Skip to main content
Why, Cat?!

Why Do Cats Raise a Paw for No Reason?

Are they saying “Hi” or trying to high five? Cat behaviorists decode your pet’s cryptic hand signal.

by Charles Manning | expert review by Cristin Tamburo, CFTBS, CAFTP
October 19, 2021
orange cat lifting its paw
happyimages / Adobe Stock

Sign up for The Wildest newsletter for updates

You know that thing where you’re hanging out, minding your own business, deep in a work problem or your phone or watching TV (or all three), and you look up to see your cat sitting, like, right there with their little paw up? Maybe they mew or coo and you’re like, “What, shake?” But when you try to shake their paw, thinking they’re doing something cute, they pull it away and look at you like you’re crazy?

So you go back to doing what you were doing, then look up again, and they’re still just, like, right there with their paw up. “What do you want? Are you hurt?!” you ask. But they won’t let you examine their paw — which is weird because when you’re sleeping they practically stick their paws in your open mouth, which is cute, but also, super gross because: litter. So you come to the completely logical conclusion that your cat needs immediate veterinary attention. Six hours, $1,000, and a clean bill of health later, you sit down to check your work emails, look up, and there they are, right there with their paw up. “Why, cat?!”

Get your fix of The Wildest

We promise not to send you garbage that turns your inbox into a litter box. Just our latest tips and support for your pet.

“When a cat lifts their paw, it’s usually because they want something,” says cat behavior consultant Jennifer Van de Kieft. “They do it to get your attention or because they want something you have, like food. I taught my cat Luke how to high-five, so he will often lift his paw for me to pat, but most of the time, he just wants chicken.” Now, if you don’t have any chicken, well, shame on you, but in that case, your cat is probably seeking your attention for another, equally banal, but — in the world of a cat — still important reason. “I’m always thinking about what a cat needs at that moment,” says Van de Kieft. “Did you forget their dinner time? Do they want to be pet? Why are they getting your attention at this particular moment?” Maybe their litter box is full or their water dish is empty.

Or maybe they just want to play — play is extremely important to a cat’s health and well-being (and most people don’t play with their cats nearly enough). “In the wild, feral cats can spend up to 50% of their day hunting,” says cat behaviorist Cristin Tamburo. “While many cats today spend the majority of their time inside, their instincts are still very hard wired. Play is so important for cats because it helps to fulfill their natural need to hunt. By keeping cats physically active and mentally stimulated we ensure that they live a happy and fulfilling life. And for pet parents, happy and fulfilled cats mean fewer chances for behavior issues!”

So the next time your cat goes paw up — before you freak out — take a deep breath and check to make sure all their needs are being met. And, if nothing else works, just give them a piece of chicken.  

Related articles

Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.