cat smiling

What is your cat telling you?

Some basic facts:

  • Once cats are no longer kittens, they stop meowing to communicate with other cats.
  • Adult cats meow to communicate with humans.
  • Each cat develops her own ‘meow’ for her own human, based, in part on how her human sounds!
  • Your cat tells you a lot through her tail movements, ear position and body posture.
  • Here is a handy cat body language chart to get you started:

cat body language chart

Vocalizations

We know our cats make a variety of sounds when they are trying to communicate with us but what do they mean?  Here is summary:

  • Meow: Each cat will have a nice range of “meows” used for a variety of messages to their humans, including greetings, requests for attention and food. Pay attention to the attendant body language to figure out a more exact meaning for the particular “meow”.
  • Purring: My cat purrs when she is happy, including while she is eating or sitting on my lap. Some cats also comfort themselves by purring when they are NOT feeling well so pay attention to the surrounding circumstances when your cat is purring.
  • Growling or Hissing: Clearly, this is not a happy cat so you may want to give her some personal space.
  • “Chirps” or “Trills”: You may hear mama cats use this sound with their kittens and sometimes with you if your feline companion wants you to pay attention and go somewhere with her.
  • Yowling: Pay attention because your cat is probably in distress and needs your assistance.

Body Language

As you can see from the chart, our feline friends can be very clear about what they are trying to tell us, if only we would pay attention.  Here are some key body parts to pay particular attention to:

  • cat earsEars – if they are:
    • Up and facing us, she is interested, attentive, relaxed and friendly.
    • Flat, sideways or anything other than up and forward, she is anxious, worried, frightened, threatened or otherwise unhappy.
    • Rotating around, she is paying close attention, a bit nervous and not sure what her next move will be. 
  • Tail – if it is:
    • Straight up and smooth, she is happy!
    • Straight up but poofed out, she is NOT happy and is either scared or angry. She will generally also be growling or hissing and her ears will be flattening out.
    • Waving or thrashing back and forth does NOT mean she is wagging her tail – it means she is ticked off and the faster she moves her tail, the angrier she is.
    • Curled down or drooping, she is worried and anxious.
    • Neither up nor down, check the rest of her body language for a full interpretation. 
  • Body – if she is:
    • Curled up or on her side, with her eyes closed, in her favorite sunny spot, she is blissing out.
    • Lying on her back and offering you her belly, she is feeling relaxed and wants some love from her trusted human.
    • Standing but in a crouch, ears forward and focused, she is feeling like a tiger and about to bring you a special present, which you may or may not want…
    • Scrunched up in a ball, head up, ears flat and not looking happy, she is telling you to back off!
    • Standing but hunched up, head back, tail down and ears, she is really scared.
    • Standing but hunched, head up, ears flat, tail up and poofed and vocalizing means she is completely freaked out and needs to be talked off the ledge.

 Actions 

  • cat clawing furnitureKneading: My cat appeared in my yard over a decade ago and is a TNR cat (Trap, Neuter, Release). She has gotten progressively friendlier over the years and it has been a learning experience for me to watch her evolve.  She is primarily an outdoor cat, coming inside only when the weather is particularly vicious.  Recently, two of my beloved dogs, Nya and Nasha, died within 6 days of each other and on the evening of the day Nya died, KitKat came into the house, jumped up next to me, sat on my lap, looked deeply into my eyes, moved to lie down next to me and proceeded to give me a through kneading.  Exactly one month later, almost to the hour, she repeated the performance!  While I think she was channeling Nya (who was exactly the same color KitKat is), the reality is that cats knead when they are very content and happy with life.  The kneading is similar to working dough where you are the dough and your cat pushed her paws (nails withdrawn) into you in a form of gentle massage.  Very therapeutic for both of you!
  • Rubbing: Just as our pups like to mark us by rubbing a bit of saliva on us, our cats mark their territory – which naturally includes you and everything you thought YOU owned – by rubbing their faces, heads and bodies along whatever they are claiming as their own.
  • Sudden Bursts of Speed: We’ve all seen it happen – one moment our cat is lounging about and the next she’s exited the space at warp speed, for no apparent reason. According to Katy Priduc and Carlos Siracusa, as reported in a recent National Geographic article,  this bolting behavior may be an outlet for accumulated arousal, frustration, fear or pent-up energy and a lack of sufficient stimulation, in the case of indoor cats.

What are they Thinking? 

We may never know but this video  provides some fun ideas.  A group of researchers studied video of 29 cats living in a Canadian shelter and identified facial clues showing fear, frustration and relaxed engagement. For example, when the cats were afraid, they blinked more, when afraid, they wrinkled their nosed and, predictably, hissed and flattened their ears and when they were relaxed, their ears were forward and, surprisingly, their heads tilted more to the left.  Head tilting to the right apparently indicated fear.

Bottom Line 

Our feline babies communicate both verbally and physically, as do most sentient beings.  All we have to do is pay attention to the clues!

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