Although cats talk verbally they say much more with their body language than their voice. Learning to read your cats body language can give you a lot of information on how they feel about life (e.g. being held, groomed, a new addition to the family etc.)
The Tail: When a cat is content, they will usually hold the tail out loosely behind them. When happy, they may hold it high, with a slight twitch or curl forward. A slightly moving, twitching, wagging tail is a sign of interest, they are thinking what they are going to do (e.g. when your cat is intensely watching a toy and they start tail twitching they are contemplating whether to pounce on it). If your cat becomes agitated/stressed/over aroused they tend to “flick” the tail in a way that is faster and more forceful. If you are doing something with them (e.g. grooming, holding them) and the firm tail flick starts it’s a sign they are not happy and its time to stop and give them a break. If your cat is concerned about a situation, they may also lower the tail and tuck it underneath the body or around their side if lying down. And the bristled out, stiffly held tail that we see in cartoon cats is a sign that they are terrified.
The Ears aren’t just for listening: When your cat’s ears are forward and slightly to the side, they are probably feeling relaxed. When your cat is really interested and excited, the ears may be pricked forward. Fast-twitching ears may be indicative of nervousness and uncertainty. A cat who is fearful or agitated moves the ears down and back or down to the sides.
The Eyes: When content, the pupils will be normal size (not dilated) and the eyes will be open or perhaps slightly closed. They may make eye contact and will hold your gaze for a while before looking away or blinking softly. If they are stressed and on the edge of being aggressive or fleeing, your cat’s pupils may change shape — either dilating or constricting — and the eyes may look hard or stiff. If they also avoid eye contact and dart their eyes around they are searching for an escape route but if they stare – beware, they are about to strike!
The Face: When your cat is relaxed, the whiskers are set out from the face, where they are less noticeable. When interested in something, the whiskers may move out and forward, becoming stiffer. When frightened, they tend to hold their whiskers flat against the face.
The Body: A relaxed cat moves in a loose, relaxed manner. The more agitated or aroused a cat gets, the tenser the muscles will become. If your cat freezes altogether, it can mean they are about to fight or flee — or, in some cases, pounce. A cat who is stressed will move in a rigid, stiff fashion.
Always pay attention to your cat’s physical reactions to a situation. If they show any signs of stress give them space, let them hide and avoid the situation. Always try and end your interactions with them (holding, grooming etc) before any signs of stress or agitation are displayed. E.g. If you are holding your cat and they are peering down at the floor, stiffening their body and leaning away from you, they are asking to be let go. Respect the request, let them go gently before they feel forced to resort to the “fight and flight” response.
By letting your cat control the situation (by reading their body language) you can often with time get them accepting and even enjoying the holding, grooming etc for longer and longer periods of time.