What Your Pet Is Trying to Tell You, if You're Paying Attention

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat communication

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cats may seem uncommunicative, but they actually send messages all the time in their own special way
  • Kitties communicate with their bodies, especially their backs, tails, eyes and ears
  • They also have a wide range of vocalizations they use primarily when humans are around
  • Other feline forms of communication include head bunting, kneading and mutual grooming

Many cats seem quiet, aloof and bewildering, but here’s a fun fact: felines are constantly communicating — just not in the way most humans understand. And as is always the case when comparing cats to dogs, kitties are typically much more subtle in their communication style than their canine counterparts. The following is a short course in feline body language.

How Cats Communicate With Their Bodies

When trying to interpret your cat’s language using physical cues, pay particular attention to her back and tail, as well as her eyes and ears.

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

Tail

Erect, with fur laying flat

Kitty is alert, curious, 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, fearful

Jerking back and forth

Kitty is not happy and potentially aggressive

Eyes

Constricted pupils

Kitty is either content, or he’s on the offensive and could become aggressive

Slightly dilated pupils

Kitty is feeling nervous and/or submissive

Fully dilated pupils

Either defensively aggressive, or aroused and feeling playful

Ears

Angled forward

It’s all good (kitty is feeling alert, interested, happy and/or relaxed)

Erect and turned so the opening points to the side

Irritable, stressed, potentially aggressive

Flattened, tipped backward or sideways

Fearful, frightened, irritable, stressed

Pivoting

Kitty is alert, attentive and listening to every sound

Cat Talk

Interestingly, according to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung, research shows cats don’t vocalize much when communicating with other cats. Meowing seems to be something they primarily do around humans.1

But with that said, kitties actually have a rather extensive repertoire of vocalizations. You may know the difference between your cat’s dinnertime meow, for example, and the way he sounds when he’s annoyed. But many feline sounds and intonations are more subtle and don’t fit a particular pattern, which can make them harder to interpret.

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!”

Why Cats Rub Up Against Things (Including Their Humans)

When kitty friends greet each other, they often do it with a nose touch, so if your cat puts his face very close to yours, he may be hoping to do the same with you. Another move friendly cats make is rubbing their heads together or along each other’s sides. It’s called head bunting and it's a form of affection. Cats’ heads are loaded with scent glands — under the chin, at the corners of the mouth, the temples and on the ears.

When they rub their furry little noggins against something, they deposit pheromones and oils from their scent glands. They exchange scents when they rub against each other, and they rub against things in their environment to leave a scent trail and mark their territory. If your kitty rubs up against your leg or bumps heads with you, he's transferring his scent and claiming you as his own.

Another intriguing fact from Dr. Sung: Cats typically avoid rubbing their heads against each other’s backs, which may be why many kitties don’t appreciate long strokes along their backs.

Kneading and Mutual Grooming

Kneading, also known as "making bread" or "making biscuits," is an instinctive feline behavior that kittens display shortly after they're born to stimulate the flow of milk from the mother's mammary glands. Adult cats who continue the behavior with their people might be showing contentment, calming themselves during periods of stress, or marking their human with the scent from the sweat glands in their paws.

Kneading is also linked to feline mating rituals. Some intact female cats will knead more frequently as they're going into heat, while male cats usually become aggressive after kneading for a while. The behavior might also have its origins in wild cats who built nesting places with grass and leaves in which to rest or give birth. It does seem the behavior in most cats precedes settling down for a nap.

Mother cats groom their kittens from the moment they're born, so being licked was one of your kitty's very first feelings of being cared for. Sibling kitties who are raised together often groom each other throughout their lives. So if your kitty is licking you, she's showing her love for you.

+ Sources and References