I love having a communicative cat, his meows and chirps always make me smile. But, although he’s an extremely vocal cat, I wish I understood his cat language better, then I’d know what he was trying to tell me.
I’m sure he’s saying more than just ‘I’m hungry, feed me’, so today we’re going to explore this thoroughly and try to decipher the secret language of cats.
Whilst I’m used to listening to my cat meows and chirps, I’m convinced he’s saying more than I’m hearing. When I watch him, he moves differently depending on his mood. When he’s in a hurry there are different tones and patterns to his cries.
He also moves his tail differently when he’s upset or when he’s sucking up to me, and I’m sure I’ve caught him giving me the stink-eye when I’m slow on the uptake.
Just by watching him I’ve learned a little about how he speaks when he wants feeding, or when he wants a cuddle. If he has had enough affection and needs space, I can spot this signs.
Being able to understand him makes our relationship stronger, and means I know when he’s behaving differently and could be in trouble.
First, we’ll look at the various meows, trills, chirps and purrs that cats make. Then I’ll get physical, kidding, kind of.
Eyes, ears, tail and fur, cats use them all to communicate, I just need to be able to translate what he’s saying. Right?
The sounds your cat makes are a great way to learn about how they are feeling, much like the cries of our babies. If you can learn to identify your cats meows, you can better satisfy their needs and wants.
These can be multi-purpose forms of communication. Cats meow to greet us, as a general ‘I’m here, you may love me now’, or a simple ‘hey, human, I noticed my food bowl is empty, want to fix that?’.
A trill/chirp can have different tones to indicate what they want. A high pitched trill is usually a plea to do something for them.
For example, fill food bowls, pick them up, follow them somewhere, that sort of thing. If you have a multi-cat home, then you may hear a lot more trills, as it’s one-way cats talk to each other.
That chest rumbling vibration of a cat’s purr tells us they’re happy. Usually. It can also mean they’re anxious or sick. Purring is another multi-purpose noise that cats make depending on the situation.
We have a great article on Why Do Cats Purr here.
Further more, your cat will communicate their frustrations with a hiss, or a yowl/howl.
Cats hiss when they’re annoyed, tired, angry or feeling threatened. It’s their way of saying ‘please leave me alone, I can’t cope with anymore right now.’
If your cat hisses, it’s best to leave them be, but keep an eye on them – they could be injured or unwell and may need to see a vet.
If you’ve never heard this, don’t worry! If you have, you’ll know that blood-chilling cry that sends you into panic mode.
This is the noise kitty makes when he/she is in BIG trouble; physically wounded, utterly distressed, in pain, or is trapped somewhere.
Howling can also be heard if your cat is elderly or suffering from dementia – cats can become lost in their own home and freak out.
Another reason your cat howls is due to being ‘in season’, or ready to mate. If your little lady has not been spayed, you’ll hear this racket as soon as she reaches maturity.
These can be confusing. If they’re dilated – open so the iris is mostly black – your cat might be feeling nervous, playful, or getting ready to defend herself.
However, if the iris is tiny, your cat is likely focused on something.You’ll need more information from the rest of the cat’s body language to know what’s being said.
Ears tell us more than we think. If kitty’s ears are forward-facing, it means they’re interested and happy. If they’re turning like they’re listening for something, they are!
They’re super interested in what’s happening. However, if they’re turned backward, flattened out like wings on an airplane, or turned sideways, kitty’s annoyed, or frightened.
Learn how to clean cats ears in this article here.
Cat’s tails are full of details that tell us what they’re thinking or saying.
If their tail is straight up, fur normal, you have a happy, alert, and curious cat on your hands. However, that changes if the fur is all fluffed out, that’s one scared or angry cat!
Tails that are held low is a sign that someone’s feeling insecure or anxious. If it starts whipping from side-to-side, kitty’s getting annoyed, the faster that swish-and-flick, the angrier the cat.
One more ‘message’ tails tell is if the tail is fully erect and shaking quickly – this can be two things, one is that your cat is very happy to see you. The other is if your cat hasn’t been neutered, it could be getting ready to ‘mark’ territory.
Normally if your cat’s fur is flat, smoothed out, he/she is a happy and healthy cat. But they also use their fur to make themselves look bigger when they feel threatened by a would-be attacker.
Cats will fluff their fur up, stick their tails up, and walk almost sideways all so they appear much bigger and scarier to their attacker.
However, fur that is greasy, sticky, or clumps together could mean your cat is unwell. This should never be ignored, kitty needs to see the vet immediately, especially if they’re always tired or have been vomiting.
How a cat stands, walks, sits, every movement they make tells us something about how they’re feeling, or what they want to say to us.
Cats that are weaving around our feet, or wrapping their tails around our legs, and meowing, they’re happy but want attention or food.
Cats that are fluffed up, and keeping their distance, or hissing are not to be touched or engaged with, they’re telling you they’re not in the mood.
The way cats use their bodies is like addition, you have to look at the eyes, add in the ears, and the fur helps to help build a bigger picture. The more details you add, the clearer the message becomes.
Cats use their sense of smell before any other sense when they’re born, it’s that important. Our cat learns what cannot be said or heard through different smells.
They learn about territory claiming through urine or poop, they learn about familial love by rubbing against their mom and siblings, and by clawing bedding to leave their scent.
Have you ever seen your cat take a sniff of you or your clothing, and then open its mouth like it’s going to hurl? This is called the Flehmen response. Whilst to us it looks like they’ve smelled something truly bad, what they’re doing is gathering more information.
They use an organ called the Jacobson’s organ, which is in the top of their mouths. With this, they use it to gather greater detail.
For example: ‘ahh, you went to the bakery today’ becomes: ‘ahh, you went to the bakery today and bought bread, eclairs and… you had a coffee with three sugars.’
So, don’t bother trying to hide anything from your cat, they do have superpowers!
It’s game time! Your cat’s ears will be forward, tail erect, eyes dilated and watching you or a toy. Their whiskers are likely to be forward as well as they’ll be using them to gain environmental information.
Their mind will be tracking you as their prey, or whatever toy you’re playing with, so watch for the bum wiggle before they pounce.
The prey or toy will then receive a few kicks with the back paws, a few bites, thrown around a bit, and then declared d.o.a. Your cat may walk off at this point, or it may look at you to start the game again.
You won’t have any problems spotting a nervous cat. Their ears are usually sideways or facing backward, their eyes wide and their tail slung low. They’ll move cautiously, usually from behind one object to another whilst searching for somewhere quiet they can hide.
Either, lying down or sitting up, their eyes will be relaxed, half-closed, and the tail still. They’re probably watching you intensely and have their ears tracking you.
This is a happy cat. Contented cats will often knead soft bedding or surfaces when in this mood, even your lap if a cuddle is available.
What can start as irritated can lead to the next subject if you’re not careful, so keep a watch for these signs; eyes wide, ears rotated backward, tail slowly whipping from side to side, you may hear the odd low grumble. This cat is not in the mood, annoy him/her at your peril.
When your cat is irritated and is then pushed beyond its limit, you can expect the following. One cranky kitty. With their eyes locked onto you, their ears back or flattened, and their fur raised.
You’ll hear low threatening growls and their tail will whip viciously back and forth before tucking it between their legs.
Cats don’t enjoy fighting, they’re far too upper class for roughhousing, but if growl comes to swipe, this is when the fight begins. This body language tells the world that they’re ready to take on any challenger, a fight is imminent if someone doesn’t back down.
Cats have a feline-etiquette that works well to prevent misunderstandings and communicates their needs.
If you don’t know the cat you’re conversing with, calmly put your hand out, slowly, with the palm facing upwards.
Let the cat sniff you, firstly from a distance, then they’ll move closer when they’re ready. Remember, they have Jacobson’s organ, they can smell you from quite a distance.
At this point begin speaking softly to them, praise them, tell them how lovely they are. Use tones that are caring, soothing, and happy. In their eyes, this is all positive and enticing.
When the cat is comfortable they’ll move closer to you, you can begin patting them, stroking their fur gently from the shoulders down to the tail. Be careful not to pat the head just yet, this can be seen as aggression by unfamiliar cats.
Now, if you’ve followed this procedure but the cat makes to bite or scratch you, then a stern ‘no!’ from you and removing your hand is a good step. This is not the behavior you want to encourage. Click on the link if you want to learn How To Discipline A Cat.
Now you know if his meow sounds more like a growl and his tail is swishing, that he’s angry, or if he’s giving me head-bumps and chirps that he loves you.
Cat language certainly is a complex one, but with these keys, it’s easy to understand and decipher what our cats are telling us.