How to Read Your Cat’s Face

Caitlin Dempsey


A closeup of a senior cat with long gray hair staring off camera.

Cats communicate in an array of subtle ways. To the novice cat owner, it may feel confusing trying to understand how your cat is feeling. A dog’s wagging tail means a happy dog while a cat’s wagging tail could mean they are concentrating or it could mean they are annoyed.

There are, however, cues that will give you a some insight into how your cat is feeling. While cats can express their emotions through their tails, body stance, and vocalizations, for this article we will focus on how to read a cat’s eyes and ears.

Understanding a cat’s emotions through their eyes

Feline communication heavily relies on eye contact. A cat’s eyes can convey a range of emotions, from fear and aggression to relaxation and even affection.

There are two areas of the cat’s eyes that you want to pay attention to in order to read their emotional state.

A cat’s pupil dilation can indicate their mood

The first is pupil dilation. Take a look at your cat’s pupils.

An orange tabby sitting in a small basket with a wooden handle.
A relaxed orange tabby cat. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

A relaxed and contented cat will have normal-sized pupils that are proportional to the amount of light in the space they are in. A cat’s pupils will naturally dilate or constrict depending on how much light is hitting their eyes.

Excitement, fear, or anger can also cause your cat to dilate their eyes. Eye dilation in a cat is an involuntary response designed to enhance a cat’s vision and awareness of the surroundings when they’re feeling wary, scared, or excited.

A gray tabby looking wide-eyed at the camera on a black sofa.
A wide-eyed gray tabby cat in the middle of her evening zoomies. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Narrow, slit-like pupils can indicate anger or aggression.

Relaxed eyelids

The second area to observe is how wide-eyed your cat appears. A relaxed cat will lower their eyelids so their eyes aren’t fully open.

An orange tabby sits by a window in the sun on a white ledge, partially behind a gray curtain.
An orange tabby rests on a ledge in the sun. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

If your cat likes the person they are looking at, they may even engage in what’s known as a slow blink. This is the equivalent of a cat saying “I love you. You can return the sentiment by half closing your eyes and slow blinking back.

This action is also known as a “cat kiss,” and it indicates that your cat trusts you and feels safe in your presence.

A series of three pictures showing an orange tabby slow blinking.
The three stages of a cat’s slow blink. Images: © colnihko via

How a cat’s ears shows their mood

The position and movement of a cat’s ears can also provide you with essential clues about their mood and emotions. Reading the emotion your cat is experiencing is easier in cats with prick ears compared to cats with folded ears.

Upright Ears

If your cat’s ears are standing upright, this generally indicates that your cat is alert and interested in its surroundings.

If one ear is upright and the other is angled, that is a sign that your is listening to something. With 32 muscles, cats have a great range in how much they can swivel their ears to pinpoint sounds.

A black cat sitting on a rug with a crinkly toy in front of her.
A relaxed cat with upright ears. Her left ear is slightly tilted in order to listen to a sound. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Sideways Ears

Ears that swivel to the side may suggest that your cat is feeling nervous, anxious, or agitated. This type of ear position is also known as “airplane ears” or “airplane mode” in a cat.

A scared tabby with flattened ears in a cat bed.
A scared tabby cat with ears in “airplane mode. The dilated eyes and crouched posture are other signs that this cat is uncomfortable. Photo: © Evdoha/

This ear position is a sign that your cat is feeling uncomfortable or annoyed. When a cat is angling their ears so they are stick straight out at the sides, that’s annoyance.

When a cat’s ears are sticking slightly back and the cat’s posture and other body language is relaxed, then your cat is most likely listening to a noise behind behind them. Look for additional clues in their body language such as a dilated pupils, a tense body, or a wagging tail to tell you if your cat is annoyed.

Over time, you will learn to discern the difference between your cat being annoyed and your cat listening to things.

A longhaired gray cat with some patches of calico sitting on a tile floor with her ears slightly back.
This cat’s posture and normal eye pupil dilation for the light conditions indicates they are relaxed. The ears in the slightly back position and intent stare are because she is listening to some noises behind here. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Flattened Ears

Ears that are completely flattened against the head are usually a sign of fear, anger, or aggression.

This is a clear sign that your cat is very upset or scared and should not be approached.

A gray tabby cat hissing with flattened ears.
An angry hissing tabby cat with flatten ears. Photo: Evdoha/

Use context to decipher your cat’s emotions

Over time and with patience, you can learn to decode your cat’s emotions. While the ears and eyes of a cat can tell you a lot about how they are feeling, other clues in their body language and the environment can help you learn whether your cat is feeling positive or negative emotions.


Humphrey, T., Proops, L., Forman, J., Spooner, R., & McComb, K. (2020). The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication. Scientific Reports10(1), 1-8.

Quaranta, A., d’Ingeo, S., Amoruso, R., & Siniscalchi, M. (2020). Emotion recognition in cats. Animals10(7), 1107.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.