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Speaking Cat: 5 Common Postures, Decoded

Back away from the wagging tail.

cat rolling over on back showing tummy
Photography by: Getty Images

Cats have a reputation for being mysterious. But in reality, your feline friend discloses plenty—you just have to know what to look for.

 

“A cat’s body language is very telling, but it can be difficult for humans to decipher,” says Dr. Katherine Houpt, a professor of behavior medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “They have flattened faces and fluffy fur, so you can’t necessarily see changes in facial expressions.”

 

Luckily, there are plenty of other clues to take in, as cats use nearly every part of their bodies to “talk.” The next time your cat strikes one of these common poses, you’ll be able to speak her language.

 

The Halloween Cat

If a cat assumes the classic “Halloween pose”—back arched, tail standing straight up, hair on end—it’s time to back off. This cat feels threatened, and she’s prepared to stand her ground and defend herself, if necessary.

 

“What we call the ‘Halloween Cat’ is a showing of fear-based aggression,” explains Houpt. “She usually won’t attack, but she may if you get too close.”

 

The Halloween Cat will also have dilated pupils, another sign of fear and possible aggression. Small pupils, on the other hand, signal a happy and calm cat.

 

[LEARN: The 4 Things Your Cat Wants You to Know]

 

Flattened Ears

Cat ears are true feats of engineering, boasting a whopping 32 muscles (the human ear, by comparison, has a measly six). In addition to expertly tracking predators and prey, a cat’s highly flexible ears can reveal her mood.

 

One of the most telling positions? Flattened ears. If you notice your cat’s ears start to turn back, she’s telling you she needs a little space—this is a common sign of a scared kitty. “The closer the ears are to her head, the more upset she is,” says Houpt. “Flattened ears are a sign of a very fearful cat.”

 

Straight-up ears signify that a cat is on the alert, while forward ears indicate that she’s feeling playful.

 

[FEEL-GOOD: 8 Surprising Ways Your Cat Says 'I Love You']

 

The Tail Curl

Many cats have a curious way of casually wrapping their tails around things as they patrol their homes, sometimes stopping to add in a cheek rub. What gives? Your cat may be claiming your coffee table legs—and, ahem, your own legs—as her own.

 

“We think this is how cats say, ‘This is mine,’” explains Houpt. “They’re very odor-oriented, and this seems to be their way of letting everyone know that this is their place and these are their belongings. Unlike dogs, cats aren’t very good at hierarchies.”

 

The Meatloaf

The “cat loaf” is an Instagram favorite. Lying down with their paws tucked in, these kitties resemble adorable loaves of bread.

 

However, if your cat assumes the more extreme “meatloaf” position—slightly hunched, paws gathered under the body, nose resting on the floor—put down the camera and call the vet. “This is usually a sign that something’s bothering the cat and that she’s in pain,” warns Houpt.

 

Wagging Tail

In dogs, a wagging tail is generally a good sign; in cats, not so much. If you cat’s tail is tick-tocking back and forth, she’s most likely agitated. “If a cat is wagging her tail, she’s annoyed,” says Houpt. “The faster she moves it, the more annoyed she is.”

 

A content kitty, by comparison, will have a relaxed tail with smooth hair. A scared cat will display what’s known as a “bottlebrush” tail—straight up in the air, hair on end, and as fluffed up as possible.