Understanding Cat Language and Signals

by Curious Cat People January 19, 2023 6 min read

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

We commonly think of communication as ‘talking’, but it is much broader than just speech. Communication encompasses both verbal and non-verbal cues. Similarly, our feline companion communicates with vocalisation and body language. Cats speak by using complex combinations of body language, vocalisation, and scent cues. These cat talk and non-verbal messages are sometimes puzzling. As such, cats are often seen as mysterious and unpredictable. Let’s learn how to recognise your cat’s body language to better understand what she is saying to you. 

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Verbal communication - vocalisation

While adult cats normally don't meow at each other, domesticated cats have learned to meow at their humans. Some scientists believe this is manipulative behaviour that cats adopt to get what they want from their people. Other researchers think this is a sign that cats see their owners as kittens because generally only mother cats and their kittens communicate through meowing!

One thing for sure is that cats do express emotions by meowing, purring, hissing, and growling. The meaning of each verbal cue depends on its context. Cats meow for many reasons – as a greeting (to say hello), to ask for things, and to tell us when something's wrong. A cat’s meow can signal both excitement and frustration. So, to better read the cat’s language and not jump to the wrong conclusion, always take note of the environment and situations in which this takes place. When it comes to deciphering the cat’s messages (both verbal and non-verbal), context always comes first.

Other forms of vocal communication include:

Trilling

A sound somewhere in between a meow and a purr. It’s often used as a greeting or a way to get your attention. Trilling is a cat’s way of saying “Hello, I’m here”. Cats will also trill when their hunting instinct kicks in, like when they are watching birds.

Yowling

Sounding like a cross between a yodel and howling and is one of the most irritating sounds by a cat. Although yowling is a mating call that’s usually reserved for cats in heat, spayed and neutered cats can yowl too.

Hissing and growling

Reserved for situations when they’re frightened or furious. It’s best to stay away from a hissing or growling cat!

Purring

The vibrating sound of the purr is one of the best sounds you can hear from your furball! Hearing a purr is a definite sign of your kitty’s happiness and affection. However, in some cases, abnormal purring can be a sign your cat is in pain, and it’s time to take her to the vet for a check-up.  

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Tail talk

A cat’s tail is one of the first places to look for signs of her mood. A high, vertical tail indicates a cat that’s feeling confident, comfortable, and friendly, and a low tail indicates a fearful and anxious cat. A very fearful cat might not only keep its tail down but tuck it between its legs. The cat will tuck its tail to look smaller – to present herself as small as possible to her aggressors. It’s a sign of submissiveness and defeat. A cat may also tuck her tail when she’s nervous and unsure of her new environment. This can happen when you move house or re-arrange your furniture, and a little sprinkle of Kong Naturals Premium Catnip or a brief play with a catnip toy may help to calm your cat. On the contrary, a high, puffed-out tail might indicate a cat trying to make itself bigger to intimidate potential foes.

The motion of the cat’s tail has meaning too. A flailing tail usually is a signal to keep your distance. A tail that's swishing back and forth could be a sign of play or that the cat is frustrated. If the fur on the tail bristles, it shows defensiveness. When held high and bristled, the cat is ready to fight and it’s best to keep your distance!  

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Ear Talk

Ear position is another place to look for clues about a cat’s mood. Cats express emotion and intent with their ears. Forward-facing ears often express interest. Normal, forward ears indicate a cat that’s feeling confident, relaxed, or engaged, and may be curious and playful. This gesture can often be spotted while they’re checking out a new toy but as always, context is essential for understanding.

When a cat’s ears stand straight up, something got your cat’s attention. Cats have super-powered hearing, and when their ears are straight and up, it means something alerted them.

A cat with ears turned back is usually a sign that the cat is feeling angry or fearful. When a cat protects their ears by flattening them (“airplane ears”) to the side, you can almost always be sure that they’re feeling afraid. The more a cat’s ears swivel sideways and backward, the greater the cat’s distress. Backward ears and a hiss or swipe ​are a sure sign your cat feels threatened.  

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Eye Talk

Cats communicate with their eyelids—how open or closed they are—as well as with the dilation of the pupil. A dilated pupil could indicate fear, excitement, anger, or any other strong emotion. If your cat shows droopy, sleepy-looking eyelids, this is a sign that your cat is relaxed and trusting. When a cat trusts you, she will blink at you slowly. A slowly blinking cat is usually a comfortable one. Try a slow blink and see if your cat slowly blinks back. If she does, it’s a sign of trust and affection. Do not worry if she doesn’t return your gesture with another slow blink. She may choose to communicate her affection using different forms of body language like rubbing against your leg or bumping her head against you.

On the flip side, if your cat is staring at another cat without blinking, that is a sign of dominance or aggression. Should this happen in a multi-cat household, it’s time to manage your cats’ behaviour. Find out if there’s a medical condition. Otherwise, prepare more resources – more cat feeding bowls, water dispensers, litter boxes, scratchers, and perches – and separate them. Do use rewards to incentivize good behaviour.  

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Posture Talk

The cat’s total body posture indicates everything from confidence to fear or submission. To understand the full message, the body talk must be read in conjunction with what the eyes, ears, tail, and vocalisation expressed. When scared, cats are likely to try and protect their body as much as possible by scrunching up into a small, less exposed shape. An anxious cat may also crouch down, low to the ground. On the contrary, when a cat stretches out, they’re voluntarily exposing herself and this shows that she doesn’t feel threatened.

There’s a big difference, between a cat stretching out in relaxation and a cat making itself bigger as a form of defence. When cats are fearful or angry to the point of being willing to fight, they'll often make themselves as big as possible in various ways. A classic example is when a cat puts its back up and stands sideways to the threat. This posture and position will make them look bigger and more intimidating. Cats exhibiting these behaviours are often ready to stand their ground and fight. 

A relaxed and happy cat would have ears pointing slightly forward, eyes relaxed, and whiskers also pointed forward. The more you pay attention to your cat the easier it will be to read her body language and learn what she’s trying to tell you.  

Understanding Cat Language and Signals

Cats have earned a reputation for being hard to read and that’s because the cat’s body language and behaviours should be looked at as a part of a single big picture. Cats often communicate with us using their whole body - posture, tails, ears, eyes, and vocalisations. To better understand our cats, try to see the situation from the cat’s point of view. The context and the whole-body cues must be taken into consideration, and you’ll have an excellent chance at understanding your feline babies. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Katherine Khoo
KATHERINE KHOO
Katherine is a Pet Nutrition Specialist and GDP’s Pet Wellness Advisor. She is committed to helping pet owners make informed dietary and lifestyle choices in nurturing healthy pets. Katherine is also a practicing Nutritional Therapist (human nutrition) and has been helping hundreds of clients to heal naturally with nutrients.

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