How do Cats Communicate?

A Cat using a phone, but is this really how cats communicate?

Bringing our precious kitties home for the first time is super exciting. But for novice or newbie cat owners it can also be a worrying time, causing confusion, trepidation and frustration. This can easily be resolved by bonding with and getting to know your new furriend in a bid to understand what she wants. After all, if you’re able to understand what your cat needs, you’ll have an easier time taking care of your new housemate. 

In a bid to aid this potentially fractious time with your new furry friend, we’re going to be explaining how cats communicate with their humans and with other cats. That way you can look out for the cues and satisfy your puss. 

Do Cats Communicate?

Yes! Although non-cat lovers would have you believe that cats aren’t great communicators, cats actually use a variety of different ways to communicate with their humans and with each other. 

What is Cat Communication?

Cat communication is a way of transferring thoughts and feelings and making themselves ‘heard’. Cats will communicate with other feline friends, animals, and their human carers, but there are subtle differences between each. Getting to know your cat will inevitably help you to understand demands and better meet their needs and desires. 

How do Cats Communicate? 

Cats communicate through a mixture of verbal and non verbal cues. So let’s take a look at the most common forms of cat communication:

Verbal Cat Communication 

Contrary to popular belief, cats do use verbal language – albeit primitive language –  to get their message across. Different noises produced have different meanings.

The Purr

According to the Mother Nature Network a cat’s purr begins in the brain. A repetitive neural oscillator sends messages to the laryngeal muscles, causing them to twitch at a rate of 25 to 150 vibrations per second. The vocal cords separate when the cat inhales and exhales, producing a purr that we all know and love. But what does purring actually mean? Well, contrary to popular belief, cats can also purr when they are nervous or threatened. This is similar to a nervous laugh or twitch. However, purring is usually a sign of contentment and relaxation.

Purring isn’t just a lovable phenomenon among domestic cats. Wild cats and other animals such as guinea pigs, hyenas, and raccoons also purr. This is often used as an important defence mechanism and can help them to keep calm when distressed or in pain.

Kittens are born blind and deaf. A low frequency purr can help kittens to locate and identify their mothers as well as ease breathing, heal injuries, and build muscle tone. Purring is most often associated with gratification. You’ll typically hear this when a cat is being stroked, scratched, or affectionately squished (Rinpoche particularly like this).

The Meow

Cats have around 16 different meow patterns. Although meowing is the sound most commonly associated with cats, adult cats don’t actually meow to each other. This is because mummy cats stop responding to meows after kittens have been weaned and enter the adolescent phase. Instead, meowing is uniquely reserved for communication with ready, willing and able humans.

Operating under the pretence that your cat is your eternal offspring, we associate a cat’s meow with needing something. However, cats meow for a multitude of reasons, including to say ‘hello’, get attention, get food, or indicate they want to be moved. Cats also meow to humans when they are lonely or distressed. Modern Cat explain the different meanings behind different meows as being:

  • Rapid-fire meows:  Pay attention to me, I’m talking here!
  • Steady ‘normal’ meow: I want something. (Typically, ‘hello’, ‘I want food’, ‘stroke me’, or ‘open the door already’.)
  • A longer, more plaintive ‘meowww’: Indicates worry, annoyance, or objection to something.

The Siren

Otherwise known as caterwauling, the siren sound is made by female cats to let males cats know they are in season and ready to mate. During this time a female cat will be desperate to get outside and give her best caterwaul renditions to any tom cats willing to take action. Thankfully, cats do not caterwaul at humans, but I’m sure we’ve all heard the song at 4 am.

The Scream

If an un-neutered cat’s caterwauling is able to lure in a male, mating will most likely occur. Unfortunately for our female felines, this is not at all a pleasant experience. Male cats begin the mating ritual by biting the female’s neck, presumably to hold them in place. In another bid to stop them from escaping, males have barbed or spiked penises to hold the female in place and stimulate ovulation. Needless to say, the entire experience is an unpleasant one, so it’s no surprise to learn that they’re screaming in pain. The simple way to ensure your mog doesn’t have to suffer is to get her spayed.

The Hiss

Some experts believe that cats have evolved to master the hiss. By imitating the snake, they can defend, protect and ward off potential threats. Mummy cats will hiss at humans around her newborn litter if she doesn’t trust them and can sometimes hiss at house guests, who smell like unfamiliar pets. This is known as the warning hiss.

A painful hiss can occur when a cat is touched in a place that is causing her significant pain. If you come across this, it’s advisable to have your cat checked over by a vet.

There is also the playful hiss that can be heard by kittens when playing gets a little too rough. Rinpoche has on occasion given us a hiss when overstimulated. She is clearly telling us that she doesn’t want to play with the grandchildren anymore.

Non verbal cat communication

Cats are very good at getting what they want, and this is normally achieved through non verbal communications. Cats have a lot of different moves and behaviour at their disposal. Here’s what to look out for and what they mean.

Eye-balling

Cats, like most animals, regard direct eye contact as a threat. Cats hate to be looked in the eye and will only give another cat the eye as a warning to stay away or to hold their ground. Rinpoche will often give the drooling dog next door a stone cold stare when he comes in close for a sniff. She is telling him that she is ready to strike if he steps out of line.

The Blink

SImilarly, slow blinking or eye closing is a sign that your cat respects you. If you put your head close to your kitty and she closes her eyes, it means your cat is content, happy and confident. In other words, this behaviour is a clear sign of trust and affection.

Rubbing

Rubbing is how cats display affection and bond with one another. Cats will often rub the sides of their bodies against each other and entwine their tails. This is known as social bonding. It’s mutually beneficial in finding alliances and is quite gratifying. Cats will do this to humans too, but while we might think a cat is being affectionate, it is also a vital way of marking their territory. Charming!

Tummy Time

Cats show their tummies for several reasons. Around other dominant cats it can often be a sign of submissive behaviour. By making themselves physically smaller and forming a non threatening stance, they are actually letting other cats know they are in no mood to fight. A word of warning: This stance can also be adopted if they are in a defensive mood. If you see a display of sharp teeth and extended claws, you can be sure your cat’s feeling threatened and is prepared to pounce.

Ear Language

Cat’s ears can do a lot of talking. Here are the most common ear positions and what they likely mean:

Upward point: This cat is on high alert. But, this doesn’t mean she’s alert to danger. Rinpoche’s ears go up when she thinks she is being included in a discussion, whenever there’s a slight possibility of food, and always when she hears the theme to Peaky Blinders.

Backward ears: Ears that point back indicate a not-so-happy pus. She could be feeling frightened, tired, or anxious, and is unlikely to want any interaction. In essence, if the ears are back, back off!

Flat ears: Typically seen in conjunction with ‘the hidden’, this is your cat’s way of making themselves smaller, less threatening, and therefore, submissive. It’s possible this kind of behaviour is displayed in domestic cats when they know they have done something wrong or they meet a dominant cat.

Cat of 9 Tails

How Cats Communicate with Their Tails

Like the ears, tails have a whole lot of chat. A tail can twist, point, wag, swish, and flex. The hard part is trying to determine your own cat’s tail talk. To help you, here are some common positions and their meanings:

The High Up Position: This is normally a sign of confidence and contentment. If the tail is pointing straight up in the air, you know that you have one self-assured and happy little kitty – for now! To fellow felines a straight up tail is a display of willingness to be friends.

The Swish: The swish is more commonly seen when a cat is focused on an object or something moving outside. When Rinpoche is swishing, she has normally seen something on TV that she’d like to take a swipe at when the time is right. We refer to it as the huntsman’s tail.

The Wag: Stay away from the wag. If you see a cat with a tail flipping back and forth, it’s likely she’s feeling threatened and is ready for action. If the wag is accompanied by a display of sharp claws and furr that sticks up, she’s definitely ready to rumble.

The Curve: A tail that looks like this‘?’ indicates a more playful mood. Go grab her favourite toy and give her some playtime. She’ll maneuver her tail into the high up position in no time.

The Hidden: Like the saying, ‘a tail between the legs’, this position indicates an apologetic or shameful cat. Tails also go down to show submission or anxiety, and this tail position is most commonly displayed during a trip to the vet or a bath.

The Low Hang: A low hanging tail can be a sign of discomfort, agitation and aggression. If this tail behaviour is uncharacteristic of your cat and is coupled with hissing when she is touched, then it might be time to get her checked out.

When you see a swishing cat tail this typically means your cat is observing something.

How Does Your Cat Communicate?

All cats will have their own unique ways of communicating with their owners and it takes time to master each nuance. Although cats will have individual traits, it’s important to familiarise yourself with behaviours so that you can be aware of any changes that may indicate health problems.

Sometimes there are cats that come along with unique abilities and our resident cat is no exception. If you’re familiar with Rinpoche, you’ll know we regularly have conversations with her, discussing things like Wrecksit and Refereedumpsychic readingsthe Australian lingo, and feminist feline movement #MeAlso. She has also taught us a lot about Cat Speak, a unique and fairly primitive cat language mainly used to describe important words based around food, sex, castration, and human interaction. We urge you to take a look at the lessons in our Cat School so that you can communicate with cats and understand their convoluted thinking.

How does your cat communicate with you? Let us know by leaving a comment – we’d love to hear from you.

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