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As a cat owner, I'd of course like to know if my cat is happy. However, most known indicators don't really apply; purring seems to happen for a variety of emotions, meowing vary greatly between different cats and they do not wag their tails like dogs do to express themselves...

So this makes me wonder, do cats use some universal "clues" to show their happiness, like a special body language for example? If so, what are they?

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  • Ruling out purring is like ruling out tail waging in dogs or smiling in humans. Cats, like people, come in many different personality types, don't always know what they are feeling, and don't always express what they are feeling. Your question is overly broad. Replace the word cat with the name of your significant other and you may end up with the same answers. Moreover, ask your self are you happy? --how do you know? -- do you always express your happiness the same way?
    – virtualxtc
    Dec 28, 2013 at 8:21
  • Your are asking a subjective question, where the answer is too broad / vague to get a good answer. If the likely answer begins with "It depends", then the question is too vague.
    – virtualxtc
    Dec 28, 2013 at 8:22

4 Answers 4

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Some common indicators that a cat is happy and relaxed include:

  • Greeting you (other people, other cats, etc) with an erect, upright tail (often with a twist at the top).
  • Napping with its feet completely underneath it (especially in an open, unprotected area)
  • Returning your look with a slow blink
  • Fur laid flat/relaxed to the skin (not upright, especially on the back ridge)
  • Whiskers relaxed (pulled forward indicates interest and can happen when the cat is happy, but pulled back is a protection instinct and indicates fear/discomfort)
  • Ears upright, relaxed (swiveling to listen to sounds indicates interest, laid flat is fear/anger/anxiety).

If you know your cat well, you can generally get an idea of the indicators that "depend". For example, Hunter (our only non-Siamese) meows only in distress while the three other cats talk all of the time about everything (my food bowl is empty, my food bowl is full, my food bowl is downstairs and I'm upstairs, hey I can meow!). Distress purring has a different sound than happy purring (it's subtle, but pay close attention next time you take your cat to the vet and you may be able to hear it).

In addition, if your cat is meowing but you aren't sure what it means, you can look for other clues to help you figure it out. If your cat is meowing while standing next to the food bowl and you haven't fed them in several hours, it's probably distress (help help I'm going to starve!). If your cat is purring while snuggling with you on the couch (fur/whiskers/tail relaxed) then your cat is probably happy.

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  • Really detailed answer - First I wanted to mention two other points that you might want to add to your list, but ended up extending the comment to an actual answer below.
    – iLuvLogix
    Dec 29, 2022 at 16:14
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Zaralynda's answer covers most of the basics, but there are some additional cues that can be very important, depending upon the cat:

  • "Head-butting" behavior (or "bunting"), where the cat lowers its head and bumps the top of its head against anything ranging from furniture to you, to other cats. This is a bit different than the normal scent-marking behavior of rubbing the sides of their face against furniture or you, which is generally more a territoriality thing (although it can have overtones of contentment, as well). Bunting is still scent (pheromone) marking, but it is believed that it marks something as safe or comforting, rather than "territory".

Headbutt of friendship!

  • Lying on their back/exposing their belly. This is a great sign of comfort/contentment, as it is generally a very vulnerable position. Note that this is not always an invitation to pet the cat; many cats do not like their bellies touched, and no matter how inviting they look, petting them (even on their back) may trigger a fairly aggressive response (although some cats do enjoy having their bellies petted). If the cat waits to make eye contact with you, and then rolls over onto their back, this is a much stronger message of trust and affection directed at you, personally, as opposed to general contentment with their environment. Again, though, this may be an invitation to play, rather than an invitation for a belly rub, depending on the cat.

I want belly rubs... but only three!  Then I'll bite you.

  • If a cat tends to spend a lot of time in the same room as you, even when they have already been fed, it usually indicates that they are happy (assuming, of course, that they have the option of going into unoccupied rooms). This can sometimes indicate distress, though, so it isn't a good indicator by itself. However, if your cat is lying contentedly in the same room as you, but gets up and follows you to another room, then lies nearby you, but out of reach, then it's a pretty good indicator that they're fairly happy.
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From my research from living with animals (specifically cats and dogs), I have noticed the following: Bunting or head-butting is when a cat is purposely rubbing his/her head against you but not in a territorial way. This signals comfort and shows that they trust you and can rely on you.

Another telltale sign is kneading. Many pet owners are confused about this and don't understand it. This is basically your cat getting comfortable, although I might be a little uncomfortable for you, the cat is showing you that he or she is not nervous around you, or else it would choose to be somewhere else. To me it is the equivalent of a dog pawing you.

The next obvious thing in my opinion is a cat wanting to be near you. If your cat or a cat in general wants to be near, presuming that it's fed, then take it that this cat wants your love. It is showing that it feels comfortable, safe, wanted, and most of all loved.

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To add two additional points to @Zaralyndas detailed answer:

According to my own obervation as well as to this post on petguide.com (no affiliation), cats also show their comfort and happiness by stretching - here's a picture and an excerpt from the aforementioned post:

cat stretching

Licence: Creative Commons, Author: Watchduck, Link

Showing You Some Love

There are a lot of ways that your cat communicates her feelings with you. And as you get to know your pet better, you’ll be able to more easily decipher what she is trying to tell you through body language. Well, it turns out that your cat’s stretches might also serve as an indication that she cares about you.

Has your cat ever stretched out on her back in front of you, and perhaps even extended a paw towards you? That’s a sign that she is totally comfortable around you and she is even willing to expose her delicate belly to you because she trusts you that much. So, in addition to stretching out because it feels fabulous, this could also be your kitty’s way of letting you know that she really digs you.

A second observation I made was that one of my feline companions not just purrs when petted, he sometimes lays down completely flat with the stomach on the ground and extends his hind legs to the back and his front legs to the sides - we were joking that he's doing 'The Superman' move again. I don't know how common that 'move' is among cats, my other cat doesn't show this behaviour at all (she rather rolls around on the floor).

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