British Shorthair kitten in black and white on a white background

Understanding your kitten's behaviour

Kittens can't speak, but they will communicate with you in a number of ways. Reading body language and listening to the sounds they make can tell you a lot about what they need from you.

Your kitten's body language

Your kitten will give you a number of behavioural cues using their body language to indicate their mood. By understanding each change in behaviour, you can learn to provide your kitten with what they need, whether it's space, playtime or food.

Maine Coon kittens jumping in a living room

Calm

A calm posture is your kitten's neutral state from which all other body language develops. It's important to know how your kitten behaves when they are friendly so that you can recognise even the subtle changes.

1. Posture

Standing straight with their head raised.

2. Tail

If your kitten is feeling calm, they may hold their tail straight up in the air with a slight curl at the top.

3. Ears

A kitten's ears may face forward and lift upwards when they are calm.

4. Eyes

A calm kitten's eyes will be round and neutral.

5. Sounds

Listen out for purring, which can be an indication that your kitten feels content.

Interested

If your kitten is interested in something, they will show it through their body language. This isn't exclusively a reaction to something negative, and merely shows your kitten's focus on specific items/situations. If your kitten is showing interest in toys, it's a good idea to engage them in games or play. This will offer both mental and physical stimulation, but also provides an excellent opportunity for bonding.

1. Posture

An interested kitten will have a straight posture. They may be moving towards whatever has their attention.

2. Tail

An interested kitten will hold their tail straight in the air or at a slightly lowered angle.

3. Ears

If your kitten is showing interest in something, their ears may be facing forward and lifted upwards.

4. Eyes

Your kitten's eyes will be round and engaged on whatever has caught their interest.

Relaxed

Relaxed behaviour from your kitten is a great indication that they are feeling comfortable, settled or secure in any given situation.

1. Posture

If your kitten is truly relaxed and comfortable around you, they may lie down or even roll onto their back, exposing their stomach. This is often misinterpreted as an invitation to stroke them, however it is actually a sign of trust and security which should not be disturbed with a stomach rub.

2. Ears

If your kitten is relaxed their ears may be facing slightly to the sides.

3. Sounds

Relaxation in kittens is likely to be indicated through purring.

4. Eyes

A relaxed kitten might be squinting through their eyes or slowly blinking.

5. Tail

If your kitten is relaxed, their tail may be outstretched behind them.

Worried

It's important to recognise the signs of worry or distress in your kitten. If they appear to be worried, you should try to remove the trigger and give your kitten space. Make sure that your kitten is always able to remove themselves from a situation and access higher spaces to calm down.

1. Tail

Worried kittens often tuck their tails close around their body.

2. Posture

Kittens that are distressed or worried will often crouch low down and tense their muscles.

3. Ears

A worried kitten will flatten their ears and may hold them turned to the side.

4. Eyes

If your kitten is worried, their eyes may be wide open with dilated pupils and not looking directly at the source of their worry.

Fearful

There are several body language cues your kitten might display if they are fearful. One posture which indicates a fearful cat is the arched back and puffed up tail. The purpose of this behaviour is often to make themselves as large or as imposing as possible to dissuade potentially hostile encounters. As with worried cats, it's important to remove any potential triggers to allow your kitten to calm down.

1. Tail

Your kitten's tail may be tucked down and swishing if they are fearful, or if they are particularly scared they may hold their tail upright and puffed out.

2. Posture

A fearful kitten may arch their back in an attempt to make themselves seem larger. This is often accompanied by the hairs of their coat stood up on end.

3. Ears

If your kitten's ears are flattened against their head it could be an indication that they're scared.

4. Sounds

A scared kitten may growl or hiss to warn off any potential aggressors.

5. Eyes

If your kitten is fearful, their eyes may be narrowed and focussed on whatever has caused their behaviour, or their pupils may be dilated.

Guiding behaviours

A kitten's behaviour is highly influenced by others. In their early weeks and months, your kitten will have adopted a number of behaviours from their litter-mates and mother. When they arrive at your home, it's up to you to reinforce the positive behaviours they exhibit and minimise any negative actions. 

What causes unwanted behaviour in kittens?

Cats are creatures of habit, and particularly appreciate an established routine. Behaviours such as scratching furniture, biting or refusal to use the litter box can often be signs that your kitten is unsettled or disrupted. As well as continued positive reinforcement, if you notice an increase in destructive behaviour, think about whether there could be a hidden cause. 

Maine Coon kitten waking along the back of a sofa

Your kitten's grooming habits

Cats are well known for their cleanliness and kittens are no different. Self-grooming isn't just about removing loose hairs and dirt, however. This action also serves an emotional function for your pet. 

The evolution of a cat's behaviour

The domestic cat is one of the most recently evolved feline species. In contrast with some other domestic species, such as dogs or bovines, cats have maintained a high degree of independence in relation to humans. The relationship between cats and their owners is therefore mostly based on mutual benefits.

Despite domestication and selection to produce unique characteristics in different breeds, most of our feline companions have retained some attributes, both physical and behavioural, of their wild ancestors. They remain almost identical in many respects to the African Wildcat, and also to the other wild cats, large or small.

Bengal kitten walking indoors

Kitten behaviour explained

Your kitten's behaviour may seem unusual, but there's often a reason for it. Discover some of the explanations for your kitten's behaviour below.

In early months, your kitten could be scratching to remove the outer shell of their nails and allow growth. Scratching is also a natural way for your kitten to mark their territory. To avoid them scratching your furniture, invest in suitable alternatives such as a scratching post or mat. Because cats scratch to mark their territory, it is important to put their scratching posts or pads in areas they commonly scratch.

A common mistake pet owners make is engaging their kitten in play with their hands. Doing so can unknowingly reinforce the idea that your kitten is allowed to nip, bite or scratch your hand. The best way to deter this behaviour is to offer your kitten alternative toys when playing. 

Another cause for biting could be a disruption to their established routine. Changing their sleeping or eating spot, introducing new additions to the family, or moving house could all contribute to anxiety in your kitten. If not handled carefully, these changes could result in biting behaviour.

There could be a number of reasons that your kitten isn't using their litter tray. First, consider whether the tray is in a suitable position, far enough away from their food bowls and in an easily accessible but discreet location where they won't be disturbed. If your kitten is sharing with another cat, this could be a cause of stress or intimidation and result in your kitten not using the tray. It's recommended to have at least one tray per cat in the home, plus one spare.

As with biting, your kitten could be avoiding the litter tray due to anxiety or disruption to their routine. Consider whether your kitten has had a change in their routine or social situation recently. 

If you have eliminated all of these possible causes, it could be a sign of illness. If you are ever unsure about your kitten's health or behaviour it's important to consult your vet. 

Vocalisation from your kitten could have a number of different meanings, depending on their context, tone, or length. A meow could indicate that your kitten is hungry, would like to play, or act as a simple greeting. Understanding your kitten's vocalisations and body language will offer you a great foundation for an ongoing, fulfilling relationship. Find out more about recognising your kitten's social cues above. 

Kitten grooming

Find out how you can support your kitten's grooming and hygiene needs, from brushing their coat and giving them a bath, to caring for their nails and teeth. 

How to groom a kitten
British Shorthair kitten grooming itself in black and white

Your kitten's health

Paying close attention to your kitten's behaviour and identifying any abnormalities can be a great indication of changes in their health. Find out more about how to keep your kitten healthy, and when they might need to visit the vet.

Kitten health
Norwegian Forest Cat kittens sitting together in black and white