Cats communicate in many ways. They vocalize, use body language, take action, and release scents.
1. The Vocal Cat
Cats make three types of sounds.
– which includes purrs, trills, and chirrups
– which includes the basic “meow,” mews, and calls
C. Aggressive Sounds
– which includes growls, snarls, hisses, yowls, shrieks, and spits.
Purring is an ongoing, gentle vibrating sound that indicates a positive state in the cat. However, cats are also known to purr in stressful situations, like when they are seriously injured, in pain, sick or tense. It is believed cats purr when they are content, need a friend, or giving thanks for care, such as when vet treats an injured or sick cat and gets a purr for it.
Kittens learn trilling from their mothers as she will use it to tell her babies to follow her. Adult cats trill in greeting, usually to another feline. A trill sounds like a short purr and meow combined.
Chirrups are meows that roll off the tongue. Mother cats use chirrups to call her young from the nest. It is also used by friendly felines when approaching a human or another cat. Cats make excited chirrups and chatters when watching or stalking prey.
The most known sound cats make is the “meow.” Kitties meow mostly for humans and can be plaintive, assertive, welcoming, bold, friendly, attention seeking, complaining or demanding. Sometimes the meow is silent with the feline opening her mouth but nothing comes out.
Mews are soft, early sounds kittens make and are used to get mother’s attention.
Calls are made by females in heat and are known as “caterwauling.” Males as well make calls when fighting, especially over females during mating.
Growling, hissing, snarling, and spitting are vocalizations cats make when in either defensive or offensive mode. These danger sounds are often combined with body posturing to affect a threat, for instance when a cat puffs up his fur and hisses at a dog that gets too close. When growling, the puss is giving a warning of “back off before you get the claws.”
Cats hiss when angry, startled, afraid or hurt. A feline invading another’s territory will get hissed and growled at, and if he doesn’t leave, he may get attacked.
2. Body Language
Cats use body language to express a wide range of emotions. To communicate fear or aggression, the cat will arch her back, puff out her fur, and use a sideways position. And to signal relaxation, the cat’s eyes will slowly blink or have his eyes half open.
This body language is communicated through the feline’s facial expressions, tail, body and coat posturing.
When cats become aggressive, their back end goes up with stiffened hind legs, tail fur fluffed out, nose pointed forward, and ears flat. Such posture indicates danger, and the cat will attack. This form of feline communication is meant to frighten off an aggressor and prevent an attack. It is a warning.
A scared, defensive feline will make himself smaller, lowering his body to the ground while arching his back and leaning away from the threat.
Cats can show comfort or trust when lying on their back and exposing the belly. However, this may also indicate the cat is about to defend himself with sharp claws and teeth.
Playfulness is indicated with an open mouth with no teeth exposed.
A cat’s ears can reveal various states of mind. With ears erect, the feline is focused and alert. Relaxed ears show the cat is calm. Flattened ears happen when the feline is extremely aggressive or defensive.
Staring communicates a threat or challenge and is an indicator of hierarchy with lower-ranking cats withdrawing from a stare down by a higher-ranking feline. This stare is used often for territory or predatory reasons.
A cat’s tail is a great communicator. For instance, a tail swinging from side-to-side in a slow and lazy fashion shows the cat is relaxed. A twitching tail occurs in hunting or when the cat is irritated or displeased and can occur before an attack, playful or otherwise.
When playing, kittens and younger cats will put the base of their tail up high and stiffen the tail except for an upside down u-shape, signaling excitement and even hyperactivity. This tail position can also be seen when chasing other cats or running about by themselves.
Surprised or scared, a cat may erect the fur on its tail and back.
Grooming & Other Forms of Affection
Cats show affection with other cats and some humans by grooming, licking, and kneading. When a feline purrs and kneads at the same time, she is communicating affection and contentment.
A friendly greeting between cats occurs when they touch noses and sniff each other. Bumping heads and cheek rubbing between kitties displays dominance toward a subordinate cat.
A friendly greeting with a human is shown by face rubbing. The feline pushes her face into the person relating affection. The “head-bump” is another way cats reveal positive feelings for a human. Leg rubbing is another form of affection.
As cats rub and push against another cat or a human, they are spreading their scent, which is a form of marking territory.
Strong biting accompanied by growling, hissing or posturing displays aggression. Light bites show playfulness and affection, especially when combined with purring and kneading.
Another way biting is used by cats to communicate is through mating. The male will bite the scruff of the female’s neck, and she will get into the lordosis, revealing she is ready to mate.
Cats use their own scent to communicate with other cats. By rubbing and head-bumping, kitties use scent glands in their face, tail, paws, and lower back to spread their scent. As well, they use feces, urine, and spraying to leave a message to other cats.
Spraying marks the cat’s territory, both indoors and out. Leaving urine and feces is also used to mark a cat’s domain. Additionally, rubbing their scent on objects, like a fence post, marks territory.
Spraying males do the most frequent territory marking. Tomcats spray not only to mark their domain but also to let other toms know the females nearby are his for the mating.
Tomcat spray is a strong smelling marker. Sometimes females will spray, too.
And that’s how cats communicate.
This article is a chapter excerpt from Peter Scottsdale’s educational cat book “How Do Cats Do That?” It is available on Amazon and other fine book stores in print and eBook editions. A large print edition is also available. Great for kids 8 and up!
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