Decoding Cat Behavior

Redbarn Team October 07, 2019
Decoding Cat Behavior

It’s 3 am, and you’re suddenly jolted awake by loud noises, like the sound of someone scrambling around the room. Rather than panic and call 911, you toss and turn in your bed, trying to get back to sleep. 

You don’t bother to call for help because you know the culprit is none other than your feisty, seemingly possessed cat.

If you have ever interacted with a cat, you know they can be very particular creatures! But if you’re a cat lover, you know it’s important to take the time to learn their communication style. Once you become a pro at decoding cat language and behavior, your interactions with them will reach a whole new level! 

While there are too many cat mannerisms and variations in meow sounds to list them all, we’re here to help you decode some of the most common cat vocalizations, mannerisms, and moods. 

Decoding Cat Language
5 Cat Vocalizations and Their Meanings

You and your cat may speak different languages, but that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate with one another! 

There are crucial body language cues that can clue you in on what your cat is trying to tell you,  whether it be, “it’s time to get up,” “ouch!” or, “I love you.” 

One of the most common reasons for excessive vocalization in cats is attention-seeking, a learned behavior. What is considered “excessive” depends on your tolerance level, prior experience with cats, the type of cat vocalization, the time of day, and the perceived reason for the vocalization.

Many cats learn to meow to signal their wish to go outside or be fed. Every cat meows, but some cats meow loudly, quietly, or even purr quietly. Below we go through the variations in meows and behavior along with their possible meanings. 

1. Loud Meows

What does it mean if my cat meows loudly?

“Meow” is an all-purpose word for cats. Your cat may be saying “meow” as a greeting, a command, an objection, or an announcement. Some cats even have a habit of meowing to themselves!

Loud, high-pitched meows can be a call for attention from their mothers. In addition to needing attention, loud meows can be a sign of someone’s arrival. In the wild, these loud meows are warnings of impending danger. 

2. Quiet Meows

What does it mean if my cat meows silently? 

A meow so quiet you barely hear it can sometimes be a sign of exhaustion, hunger, or dehydration in cats. Of course, if you have a generally healthy and content kitty, this quiet meowing may just be their way to play on your heartstrings (and it usually works)! 

3. Purring

What does it mean if my cat is purring?

When cats purr, it usually means they are happy. Other times, cats may purr as a way to comfort themselves if they are anxious or sick, just like a baby sucking their thumb.

4. Hissing or Spitting

What does it mean if my cat hisses or spits?

Hissing or spitting may be an indication your cat is stressed out or uncomfortable. It’s best to leave a hissing or spitting cat alone! This type of vocalization is typically accompanied by territorial body language.

5. Yowls or Howls

What does it mean if my cat is yowling or howling?

A loud, drawn-out meow should tell you that your cat is in some kind of trouble, pain, or distress. If you hear this noise, you should find your cat as soon as possible. The annoying sounds of cat yowls and hows are also a part of mating behavior in some unneutered and unspayed cats. Cats experiencing dementia may also yowl or howl when disoriented.  If your cat starts to yowl constantly, check for signs of illness; and take a trip to your vet.

Decoding Cat Body Language

Cat Body Language and Their Meanings 

Body language is made up of a cat’s postures, facial expressions, and the position of certain body parts, like their ears, tail, and whiskers. Cat body language is more subtle than dog body language and can be harder for people to interpret. 

For this reason, knowing common cat body language and what they mean can help cat parents communicate better, identify overstimulation more effectively, and enjoy their cat’s company to the fullest extent as they begin to share a common language.


What does it mean if my cat is scratching? 

In nature, cats will sharpen their dull claws by scratching trees. Cats may also scratch objects to mark their territory or simply aid them in stretching. If your cat is scratching too much, you can refocus their energy by providing them with appropriate places to scratch. This way, they aren’t tempted to go to town on your carpet, drapes, or furniture. 

Cats may claw at your skin for different reasons; for example, if they don’t want to be pet or held. 


What does it mean if my cat jumps on me? 

Has your cat ever surprised you with a sneak attack? Cats that suddenly jump on your or attack your feet as you’re walking by may be bored and in need of stimulation. Like dogs, cats need mental and physical stimulation every day. Be sure to play with your cats and keep them busy with cat toys. Depending on the cat, it may be a good idea to bring another feline friend home to play!

Did you know?Cats thrive when given daily activities. (source:

Kneading Claws

What does it mean if my cat kneads their claws?

When your cat rubs their claws together or “makes biscuits” with their paws, your cat is happy! The reason cats knead their paws stems from their kittenhood— when a kitten is nursing, they gently massage their mother’s teats to make milk flow easier. 


What does it mean if my cat rubs their head against me?

When a cat rubs their chin, head, or body against you, it’s often assumed they’re telling you they love you. But contrary to popular belief, when cats rub chairs, doors, and even yourself, they’re telling everyone this stuff belongs to them. They’re saying, in the sweetest way possible, “That’s mine”! Although rubbing can be seen as a sign of affection, this is mostly a territorial act and is even a way for your cat to “steal” your scent. 


What does it mean if my cat is biting me and/or others?

Cats communicate with people in many different ways, and biting is one of them. The main reason cats bite is when they’re uncomfortable while being pet. If this happens, you should stop petting the cat and slowly move your hand away.

According to the ASPCA, a cat should be monitored for aggressive behavior if they exhibit the following actions: 

  • Quick head-turning
  • Twitching of the tail
  • Flattening of the ears 
  • Restlessness
  • Dilated pupils 
  • Swatting, striking with paws
  • Rolling onto the back, exposing all five weapons (all four paws and teeth) 

Some cats prefer to interact in different ways. Being mindful of these signs can help you keep your fur baby happy. 

Nocturnal Activity

What does it mean if my cat is staying up late at night?

Have you ever wondered if your cat was secretly fighting crime at night? Most cats walk, play, and eat during the night. This is normal, as cats are inherently nocturnal. But if you’re a light sleeper, this can become a problem. To encourage your cat to sleep throughout the night, you can try to tire them out as much as possible during the day. Enrich your cat’s life by playing with them and keep them stimulated with scratching posts, cat trees, and food puzzles filled with low-calorie cat treats!

Tail Thumping

What does it mean when my cat thumps their tail?

When we see a dog waving and wagging their tail frantically, we assume the dog is happy. With cats, the opposite is true. Most cat behaviorists believe when a cat swishes their tail wildly, the cat may be over-stimulated. Pay attention to your cat’s tail while petting or playing with them to gauge how they are reacting to you. 

Tail End in the Air / In Your Face

What does it mean when my cat puts their butt in the air? 

When a cat lifts their tail end in the air, and sometimes even in your face, it can seem strange and downright rude! However, there’s no reason to be offended when this happens. This peculiar and very vulnerable position simply means your cat trusts you! 


What does it mean if my cat is acting aggressively?

Aggression refers to a wide variety of complex behaviors that occur for different reasons under various circumstances. Cat aggression is sometimes taken less seriously than dog aggression, yet aggressive cats can cause serious injuries to those handling them. 

Cats have five potential weapons in total, including their teeth and all four clawed paws. These weapons can do a lot of damage!

Decoding Cat Moods

Cat Mood Tracking 

Just like their pet parents, a cat will experience and express many moods throughout the day.

Use the cues below to help you gather information about how your cat may be feeling. 

The top 6 cat moods and how to detect them:

1. Content

2. Playful

3. Over-Stimulated

4. Nervous 

5. Frightened 

6. Defensive 

7. Angry or Territorial 

Your cat is content, if:

  • They are sitting or lying down 
  • Their eyes are half-closed 
  • Their pupils are narrowed
  • Their tail is mostly still 
  • Their ears are forward and purring
  • They are kneading their paws (making biscuits) 

Your cat is feeling playful, if: 

  • Their ears and whiskers are forward 
  • The tail is up
  • Pupils are somewhat dilated 

Your cat may, “stalk their prey” (a toy or even YOU) by crouching down with their tail end slightly raised, wiggling their butt, and then…pounce! If successful, your cat will grab their so-called prey, wrestle it to the floor and kick at it with their hind feet. Their prey, whether it be you or a toy mouse, is now dead. For cats, this type of play is mocking hunting behavior. 

Your cat is feeling over-stimulated, if:

  • Pupils are dilated
  • Ears are turned back 
  • The tail is twitching or waving
  • Growling and/or showing teeth

Intense play can quickly turn into overstimulation in some cats, resulting in biting and scratching. 

You’ll want to stop doing whatever is making your cat feel this way.

The possibility of losing your cat becomes even greater when they are over-stimulated and/or irritated. If you’re worried about your cat getting loose, there are cat trackers available that can help reunite you with your feline family members. 

Your cat is feeling nervous or anxious if:

  • Their ears are sideways or back
  • Their pupils are dilated
  • Their tail is low or tucked between their legs

When nervous or anxious, your cat may slink along the floor, looking for somewhere to hide.

They may even turn their face to the wall in an attempt to shut the world out. 

Your cat is feeling frightened or startled, if:

  • Ears are back and flat against their head 
  • Whiskers are back 
  • Back is arched 
  • The fur is standing on end and tail erect or low 

If your cat if feeling frightened or startled, they may also yowl, growl, hiss, or spit. 

Your cat is feeling defensive, if: 

  • They are crouched
  • Their ears are flattened
  • Their whiskers are back
  • Their tail is between their legs or wrapped around their body
  • Their pupils are dilated

If your cat is feeling defensive, they may meow loudly, growl, hiss, or spit. 

Your cat is feeling angry, aggressive, if:

  • Ears are pushed back
  • Pupils are constricted
  • Their tail is up or down with the fur standing on end

An aggressive cat will stare down another cat and growl or yowl until the other cat goes away. Cats are known to be masters of stand-offs. Although cats aren’t typically fighters, in this situation, if the other cat does not back down, there is bound to be a brawl. 

We sure hope these tips help you gain a better understanding of your cat and their many moods. Making the steps to communicate better with our loved ones shows we truly do care!