for a long time after the first pee

  11. My cat, a very happy one yr old, growls even when she seems happy. Shell b sitting on my lap getting petted and shell purr and then growel. The whole time happily sitting on my lap. She does this ALL the time. Its kinda a purrgrowl. Is this normal? She’s kinda silly.

  12. Why does my cat suck on my blanket?

  13. I have a cat that kneads when I sing? Why is this? Also can you tell me why she brings her feet to her face to hide it when she sleeps?

  14. My 1 year old cat will jump in my lap to be petted. When I do, (usually Im at the computer) she presses her nose into my arm pit, on the left side. Never the otherside. What does this mean, is it dangerous to me?


  15. To my concern, why does my cat seem to go into to a trance ( nipping & licking of forehead ) when I scratch the base of her tail, this has happened to some of my family members with her to. She also does puff up like it upsets her should I stop or can I continue but with concern.

    In hope of a response: Issac

    • I can answer that one. It’s been found out that cats at the base of their tails have a nerve cluster, it also riles them up to play and can be very sensitive to kitties. Some hate when it’s done to them, so I would suggest not to scratch her there unless you use the pads and not nails of your fingers

  16. Thank you very much, info was very. Very helpful : )

  17. Why is my one-year-old cat starting to knead blankets and cat beds and other stuff all of a sudden when he never did this before? He was found on the street when he was about four weeks old and we took him in.

  18. My cat Padema loves belly rubs, though she only accepts them from me. I’ll be sitting down and she’ll roll over and paw at my feet until I reach down and rub her belly and when I do she rolls all over the ground purring like a goof. I raised her from a feral kitten that my dog caught and I was the only human she knew growing up so maybe that’s why. IDK

  19. LOL! Wow and to think all these years I thought my cat hated me lol. He would nip me thenn chase me around the house. It would never hurt. Or I would pet him and, he would do the same thing. At times when I would call him over he would come and, show me his backside I thought he was ignoring me in some form so I would just sigh and, ignore him x__x lol. He doesn’t treat my other family members that way so” I figured that much lol.

  20. I have a 9 year old bengal cat that grabs my kitten by the neck and then uses his hind feet to do a scratching motion on the kittens hind end. He did the same thing to an elderly cat we had and put to sleep.

    He has been fixed, but acts like he has not, he even does this on my leg, the scratching and then rocking of the hips, I suspect it is sexual but I would like to try and stop this behaviour, especially to the young male kitten we recently got, he is 14 weeks old.

    Hope someone can help.

    • He’s an alpha cat, just letting the other kitties know whos the boss of your house it’s not sexual though it seems like it. If he does it to your leg just gently tell him no and move him away. That can be trained out of your cat easily enough.

  21. I have 2 cats and one has been very aggressive with my other cat,my sisters dog, and even my brothers and sisters lately oh another thing about her is that she just had kittens a couple weeks ago and this stuff ahs started happening this week. do you prob. think this has something to do with her aggressiveness cause we have been bringing out the kittens cause were trying to wean them off her.

    • Absolutely I think that the aggressiveness is because you are messing with the kittens. And I do believe that you are messing with them by trying to wean them at 2 weeks old. Why are *you* trying to wean them, especially at so young?

      According to the ASPCA article on weaning, mother cats will wean their kittens themselves on their own. If for some reason you think that your cat isn’t being a good mother, then you may need to wean them yourself. However, that process should not be started until at least 4 weeks.

      So, please, just leave your momma cat to do her thing. She is acting out because you are sending the message, even though that isn’t what you are trying to do, that you are going to hurt her babies. She is defending them in the only way she knows how.

      And, honestly, you may be unintentionally hurting them by taking them away. Very young kittens have special needs that adult cats don’t. So, if your momma cat isn’t hurting the kittens or ignoring them then let her be the mom that nature will lead her to be.

      I urge you to read the article I linked to above. Lots of good information there.

      Good luck!

  22. My little girl does these a lot. My mom and I laugh at her when she comes rubbing up on us and then nips us. She doesn’t hurt us, but it’s nice to know that the nip means “I love you” lol

  23. Hi i dont know if this site is still active but i would like to know why my cats swipe at the rump off each other from behind not serious no fights it is funny to watch they just glare at each after it happens and walk of,
    thanks Alan

  24. I adopted two female kittens that are 8 mos. old now. A few months ago I had to give the medium hair cat, Lilly a bath because she had poop stuck to her rear end. Right after the bath the short hair cat, Sophie hissed at her. I then gave her a bath too. Sophie hissed and chased Lilly for days. I had to put them in separate rooms when I went to work. It for days for them to recognize each other. Should I not give Lilly a bath even if she gets poop on herself?

    Also after this incident Lilly seems to be more aggressive during play and I have to split them up when Lilly has Sophie by the throat or near the face. Sophie will let a small cry. By the way, Lilly outweighs Sophie by a pound.

    They are great sisters and get along but do I need to worry when Lilly gets aggressive? Do I need to interfere?

    Thank you. Love your site and the format compared to others.

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