Have a variety of facial expressions in which the eyes, ears, and whiskers play an important role. When a cat is happy and content, she will sit with her face relaxed, ears upright and eyes partly closed or with the pupils narrowed to a slit. A cat who is being stroked and spoken to will keep her eyes this way while purring and turning up the corners of her mouth in a sort of smile. The pupils of an angry cat, or one facing an opponent, will dilate, the ears flatten to the sides of the head and the mouth opens to express a warning. Any intense emotional stimulus, such as anger, fear, pleasure, agitation or excitement, can cause the pupils to contract suddenly. The position of a cat’s ears is another mood indicator. Erect ears that face forward express relaxation. A curious cat will prick up her ears and push them slightly forward to focus on sound. Ears held back with the body held low to the ground signal caution or reluctance. When a cat feels threatened, the ears turn to the side. Be wary, however, when the ears go down; if a cat is really angry or terrified, the ears are completely flattened against the head to shield them from an opponent’s teeth and claws should a fight ensue. The cat’s whiskers are long, stiff hairs (otherwise known as vibrissae) embedded in extremely sensitive follicles in the skin above the eyes, on the cheeks and upper lips and on the backs of the forelegs. They function primarily as sensory devices—antennae, more or less—helping a cat detect the presence, size, and shape of objects and obstacles close up, in restricted spaces and in the dark. The whiskers also play a role in communication with people and other cats. Fanned out whiskers indicate the cat is confident, relaxed and probably approachable. Whiskers that are fanned forward indicate curiosity. When a cat is agitated, frightened or ready for a fight, the whiskers are pulled backward and flattened against the face.
The tail is also another way cats communicate their moods. As a rule, the higher the tail, the better the cat’s mood. A tail held very straight and high can be a form of greeting or a sign of pleasure. A cat who holds her tail erect can also be saying “I’m hungry” as she looks forward to a meal. A tail arched over the back or into an inverted U means the cat is merry and playful, but a tail arched downward means aggression.
Some cats swish their tails from side to side when you talk to them or when they are pleased, but lashing or beating the tail back and forth from its base indicates tension or anger. The more rapid the swish, in fact, the more upset the cat. A tail carried low or tucked between a cat’s legs is a sign of fear or submission. Cats use various body postures to tell other cats or individuals whether they welcome a closer approach. Contentment or relaxation is expressed by several positions, including lying stretched out on one side and sitting with the paws deftly folded underneath and the tail curled around the body. The classic “Halloween cat” silhouette with the cat turned sideways, back arched, tail stiff and puffed up and claws unsheathed is an extreme threat posture. The posture is further enhanced by the facial expression: dilated pupils, whiskers held close to the face, ears flattened back, lips drawn back and teeth bared.
The idea here is for the cat to look big and fierce as if to say, “I don’t want to fight, but I will if you come too close.” An offensive threat posture indicates that a cat is fearless and likely to attack. She faces her assailant head-on, in a straightforward stance, making direct eye contact and attempting to stare down her adversary.
The whiskers fan straight out and the ears are flattened back.
The tail lashes from side to side. When two cats are in this kind of standoff (and they can maintain this posture for 15 minutes or longer), they hiss and scream at each other until ritualized fighting begins, or until one becomes intimidated and capitulates.
Cats capitulate by flattening their bodies on the ground, legs and feet tucked beneath them, with ears flattened and tail pulled in tight to show submission. If an intimidated cat can spot a way to escape, she will make a quick exit.
If the cat is backed into a corner, however, and can no longer run away, she most likely will assume the defensive “Halloween cat” posture or a crouching posture. Don’t mistake a cat rolling onto her side and extending her rear legs as a sign of submission; this is a posture that says the cat is ready to fight—the rear legs are extremely effective weapons. A sick or desolate cat has a woeful facial expression. She carries her tail low and hunches up her body. She may not eat or clean herself, may vocalize more and will certainly be less playful.