I hear it all the time: What is that cat thinking?
It may surprise u, but we cats actually give away a lot of what we are thinking. You just don’t now what to look fur. First, we cats primarily communicate with the world and each other with body language, not our voice. We cats can and will be vocal, usually for the benefit of u hoomans (to get your verbally attuned attention). Those vocalizations also tend to be unique to every cat. So don’t expect the specific sounds of one cat to match up with another or have any universal meanings beyond the basics.
Vocalization Basics – Your Cat is Speaking to YOU
Knowing the basics of your cat’s sounds can help you decode ur cat’s unique voice. The basic cat vocalizations are: the meow and yowl, the hiss, the growl, the purr and , and the scream. There are other sounds we can make, but they can vary. If u know these basics, u can get a basic idea of at least the tone.
The Meow and Yowl
The most commonly heard vocalization is the meow. The meow is an all purpose sound. It can mean “hello” or it can mean we want or need something and we want u to come to us and meet that need. This sound is usually the first sound a cat learns as a newly born blind kitten in order to communicate with their mother – Mama! Mama! Feed me! Wash me! Snuggle me! Its then up to u to figure out what we want, based on other clues we might give, like standing by the door or food bowl.
The warning yowl is similar to the meow but longer and more guttural. It can be used by house cats to indicate, “Hey, I really want your attention, cause I might be about to do something you won’t like!” The warning yowl is also used as a warning when a cat becomes aware of a strange creature outside. A similar vocalization, the mating yowl or call is usually used between cats when calling for a mate,
The Hiss, Reverse Sniff and Growl
Now for the negative range of sounds. The hiss and growl, are generally meant to express a range of displeasure from the serious to the mild. When a cat opens its mouth, bares its teeth and lets out a snake like hiss, u should pay attention. Think of the hiss as a warning sound that can denote: “Stop it, u scared me!” or “Ur pissing me off!” Or simply – “U annoy me, leave me alone.” There is also a gentler more polite version of the hiss that sounds like a swift exhale from their nose – a reverse sniff. It isn’t a funny sneeze – that pointed exhale is another way to gently ask u to stop whatever it is ur doing.
The growl, however, is the extreme opposite being a more urgent and stronger warning: U better stop that or I’m gonna F$%#@ do something bad! The hiss and reverse sniff r more fleeting. The growl has more staying power – and it could indicate a bite or scratch if u don’t stop – right now!
The Purr, Trill and Scream
So the hiss, reverse sniff and growl are ur basic negative responses from a cat. The purr and trill are positive sounds that mean ur cat is feeling happy or content and wants you to know it. The purr is a sound most hoomans find very comforting – which makes sense because that is part of the purr-function fur us cats. When a cat purrs they are either trying to calm themselves (in the case of trauma or stress) or they are expressing deep contentment. The purr actually acts like a full body massage of sound waves within our body – and it feels real good. What the purr means is all about context. If its while being petted – it means contentment. If u hear a cat scream and then find it purring, its for the self-healing reason instead. In the latter case, a vet visit may be in order.
The Purr is also similar to the Trill or Chirrup which sounds kind of like the Spanish Rrrrrrrr vocalized at various volumes, tones and lengths. I think of it as a projected outgoing purr rather than the usual internal purr. Regardless, it means the cat is feeling friendly and wants you or another cat to follow it, probably for play or food. This sound is rather innate as it would have been one of the first sounds we heard from our mother when she wanted us to follow her.
And that brings us to the final basic sound – the scream – just like a hooman scream – it usually means: Ouch! Something scared the cat outta me! or just HELP! If u hear ur cat scream – go find it – something is likely wrong.
So that covers the basic cat vocalizations (their are other less common sounds), but that’s only if ur cat actually vocalizes with u.
Body Language Basics – How Your Cat ‘Talks’ Without its Voice
Many cats won’t vocalize or do very little, because, as I said before, we cats mostly communicate silently. Our first language isn’t our speaking voice but our body language. We use our eyes, eyelids, ears, whiskers, fur, breath, body position and tail to ‘talk’ to each other.
If u watch two cats come into contact with each other u will likely see one of two patterns. Cats who know each other will greet each other in various ways. We might use a nose to nose tap, a mutual eye squint, a well placed sniff or mutual rubbing, or an invitation to play. Cats who r strangers will generally sit and stare at each other until one of them turns and walks away. What is going on there? We’re sizing each other up and communicating our intentions silently with our bodies. In the end, the cat who leaves is generally the cat who ‘won’ the ‘argument’ or got their way. Don’t try to interfere with this sort of interaction, u can only make the situation worse, not better.
Eyes are the Key
Ok, so lets get down to that body language and how to use it and read it with ur cats. The most important tool is probably the eyes. A cat says I’m scared, threatening, submissive, friendly or even loving with their eyes. Wide open round eyes with big pupils staring means either I’m scared or I’m threatening/hunting u. The rest of the body language should give u a clue as to which. Fur standing up so that the cat looks over puffy and/or backing away or turning sideways means scared. A cat advancing or just staring without fur standing up, especially with a swishing horizontal tail, is in hunt mode. While a friendly feeling or loving cat will squint their eyelids until they are looking through slatted eyes at the object of their affection. They might also look slightly away and back.
Cats Respond to Your Eyes Too
These two behaviors (wide open eyes or squinted eyes) can easily be copied and used by hoomans. First, make sure the cat u wish to communicate with can clearly see your eyes. This might mean removing spectacles. Now gently squeeze ur eyes down to slits and look at them like they are a blinding light. Squinting eyes will let the cat know ur friendly and non-threatening.
This is very useful when meeting new or strange cats. It also clears up a lot of confusion if u use it with ur cat when they might not be sure of ur intentions. On the flip side, pointed staring with wide open eyes can be used if u ever need to dominate an unruly cat (use sparingly!). If u want to go the extra mile and let a cat know that u really love them, then do a slow blink/eyelid squeeze. You want to slow blink at them a few times until they respond in kind with a squint or blink. If ur cat loves u they should return the gesture – eventually. Of course, don’t be offended if they blow u off, we can be moody just like hoomans.
This communication via eye is why shy cats tend to gravitate towards cat haters and run from cat lovers. They r seeing the hooman body language of looking away and squinting (stay away), but interpreting it in cat as “I’m friendly.” And when a cat lover advances on and looks directly at a cat, the cat runs away because they interpret that behavior as threatening. U can easily fix this by practicing the opposing behavior when greeting cats. Don’t look directly at an unfamiliar cat in the eyes – it makes us think u want to eat us. Look away and do some squinting or even squeeze your lids shut and then squint as u ‘look;’ at us, then we’ll relax and be friendly. Try it with ur own cat to reinforce ur bond.
Beyond Eyes — Every Part of Your Cat Has Something to Say
Now, beyond the eyes, there r the ears, whiskers, tail, fur, body posture and breath. Ears r pretty simple. They point at what we want to hear. But beyond that: straight up indicates confidence and a good mood, drooping means uncertainty or early displeasure, flatter means less pleased, flat and straight back we r warning of or are about to attack – remove urself. Whiskers are also pretty simple. Whiskers pointing outwards means interest and openness, pulled back towards the face means disinterest and not wanting to engage. Our fur can tell u if we are freaked out or frightened by something by puffing up and standing on end – like the classic Halloween cat. Sometimes we will also puff up in the face of unknown creatures to appear bigger.
The Tail Can Say A Lot
As u can see in the above image, the tail tells u many things about ur cat. A straight tail at roughly 90 degrees means the cat is feeling friendly and confident. A tail angled down and even against the backside means low confidence and not feeling friendly. A tail held out horizontally, swishing or not, means we r actively exploring or ‘hunting.’ A tail standing up but with a curl or curve (like a ?) at the top usually means we r feeling playful or friendly. If the curl is very small and at the top it denotes friendly but uncertain. A tail whipping violently or thumping (like a tail wag) is the opposite of the same behavior for a dog – it means displeasure with us cats – the more violent the more displeasure.
Body Postures have Secret Messages
We cats will also express ourselves with body posture. The kitty loaf, where we squeeze our legs and feet up under our body and try to be as small as we can manage, is used to indicate submission ie. I acknowledge that I am not the Alpha Cat or dominant creature. Incidentally don’t think of submission and domination in the animal world as winning and losing – its really just a way to organize ourselves so that we aren’t always fighting over who is ‘in charge’ among our peers.
Other body postures r pretty self-explanatory. Spread out prone means confident ownership. Arched back means fear or stretching. An extended arm or two in sphinx usually means feeling pride and confidence in our place. An exposed belly means we trust in our surroundings (or u) and that we feel safe. Please note, in most cases the exposed belly DOES NOT mean we want u to touch it – we r NOT dogs – and we can and will scratch or bite u if u do. Some docile cats might allow tummy petting, but those r exceptions – do not assume.
So there u have it. Now u know all our secrets and can even join the cat-versation to a degree. Go now and talk with ur cat!