While we may never be able to decipher all that our animal friends are trying to tell us, there are some clues that can be observed. Both dogs and cats communicate primarily with body language, but canine and feline communication is quite different – the same behavior in a cat may mean something quite different than it would for a dog.
The meow has its roots in kittenhood; kittens mew to their mother, but adult cats in the wild do not usually meow to each other. For domesticated cats, we continue to play that parental role so many adult cats meow to their people. We humans reinforce meowing, because we tend to be responsive to it. Meows have many different meanings. It may be a request for attention or food, could indicate confusion, or may be a complaint such as when the kitty is put into a carrier and driven to the vet clinic.
Hissing is often interpreted by people as a sign of aggression, but actually it is a defensive sound for a cat. It says “I feel threatened. Please back off!”
Not much says contentment like the purring of a cat. Purring, combined with kneading, dates back to their time as a nursing kitten. Surprisingly, cats also purr when they are in extreme distress. Stressed, injured, ill, and dying cats are known to purr.
So you can see, deciphering the meaning of cat vocalizations requires observing the visual cues that accompany them.
Confident, happy cats have their tails held high. It can also be a greeting to you or another animal. A drooping tail may indicate a cat that is cautious, unhappy, or not feeling well.
Where a dog’s wagging tail usually indicates anticipation, a cat’s wagging tail may indicate interest or annoyance, depending on the speed. If just the tip of the tail is moving, the cat may be in stalking or play mode or may be feeling frustrated or annoyed. A snapping or thumping tail can indicate that the cat is very irritated. In this case, it is best to leave the cat alone for a while.
When a cat puffs their tail or the fur on their back it usually means that they are afraid, startled, or ready for battle. It can also be part of feline play, especially in kittens. The circumstances will be your best clue to the meaning.
Half closed eyes or slow blinking is a sign of contentment. Some cat experts suggest that if you look at your cat and blink it is like saying “I really like you” to the cat. If you are fortunate, the cat may reciprocate the blink.
Dilated pupils indicate that a cat is intensely interested or very stimulated. An anxious cat may lick their lips.
Watch your cat’s whiskers for more cues. If they are pointing forward, this often indicates that the cat is anticipating something pleasant, a treat or play. If the whiskers are pulled back along with the ears, the cat may be feeling annoyed or stressed.
A happy, relaxed cat’s ears face forward or slightly outward. Cats can move their ears to follow sounds so ear movement may indicate listening, but if an ear is cocked or the ears are pulled back, this may indicate annoyance. Flattened ears let you know that the cat is feeling threatened or defensive and you should back off.
When a cat is in a calm or playful mood and rolls on their back exposing the belly, they are showing trust, but that does not necessarily mean that the cat wants a belly rub.
Cats greet each other by sniffing. They touch noses and sniff each other from behind, too. If a cat sniffs at your face, or turns their hind end to you, these are polite feline greetings.
Rubbing their face, head, or body on objects or people may seem cute to us, but to a cat, it is a form of marking. They have glands on their cheeks that deposit a bit of scent that we cannot smell, but other cats will notice and know that this person or object has been claimed. Obviously, this also indicates affection as a cat would only claim someone they like. The head bonk (butting you with their head) or licking, which is a cat’s way of grooming, are also signs of feline affection.
While you can easily learn cat communication basics, the best and most rewarding communication happens when you really get to know and befriend an individual cat. So start observing your kitty’s subtle communications today!