What Is My Cat Thinking: Part 1 – Facial Expressions

What Is My Cat Thinking: Part 1 – Facial Expressions

As a cat owner, I spend a lot of my time wondering what’s going on behind my cats’ inscrutable facial expressions. Life would be much easier if I could master the art of cat mindreading! But while actual mindreading is a bit beyond our reach, our cats do try and tell us what they’re thinking and feeling on a daily basis… through their wonderfully expressive body language and the many sounds that they make.

The only question is, is it possible to translate this language into one we can understand? When I first started looking into this subject I secretly thought I was reasonably in tune with my cats’ body language, or at least had the basics down. But when I started looking into it I was amazed at how many signs and signals our cats are giving out…and how many I had been misinterpreting or missing altogether!

I ended up with such a diverse list of expressions that I’m going to divide the subject up over three posts:

1. Facial expressions (this post)

2. Body language

3. Vocalisations

Each feature of your cat’s facial expressions, body language and vocalisation gives you a glimpse of their inner thoughts and feelings. But reading their body language becomes most powerful when you learn to interpret it as a whole. That’s what our goal will be over this three part series, piecing together all of the features so that you can learn to tell, at-a-glance, what might be going on in your cat’s innermost thoughts.

This is Part 1, so in this post we’ll be exploring the marvellous facial expressions our cats use to communicate.


Cat body language and facial expressions - ear positions
Cat body language and facial expressions – ear positions

Cats’ ears never cease to amaze me. Never mind the fact that they are super sensitive, able to eavesdrop on secret mouse chatter (as we saw in a previous post), can move independently of each other and swivel almost 180 degrees… they are also a head-mounted semaphore system to show other cats how they are feeling! And us, if we can just learn to decipher their signals…


A cat with its ears pricked forwards is feeling confident, playful and focused. 


When your cat swivels its ears to the sides, that means it is feeling aggressive, and is threatening to attack.


Your cat is trying to be deferential and diffuse a fight – usually with another cat. It’s saying ‘I don’t want to have to fight you, but I will if I have to’, and trying to decide between standing its ground and fleeing in fear.


This is an extreme defensive pose, one that a cat will only display this if all other conflict-diffusion attempts have failed. The ears are folded for protection should a fight ensue. This is a pose that says ‘I said I DIDN’T want to fight but you’ve pushed things too far. I’m ready to defend myself’.

Reference: (Ferguson, A. F. 2012)


Cat body language and facial expressions - whisker positions

Your cat’s whiskers are highly sensitive touch receptors, which they use to sense the world around them. But they are also windows into their soul.

If you look at the whiskers on their cheeks you’ll notice that they’re arranged in four horizontal rows. Amazingly, your cat can move the top two rows independently of the bottom two. And the position of their whiskers can tell you a lot about how they are feeling.


When your cat is feeling happy and relaxed it will let its whiskers hang to the side, in a neutral position. (Shaw, J & Martin, D. 2014)


When a cat’s whiskers are pointing forwards it means they are interested and aroused – they want to absorb all of the information they can from the environment ahead of them. This happens when a cat is huntingthreatenedaggressive or seriously interested in something up ahead. (Overall, K. 2013)

“Forward-directed whiskers in a fight indicate that the cat, when it contacts the foe, intends to bite seriously.”
(Fraser, A. F. 2012, emphasis mine)


Whiskers pressed backwards indicate that your cat is feeling scared. They are streamlined for flight – your cat is planning its escape! (Fraser, A. F. 2012)



Cat body language and facial expressions - nose touch

This is an affectionate cat greeting. When cats meet other cats that they are already friends with they will often touch noses to say hi (Rochlitz, I. 2007).


Cat body language and facial expressions - stare

For cats, a direct stare is a challenge or threat. It is usually displayed by self-assured, forceful cats, particularly those who are trying to dominate or engage another cat in a fight.

These rules extend to their interactions with humans too – if you stare your cat in the eyes it will think you are confronting it, and become very uncomfortable (Overall, K. 2013). Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you must never look at your beloved moggy again – you just need to keep another cat trick up your sleeve


Cat body language and facial expressions - blinking

Photo credit: Flickr @ilovebutter

The opposite of the aggressive stare is the slow blink. Because staring is so intimidating, non-aggressive cats will often slowly blink at other cats or humans when looking at them intently, to show that they don’t mean it in a hostile way.

If you want to look at your cat but don’t want it to feel threatened, you can use the slow blink too.

Some popular websites and books claim that this is a cat’s version of ‘kissing’ – a way of showing love, but there isn’t much evidence to support that. That’s not to say that cats don’t express affection, they just seem to do so in other ways. We’ve already seen one – the nose touch – and we’ll come across several more before this series is out! (Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2013)

It’s also worth noting that blinking and half-blinking have also recently been found to be associated with fear, so it’s important to read your cat’s overall body language before drawing any conclusions. If they are showing other serious signs of fear, then their blinking is probably not an affectionate gesture – it could be an expression of anxiety instead. (Bennett, V. et al 2017)


Cat body language and facial expressions - the flehmen response

Have you ever noticed your cat suddenly stop still in its tracks and leave its mouth hanging open for an eerie few seconds? In our house it has rather crudely been termed ‘bum face’ because we first noticed Lyra doing it after she had been licking her… ahem, rear end… and it looked like she was doing everything she could to avoid putting her tongue back in her mouth!

The reality is much more interesting…

It turns out that apart from their tongue and nose, cats have a whole extra organ for sensing smells and tastes that we just don’t have. It’s called the vomeronasal organ and the entrance to it is located in roof of their mouth. So, when cats smell something they want to get some extra detail on, they hold their mouth open to let the odour reach their vomeronasal organ.

“When cats use [their vomeronasal organ], they first locate the source which is to be investigated, approach it closely, and then hold their heads still with partially retracted lips. This grimace, known by the German word flehmen, may be held for a second or more and is often misinterpreted as a threat. After sampling in this fashion, the cat usually licks its nose.”
(Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2013)

If you see your cat gaping, or flehmening, as it is known – that means that it has picked up a scent that it finds totally fascinating. Often it is gland secretions or bodily fluid (e.g. urine) from other cats, but cats also flehmen in response to many other non-cat odours.


Cat body language and facial expressions - licking 

Cats that are friendly with each other tend to engage in a behaviour called allogrooming – mutual licking of the fur around the head and neck. It’s considered the ‘glue’ of a harmonious cat colony. This licking can also be done by cats to their human owners – some enjoy it, others might prefer not to be slobbered all over – but as far as your cat’s concerned this is their way of showing how much they like you, and how bonded they feel to you.

It seems that the human way of repaying the favour is with stroking. It’s no coincidence that the parts of a cat’s body that they are most happy for us to stroke are the exact same places that they would let another cat allogroom them! (Crowell-Davis, S. et al 2004)

THE PUPILS Cat body language and facial expressions - pupilsA cat’s pupils are widely considered to be one of the most useful giveaways as to how they are feeling. They change rapidly as a situation develops, giving you instant insights into their mood and mental state. They also give a sense of the intensity of your cat’s mood – across all pupil types, the larger the pupil, the stronger your cat’s particular emotion. You just have to remember to factor in the ambient light conditions, because cats will also open their pupils up when light is low to get more light into their eyes! (Little, S. 2011)


This is a cat’s normal, relaxed state. (Overall, K. 2013)


A cat that is scared will have completely round pupils, even in bright light. The larger their pupils are, the more scared they are feeling. Large round pupils are also common when a cat is hunting, when their gaze is locked onto a particular target. (Overall, K. 2013)


A cat that is feeling tense or aggressive will have almond shaped pupils. The larger their almond-shaped pupils are, the more aggressive they are feeling.


And that brings us to the end of Part 1! If you’re anything like me you’ll now be going back through all of your old photos of your cats, looking at their whiskers and pupils and starting to hazard a guess at they were really feeling at the time! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – have you started seeing your cat in a new light? Does your cat have any unique facial expressions that we haven’t covered here? What do you think your cat is thinking?


Leili x

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