By Helen Anne Travis
Anyone who’s ever had a cat will agree: they’re funny creatures. One minute they’re rubbing up against you, the next they’re hiding in the closet. They love to snuggle, but only on their terms. And they seem to want the most attention when you’re running out the door. But that’s what makes them so great.
With all this mixed messaging, how can you tell if your cat is truly happy?
While all animals are different, the following behaviors and body language signals usually indicate your cat is most likely happy and, more important, healthy.
A healthy appetite means kitty is in a good mood. But if kitty’s appetite is too healthy, it could be a sign she’s bored, depressed, or lonely, says Dr. Franklin McMillan, director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society. “Evidence suggests that, just as in humans, eating can be a psychological mechanism to cope with stress and other sources of unhappiness,” he says.
You also want to contact your vet if your cat starts showing less interest in food. “While not every cat is ravenous, if there is a sudden drop in appetite, there may be something wrong,” says Dr. Rachel Barrack of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture.
Bringing your cat in for regular checkups can assure you kitty is healthy and happy. Any kind of illness, from intestinal upset to respiratory problems and allergies, can cause so much physical discomfort that it affects the cat’s mental well-being, McMillan says.
“Healthy cats are happy cats,” Barrack adds. “If your cat is unwell, make sure you visit your veterinarian as soon as possible to help them feel their best and happiest.”
“Purring is the feline way of showing happiness,” Barrack says.
If your cat purrs while snuggling with you on the couch, it’s likely a sign she’s happy and content. But purring can also indicate something’s wrong, McMillan warns. Cats may purr to comfort themselves during a stressful event, like an injury, he explains. Contact your vet if your cat is purring at odd or inappropriate times.
A relaxed cat is likely free from stress, fear, and anxiety, McMillan says. Signs a cat is relaxed include resting with her feet tucked underneath her body, not being overly startled by sounds or movements, and having an overall calm demeanor.
Engaging in play is one of the most reliable signs of happiness, McMillan says. “Scientists believe that play is a luxury behavior, only engaged in when all other higher priority needs are met,” he says.
Older cats may play less than their younger counterparts, he adds. “But they still tend to show a spark in their eyes when a favorite or new toy is offered for play.”
A cat who enthusiastically greets you when you first wake up or when you come home from work is saying she’s happy to see you, McMillan says.
When your cat rubs against you, she’s marking you as her territory, says Dr. Jeffrey Levy, a holistic house-call veterinarian in New York City. She’s claiming you as her possession, which means she’s happy in your presence.
“A cat who butts her head against any part of your body is usually showing that she enjoys your company and wants more of it,” McMillan says.
Kneading or “making biscuits” is a sign of relaxation, McMillan says.
“When cats knead objects—or people—they are recreating a neonatal behavior,” Levy explains. Nursing kittens knead their mother to stimulate the release of oxytocin, which relaxes the mother and facilitates milk flow. “I believe it makes cats feel good to recreate this infantile behavior. And when my cats knead me, it makes me feel good too,” he says.
Happy cats are curious, McMillan says. You know your cat is happy if he seems to enjoy exploring his environment and is interested in new things.
Happy cats enjoy positive interactions with their owners and other people in their environment, McMillan says. But, of course, every cat is different. If yours is a little aloof, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s unhappy. “Some cats simply feel more comfortable with less social interaction,” he says.
A cat who sleeps an appropriate amount of time for her age is content. “When a cat sleeps too little, it may indicate that something—physical or emotional—is causing her trouble and discomfort,” McMillan says. Sleeping too much could also be a bad sign. Like humans, cats may use sleep as a coping mechanism for dealing with boredom, loneliness, sadness, or depression, he says.
How many hours a day should your cat spend in snoozeville? There’s no one right answer, as cats’ needs change depending on their age and activity level, McMillan says. The best thing to do is monitor your pet’s sleeping habits and note any changes.
A clean cat is a happy cat, McMillan says. “When they are unhappy—which can be from emotional difficulties or ill health—they will typically forego good grooming habits,” he says.
“Licking provides an endorphin release like a runner’s high,” Levy adds.
If your cat grooms you, it’s quite the compliment. Grooming indicates a deeper level of bond, Levy says. “Your cat is actively treating you as a member of the pride.”
Happy cats use their litter box properly, McMillan says.
And, believe it or not, it’s also usually a good sign if they dash out of the litter box after doing their business, Levy shares. “Many cats truly enjoy their litter box experience and feel a sense of accomplishment from this release,” he says.
Leaping out of the litter box could be a sign of their enthusiasm and pride, he adds. But if it happens erratically, or is accompanied by signs of discomfort, it could be time to call the vet.
Your cat’s eyes can tell you a lot about her emotional state. Resting with her eyes half closed shows she is relaxed and doesn’t feel threatened, McMillan says. Steady eye contact and slow blinks indicate she enjoys your presence, Barrack says.
When your cat lies on her back and shows her belly, it’s a sign she’s content and relaxed, Levy says.