Reading Cat Behavior: How to Tell if Your Cat is Distressed


Reading cats behavior - a distressed cat with illness

“Perhaps the most important signs to look out for are those which may betray a hidden illness. With many cats, these signs are almost impossible to see.”

One of the hardest aspects of caring for a cat is judging its mood. Not only don’t cats cry like people when they are sad, or sing in the bath when they are happy, but cats will often go a long way to actively hide their feelings. Particularly if they are in pain.

In the wild, showing pain or other signs of weakness or distress is dangerous. It suggests the cat is vulnerable. This makes it more likely to be preyed on by larger animals such as dogs, and more likely to be attacked or bullied by other cats. An openly vulnerable cat will find it hard to defend a territory or compete for food.

It’s often said that dogs are warm and cats are cold, but this is completely untrue. Once you get to know a cat well it becomes obvious they are astonishingly sensitive and warm. You simply need to able to read the signs to understand what’s going on inside your cat’s head.


Reading a Cat’s Behavior

Sometimes it’s obvious that your cat is happy. If she raises her tail high in the air – often turning the tip into a little ‘?’ shape, and bounds towards you with a high backed run, you can be pretty sure she is pleased to see you. If she purrs contentedly when you pick her up or stroke her, the same applies.

Other signs are more subtle. When your cat brings her whiskers forwards, it means she is interested, attentive, and curious. Maybe even a little puzzled by what she is looking at. But if she sweeps back her ears, pulls in her head and generally makes herself small, she is frightened or nervous and hoping to avoid being seen. On the other hand, if she raises the fur along her back and tail to make herself look bigger, she is feeling angry or threatened and expects to have to fight.

When your cat is eating, chances are she may crouch over her bowl and drop her tail by her back legs; she is concentrating on her food and is not feeling sociable. Not all cats do this; some are excitable, chattering loudly at the sight of food and diving in without a care in the world.

Signs of Hidden Illness in a Cat

Perhaps the most important signs to look out for are those which may betray a hidden illness. With many cats, these signs are almost impossible to see. Even when the cat must be in severe pain, they simply will not let it show. But by paying close attention to any changes in the cat’s behavior, you may realize something is wrong. A cat should be enthusiastic about its dinner; and fastidious in its litter habits. If the cat doesn’t eat with a hearty appetite or stops using the litter tray, it’s time to look for a reason. The litter tray, in particular, is often a good guide to a cat’s state of health. Many cats blame the litter tray if they are suffering from digestive upsets, and stop using it, as they associate it with their discomfort. So if a normally well-trained cat starts using the garden, or worse still the house, rather than a (clean) litter tray, you know there is something wrong.

If you know your cat well other signs of illness may be apparent, such as raising the fur on the cheeks. Normally this is only done when the cat is fluffing up her fur as a sign of anger. But cats sometimes do this when in pain, too. A cat that is in pain often has eyes that look glassy and may avoid direct eye contact with you.

Cats Can Have Surprisingly Expressive Faces

Once you know a particular animal well, you learn to judge their mood. I can see when my cats are ill, even though I may not know the cause. This probably saved my favorite cat’s life; I knew she was ill, despite several vets insisting ‘she’s fine.’

She wasn’t fine. She had pancreatitis, leading to Exocrine Pancreatic Deficiency, malabsorption and very low vitamin A. Each time I took her to the vet and got brushed aside, I just looked at her face and knew something was wrong. Fed up, and increasingly worried, I began researching the possible causes myself. Eventually, blood tests proved me right. Pancreatic enzymes added to her food each day have brought an amazing change. When I think how much pain she must have suffered, and how courageously – and foolishly – she had hidden that pain, my blood runs cold.

But it’s a good lesson in the importance of paying attention to those subtle signs of cat illness, which can so easily be missed. So perhaps the best way to know if your cat is happy or distressed is to bond with her. However hard she tries to hide an illness, if you feel something ‘looks wrong’, chances are it is. Take her to the vet. And insist on blood tests. Vets are often too busy to spot subtle signs, but blood tests never lie…