Cats get a bad rap. Too often, critics label cats as unfriendly, aloof, or uninteresting – and cite one bad experience with a friend’s Persian as their rationale. But I have trouble accepting these arguments; after all, few critics bother to think about how the cat feels before grabbing them for a stroke! Think about it: how would you feel if an unfamiliar stranger reached down and tried to immobilize you? Cats are unfairly stereotyped as unfriendly hermits, and I would argue that the misconception stems from humans who unfairly apply their behavioral expectations and assumptions for dogs to cats. Then, when cats don’t oblige – because they aren’t, you know, dogs – people reject them as universally unsociable. The logic is unreasonable. As Pam Johnson Bennett, cat behaviorist and author of Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat puts it in her book: “Cats shouldn’t be viewed as acceptable and sociable only when they act ‘doglike.'” Cats can be wonderful, social, affectionate pets – but you need to throw out dog-based assumptions and learn cat cues to understand them! Here, I overview basic feline body language.

Tail

Dogs aren’t cats – so if you see yours twitching her tails back and forth, keep back! A cat who waves her tail about quickly is likely anxious and should be left alone. A slow wave, in contrast, can indicate that the cat is assessing her surroundings and considering her next move. If a cat’s tail is up, she’s interested and paying attention to her surroundings. If it’s down and/or tucked between her legs, she’s probably scared – and if you see her express fear, you should give her space until she feels safer.

Ears

Never, ever approach a cat whose ears are back and pressed flat against her head; this indicates that the cat is threatened and may be aggressive. However, if the cat’s ears are up and forward, she is likely content and wouldn’t be opposed to a stroke.

Eyes

Assessing your cat’s eyes can be tricky because the amount of available light in a room will change pupil dilation. However, cats with dilated pupils are generally shocked or scared, while those with constricted pupils can be taken as tense or aggressive. What the cat does with their eyes matters too; cats express contentment and affection by blinking slowly at those they care about.

Belly

To reiterate again: cats aren’t dogs. While a dog may show you its belly when it wants attention, a cat typically rolls onto its back to free up all four paws for swiping. Sometimes, the move is affectionate – but don’t count on it!