Body language indicators of fear, anxiety and stress in cats
27th May 2020
Behaviour consultant Mikkel Becker shares how a cat’s body language might indicate that they are stressed.
CBCC-KA, CDBC, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA
Certified trainer and behaviour consultant, Mikkel Becker is the lead trainer for Fear Free Happy Homes. Mikkel lives with Indiana Bones and Otis, pug mixes, who help her champion reward-based training. She co-authored From Fearful to Fear Free.
Hypervigilant scanning of the room, increased blinking and squinting are signs of stress in cats. Eyes might appear ‘black’, ‘dark’ or ‘fixed’ and ‘hard’ as pupils are dilated and the animal stares.
When fearful, ears may be tucked tight towards the head or neck or the cat may adopt ‘airplane ears’ that look like wings held out to the side when upset and reacting defensively. Cats may also have tight, erect, forward facing ears when ready to defend themselves using more offensive aggression.
A cat’s tail might move slightly when they’re readying to react and pounce, such as when watching a wand toy move before they launch their mid-air attack. A wagging tail signals the cat is irritable and upset and is not in a friendly state for interaction or stroking. If the cat is stroked in this state, they might sink their claws or teeth into the human’s skin.
Body posture and weight distribution
Halloween cat pose (arched back, tail up, standing on tip toes, ears back) and a puffed-up posture indicate a cat is very anxious. The cat might also be in a tightly curled position with limbs held under and tail tucked around their body tightly when feeling threatened or afraid.
Reluctance to investigate, approach, interact or freezing on the spot could indicate unease in cats. They might have slow, cautious and calculated movements, and they might be on high alert and easily startled. They might have stiff, tight muscles that are ready to react or run and they might avoid people or hide. They could progress to aggression to defend themselves in the face of a perceived threat.
Panting, showing teeth, snapping or biting are signs of a stressed cat. Whisker beds and whiskers might become more pronounced. When upset, the whiskers may be pulled back tightly to the face or they may also be erect and perked up and forward or out to the side.
A cat might vocalise their stress by growling, yowling, hissing or spitting.
A sudden increase in shedding and fur loss can indicate stress. Hair might be puffed up and out on the cat’s back and tail to provide the impression of the cat being bigger than they really are.
If a cat takes treats harder than normal, are ‘snatchy’, have increased pickiness with treats, or no longer takes treats, even if hungry, could suggest the cat is uneasy.
Shaking, trembling and shivering are signs of stress in cats, as is losing control of bladder and defecating. The cat might also lick their lips, yawn, shake dry when not wet or exhibit excessive body licking.
If your cat exhibits any of this body language and you suspect that they are stressed, speak to a vet or pet behaviourist for advice.