30 Ways Your Cat Speaks to You

Cat Vocalization

Story at-a-glance -

  • Understanding your cat’s vocalizations, facial expressions, and body language can help you learn his communication patterns and ultimately deepen your bond with him
  • Cats have a wide range of vocalizations – some indicate happiness, others tell you kitty is feeling fearful, anxious, or angry
  • Your cat’s eyes, ears, back, and tail can also give clues as to how she’s feeling and what she might need from you

By Dr. Becker

Cats have a reputation for being silent and difficult to know, unlike dogs, who are typically much more vocal and physically demonstrative.

Of course, some cats are more outspoken than others and as their guardians will attest, do indeed communicate with their meows and other vocalizations.

Whether your feline friend is a chatty cat or the strong silent type, learning about his body language, behavior, and the sounds he makes can deepen the bond you share with him, and improve communication between you.

The good news is that it's not really that difficult to learn to read many of Tiger's communication signals, including what that look in his eyes means, or the tone of his meow, or the position of his ears, or the way he's holding or moving his tail.

Interpreting Your Cat's Vocalizations

Cats actually have a rather extensive repertoire of vocalizations. You may know the difference between your cat's dinnertime meow, for example, and the way she sounds if she's frightened or annoyed. But many kitty sounds and intonations are more subtle and don't fit a particular pattern, which can make them harder to interpret.

Here's a cheat sheet for decoding some common kitty chatter:1

Vocalization How It Sounds What It Means Translation
Meow The classic mee-yoww Usually just a shout-out to whoever is around "Hey there!"
Purr Similar to a low idling motor; made by contracting the muscles of the larynx A sign of contentment in most cats; rarely, a sign of anxiety or illness "Backrub feels great… don't stop!"
Murmur Soft rhythmic "thump" made on exhalation A request or greeting "Pet me?"
Growl, hiss, spit Low-pitched, severe, "I mean business" sound Kitty is feeling fearful, stressed, defensive, or aggressive "Back off!"
Shriek or screech High-pitched, loud, harsh scream Kitty is either in pain or about to cause some "Ouch!"
"Don't touch me!" "Get away from me!"
Chatter Teeth chattering; jaw vibrating Feline hunting sound; frustration from being unable to hunt visible prey "Let me at it… let me at it… let me at it!"
Howl or yowl Loud, drawn out calls Cognitive dysfunction in older cats; aggression; distress "Where are you?"
"Where am I?"
"Why am I yelling?"
Moan Long, low, throaty cry Prelude to vomiting, bringing up a hairball "Get here quick I'm about to make a mess!"

Reading Feline Facial Expressions

Now let's take a look at Miss Kitty's facial expressions, because they are also important in understanding her moods and how she's feeling:2

Facial Feature How It Looks What It Means
Eyes Constricted pupilsKitty is either content, or he's on the offensive and could become aggressive
Slightly dilated pupilsKitty is feeling nervous and/or submissive
Fully dilated pupilsEither defensively aggressive, or aroused and feeling playful
Ears Angled forwardIt's all good (kitty is feeling alert, interested, happy, and/or relaxed)
Erect and turned so the opening points to the sideIrritable, stressed, and/or potentially aggressive
Flattened, tipped backward, or sidewaysFearful, frightened, irritable, and/or stressed
PivotingKitty is alert, attentive, and/or listening to every sound
Mouth ClosedKitty is relaxed
Open tight with teeth showing, or wide open with hissing or spittingIndicates fear and potential aggression
Slightly open with flicking tongue and lips curled back slightlyKitty smells something unfamiliar

Understanding Your Cat's Body Language

Finally, the way your cat holds his body can also give you information about how he's feeling and whether he might need reassurance, some space, or a nice kitty massage:3

Body Part How It Looks What It Means
Back Arched with fur standing on end Kitty is very fearful and defensively aggressive
Arched with flat fur Kitty is asking to be petted, stroked
Lying on back purring Relaxed and looking for a tummy rub… or maybe not
Lying on back growling and visibly upset Prepare to be scratched or bitten
Head Held high Kitty may be feeling neutral, confident, happy… or aggressive
Low or pulled toward the back Fearful, submissive
Tail Erect, with fur laying flat Kitty is alert, curious, and/or happy
Horizontal Either relaxed or unsure
Vertical and quivering Kitty is feeling happy, excited, and may be about to urine mark
Vertical, tense, with fur standing on end Angry or frightened
Held very low or tucked between legs Kitty is feeling insecure, anxious, and/or fearful
Jerking back and forth Kitty is not happy and potentially aggressive

+ Sources and References