How Can Cats Communicate?
Cats communicate in many ways. They vocalize, use body language, act, and emit scents.
- The vocal cat
Cats make three types of sounds.
- which includes purrs, trills and chirrups.
- which includes the basic “meow”, meows and cries.
C. Aggressive sounds
- which includes growling, snarling, hissing, meowing, screaming and spitting.
Purring is a soft, continuous vibrating sound that indicates a positive state in cats. However, cats are also known to purr in stressful situations, such as when they are seriously injured, in pain, ill, or tense. Cats are thought to purr when they are happy, in need of a friend, or thankful for care, such as when the veterinarian treats an injured or sick cat and gets a purr for it.
Kittens learn the trill from their mother, who uses it to tell her kittens to follow her. Adult cats trill to greet, usually another feline. A trill sounds like a short purr and a meow combined.
Chirrups are meows that roll off the tongue. Mothers use chirrups to call their young from the nest. It is also used by friendly felines when approaching a human or another cat. Cats make excited chirrups and chatters when watching or stalking prey.
The most familiar sound cats make is the “meow.” Cats meow mostly for humans and can be plaintive, assertive, welcoming, bold, friendly, attention-seeking, complaining or demanding. Sometimes the meow is silent, with the feline opening its mouth without anything coming out.
Meows are soft, early sounds that kittens make to get their mother’s attention.
Calls are made by females in heat and are known as “caterwauling”. Males also make calls when fighting, especially for females during mating.
Growls, hisses, grunts and spits are vocalizations that cats make when they are in defensive or offensive mode. These danger sounds are often combined with body postures to express a threat, such as when a cat puffs up its fur and hisses at a dog that gets too close. When it growls, the cat is giving a warning such as “back off before you get clawed.
Cats hiss when they are angry, surprised, frightened or injured. A feline that invades another’s territory will be hissed and growled at, and if it doesn’t leave, it may be attacked.
- Body language
Cats use body language to express a wide range of emotions. To communicate fear or aggression, the cat will arch its back, puff up its fur, and assume a sideways position. And to signal relaxation, the cat will blink slowly or have its eyes half-open.
This body language is communicated through the cat’s facial expressions, tail, body and coat.
When a cat becomes aggressive, its back is erect, its hind legs are stiff, its tail is spread, its nose is pointed forward and its ears are flat. Such posture indicates danger, and the cat will attack. This form of feline communication is intended to frighten the aggressor and prevent an attack. It is a warning.
A frightened and defensive feline will make itself smaller, lowering its body to the ground while arching its back and leaning away from the threat.
Cats may show comfort or confidence by lying on their backs and exposing their bellies. However, it may also indicate that the cat is about to defend itself with its claws and sharp teeth.
Mischief is indicated by an open mouth, with no visible teeth.
A cat’s ears can reveal different states of mind. With erect ears, the feline is focused and alert. Relaxed ears indicate that the cat is calm. Flattened ears indicate that the feline is extremely aggressive or defensive.
The stare communicates a threat or challenge and is an indicator of hierarchy, with lower ranked cats retreating from the stare of a higher ranked feline. This stare is often used for territorial or predatory reasons.
A cat’s tail is an excellent means of communication. For example, a tail that swings from side to side in a slow, lazy manner shows that the cat is relaxed. A wagging tail occurs when hunting or when the cat is irritated or disgruntled and may occur before an attack, playful or otherwise.
When playing, kittens and young cats will place the base of their tail high and stiff, except for an inverted U-shape, which signals excitement or even hyperactivity. This tail position can also be seen when the cat is chasing other cats or running alone.
When startled or frightened, a cat may raise the fur on its tail and back.
Grooming and other forms of affection
Cats show affection to other cats and some humans by grooming, licking, and kneading. When a feline purrs and kneads at the same time, it communicates affection and contentment.
A friendly greeting between cats occurs when they touch noses and sniff each other. Head butting and cheek rubbing between cats indicates dominance by a subordinate cat.
A friendly greeting with a human is manifested by rubbing the face. The feline pushes its face toward the person showing affection. The “headbutt” is another way cats reveal positive feelings toward a human. Paw rubbing is another form of affection.
By rubbing and pushing against another cat or human, cats spread their scent, which is a form of territorial marking.
A strong bite accompanied by growling, hissing or aggressive behavior is a sign of aggression. Light bites indicate playfulness and affection, especially when combined with purring and kneading.
Cats also use biting to communicate during mating. The male bites the back of the female’s neck, causing her to lordosis, revealing that she is ready to mate.
Cats use their own scent to communicate with other cats. By rubbing and head-butting, kittens use scent glands on their face, tail, paws and lower back to spread their scent. Likewise, they use feces, urine and spraying to leave a message for other cats.
Spraying marks the cat’s territory, both indoors and outdoors. Urine and feces are also used to mark the cat’s domain. In addition, rubbing its scent on objects, such as a fence post, marks its territory.
Males that spray are most often marking their territory. Tomatoes spray not only to mark their domain but also to let other toms know that nearby females are his for mating.
Cat spray is a strong smelling marker. Sometimes females do the same.
And that’s how cats communicate.
This article is a chapter excerpt from Peter Scottsdale’s educational book on cats, “How Do Cats Do That?”. It is available on Amazon and other good bookstores in print and electronic versions. A large print edition is also available. Great for kids ages 8 and up!