How do I tell if my cat is frustrated?

Like humans, cats will feel frustrated when they feel like they’re not in control in some way, when their expectations are not met, or when they don’t have access to the things they want, such as food, play, time outside, or attention.

What you may think of as a stress-free situation could still frustrate your cat. Your cat’s frustrated body language signs will vary depending on the situation they’re in, but there are some things you can look out for to help you better understand how your cat is feeling.

Behaviour signs of a frustrated cat

  • Your cat may seem very focused or fixated and determined to achieve or obtain something. For example, if your cat wants to go outside but is frustrated because the cat flap is locked, they might constantly stare at the door, meowing loudly and scratching at it and won’t be easily distracted.
  • Your cat may seem very alert, on-edge or jumpy. Their energy levels are likely to be high which is the body’s way of helping them to acquire the thing they need or prepare them to fight in order to stop something unpleasant from happening.
  • Your cat may be very vocal, persistent, active and appear quite ‘frantic’.
  • Your cat may be destructive e.g. scratching furniture, biting objects or knocking things over or off tables and shelves.
  • Your cat may also behave aggressively, either directed towards the thing causing the frustration (e.g. when a person strokes them too much, they might swipe or bite) or redirected to something else because the actual trigger for the frustration is out of reach (e.g. when your cat looks through a window and sees an intruder cat in the garden, but can’t reach the intruder so instead swipes at a person who happens to be nearby).
  • Your cat may produce a louder, frequent, more urgent and less pleasant-sounding meow.
  • Your cat’s skin may twitch or ripple (usually on their back).
  • Your cat may briefly shake their head and/or body.
  • Your cat’s tail may ‘swish’, ’thrash’ (usually held horizontally or below) or ‘thump’ on the ground.
  • Your cat’s tail may ‘twitch’ nearer the end (usually when held close to the ground).

Behaviour signs a cat is frustrated with you

Behaviour signs a cat is frustrated with you

  • Your cat may move their head or body away from you.
  • Your cat may sharply or quickly turn their head towards your face or hands (usually as a reaction to you touching them somewhere they’re not keen on).
  • Your cat may approach you, interact, and then quickly walk away, potentially repeating this cycle multiple times.
  • Your frustrated cat may growl, hiss, bite or swipe at you.

Body Language signs of a frustrated cat

  • Your cat is likely to seem stiff or tense, although their posture may vary according to what they are doing at the time.
  • If your cat is still, their head may be angled downwards and they may have a lowered gaze.

Facial expression signs of a frustrated cat

Facial expression signs of a frustrated cat

  • Your cat may have relatively wide, rounded eyes or they may be more almond shaped. Their pupils may be relatively small or constricted (although in low light conditions they may also be dilated).
  • Your cat’s ears may rotate backwards frequently, either both ears or just one.
  • Your cat may briefly lick their nose (also called a ‘lip lick’), possibly repeating this several times.

How can I stop my cat being frustrated?

If you think your cat might be frustrated, it’s important to try and figure out why, and what might be causing it. If possible, the best thing is to help your cat avoid the situations where they are most likely to become frustrated. If this isn’t possible, there are some things you can do to help your cat feel less frustrated:

  • Make sure your cat’s environment is relatively predictable. This means keeping things fairly consistent so that your cat knows roughly what happens when, where all their things are like food, water and litter tray, and where they can go to have time on their own, undisturbed.
  • An environment that has lots of things to keep your cat entertained will provide them with excitement, fun and opportunities to engage their brain.

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