Do you feel like your cat is speaking a foreign language? He is! But cat communication isn't difficult to understand once you've learned the basics.
The Unspoken Word
Cats talk with each other all the time. It’s just that we don’t hear them. Mothers and kittens meow and chirp to each other, and cats meow at us when they have something to say because they know we don’t understand their native language. But when cats communicate with each other, they’re more likely to speak with their eyes, ears, tails and scent than with their voices. It’s easy to see when cats are having a conversation with each other if you know what you’re looking for.
'I Love You'
Have you ever noticed your cats blinking at each other, or at you? That fluttering half blink is a cat’s way of communicating affection. Partly closed eyes are catspeak for “I trust you.” Touching noses, raising the tail in greeting, rubbing faces and grooming are other ways two cats say they love, or at least like, each other. Purring, too, communicates friendship.
'I'm Really Angry Now'
Humans yell when they’re irate. Cats stare at each other in angry or suspicious silence. That fixed, hostile stare is a sign of aggression and could mean a fight is brewing.
Hissing, growling, spitting and yowling are all aggressive sounds, but veterinarian and animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman thinks they might communicate different levels of aggression or fear. Hissing and growling signal mild irritation or a warning by one cat to another to leave its territory. Spitting and yowling, Dr. Dodman says, indicate that the cat has reached “the boiling point.” Some experts believe the hiss mimics the sound of a snake, and most cats fear snakes.
'Those Are Fighting Words'
A stiffly-held body with the head down and the rump up is one cat’s way of telling another he’s looking for a fight. An open-mouth threat is a serious warning, too, according to Dr. Dodman. Dilated pupils, flattened ears and a puffed up coat and tail are also signs there’s about to be a fight. But Dr. Dodman thinks those are not conscious signals of aggression. “Dilated pupils emit more light,” he says. Puffed up fur makes the cat look bigger and more threatening than he really is, and the ears are flattened for protection during battle.
'I Give Up'
Most cats will do almost anything to avoid a confrontation, and cats often resolve their disagreements by starring each other down. As things cool off, one will tell the other he doesn’t want to fight by looking in another direction, yawning or grooming himself. The cat’s body language lets his adversary know he can leave the battleground without losing face.
'Please, Leave Me Alone'
A cat who wants to be left alone by an aggressive house mate will crouch, trying to appear small and nonthreatening. If the cat’s body language goes unnoticed and he still feels threatened, he’ll turn over on his back so he’s ready to use his powerful back legs in a fight.
While cats usually hide their illnesses and pain, a cat in acute pain may scream. To humans, this is a distinctive, chilling cry and sounds very different from the aggressive or fearful yowl.
For humans, yawning often signals boredom. For cats,though, a yawn sends a relaxed, reassuring message.
It's Mine, All Mine
Scent sends a powerful message in cat communication, and that's one of the reasons why cats claw furniture, trees and fence posts. Their claws leave distinctive scratches that let the world know that little bit of turf is theirs, all theirs. While they're scratching, they're also marking their territory with the scent in the paw pads.
Cats also mark their territory with the scent glands in their cheeks and, less pleasantly for humans, their feces and urine.
Mother Cats And Kittens
For cats, meowing is really baby talk. Kittens meow to their mothers when they want something. Adult cats meow at humans for the same reason. A mother cat chirps to her kittens when she wants them to follow her. In cat language, purring is reassuring and lets the mother cat and kittens know all is well.
Cats Communicating With Humans
Some experts believe cats understand about 200 human words. Since humans are less fluent in catspeak, cats have to adapt to communicate with us. Sarah Hartwell, who writes about cat care and behavior and owns the website Messybeast.com, says there are about 19 different types of meows. They vary in pitch, rhythm, volume and pronunciation, depending on the situation. It doesn’t take cats long to learn which meows will elicit the correct response from their humans. Cats who communicate more with people than they do with other cats tend to have a larger repertoire of sounds.
Cats also communicate with the dogs who share their homes, Hartwell says. Since dogs recognize scents and can understand some cat body language, cats tend to vocalize less with their dogs than with their people.