A Tail As Old As Time

Like sharks, I believe cats are among the most misunderstand animals on the planet. As a self-certified crazy cat lady, many of my dog-loving friends love to tell me their stories of the evil that is cats. “He stared at me with fire in his eyes for five minutes and then viciously attached me out of no where,” they’ll exaggeratedly say. I listen and laugh along, but I know that there’s more to the trigger of the supposed attack than just “cats are heartless.”

The truth is cats just have a more complex way of communicating with us that can be hard for humans to understand. So, here are some pointers to help determine when a cat is content versus seriously ticked off:

Note: Body language must be taken in context and owners should look at all of the cues of the body as opposed to just reading one part of the body.


Cats use their tails through movement and position to communicate with us.

A thumping tail or back and forth tail tip usually shows overstimulation. This typically happens while petting a cat. If you see this movement, it would be best to leave them be and take the polite warning. If not respected, it could result in a bite.

Tails held high is a sign that your cat is confident and ready for an interaction. However, this can be in an assertive or friendly way. Look at if the cat is stiff versus relaxed to determine the true meaning.

The question mark tail, tail held high with a kink in the end, is a sign that the cat is friendly and curious, while a tail that is straight and quivering is a sign of excitement. Seeing you walk through the door after you have been gone all day or opening a bag of his favorite treats can induce this enthusiastic behavior.

A bristled tail is a signal that your cat feels scared or threatened. The rest of the hair on his body may fluff up too. This is a way cats attempt to appear bigger to intimidate potential threats. On the other hand, a tail that is tucked between their legs likely means your cat is in distress. Unlike the bristled tail, this is how a cat attempts to look smaller and less intimidating to a threat.


Cats’ ears a more straightforward communication method. Forward ears show alertness, interest or happiness, whereas ears pointed backwards, sideways or flat demonstrate irritability, anger or fright. It is important to look at this communication tactic along with the tail to help determine exactly what your cat is trying to say to you. Just like human communication, looking at one cue and ignoring another can result in an unpleasant interaction.


Though some cats are more vocal than others, they all communicate verbally.

Purring is a sign of contentment, but it is also a calming method in cats and can mean your kitty is not feeling well. Again, to differentiate between the two, look at your cats’ body language. If they are purring while laid out comfortably, that is a sign that he is happy. However, if he is hunched up in a “Buddha position,” and is hiding, he is probably not feeling well and should see a vet.

Short, chirp-like meows are a simple, “Hello, how are you” and overall affection whereas a mid-pitch meow is a plea for food, treats, etc. Also, a drawn out “mrraaoow” noise is a more aggressive hunger demand.

Hissing and growling are both hostile signals. These are signs of anger or fear and are overall warning signs that they are not comfortable with their current situation. A low-pitched “mrraaoow” noise is another signal that your cat is discontent. However, this is just a general complaint about not getting enough attention or food as quickly as they would like.

As you can see, there are many aspects to cat communication, and there are even more that are not listed here. By learning these cues and respecting what our animals are trying to say to us, we can create a happier and less stressful environment for both our animals and ourselves.

Claire R. Grimes is the Albrecht Center’s Development Director. She is an Aiken native, but spent some college years in Charleston, graduating from CofC and interning with Charleston Animal Society. She is excited to now be working in the animal welfare field in her hometown and is proud of the community efforts to better the lives of Aiken’s animals. Her family includes her husband, Logan, an adopted black lab, Ozzy, an adopted Siamese mix, Luna, and Claire’s first love, Anakin, a 17-pound rescued Maine Coon mix.

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