A loud purr is an invitation for close contact. Injured or sick cats (and even cats which are dying) purr. Interestingly, the frequency of the purr has been shown to soothe the cat and to promote healing. The "miaow" and purr are just two of at least thirteen different categories of sound made by cats: caterwaul, chatter, chirrup (chirp), cough-bark (rare in pet cats), growl, hiss (with or without spit). meow, mew (of kittens), purr, scream, squawk, yowl and idiosyncratic sounds (i.e. sounds peculiar to an individual cat).
There are probably over 30 different sounds. The number of sounds a cat makes depends on how much the cat communicates with (a) other cats and (b) other non-cats e.g. humans. Cats which communicate with humans a lot have a wider spoken vocabulary because they learn that humans understand sounds but cannot easily understand feline body language. Cats learn which sounds elicit the desired response from their human companions and some cats have a wider "vocabulary" than others. Cats which communicate mostly with other cats use mainly on body language and scent – this is their "native language". Their body language is subtle, but many owners and cat workers learn to read the more obvious cues.
House Cats, Feral Cats and Big Cats
Housecats develop a wide variety of sounds to alert humans to their needs and intentions. Many are variations on mother/kitten meow or chirp sounds which the cat has adapted in order to "speak" to non-cats. This is quite logical since the cosseted housecat remains dependent on humans i.e. a permanent kitten. Others are adult sounds such as the caterwaul (used in a sexual or territorial context) or the cough-bark (a fear/anger sound usually accompanied by a front paw stamp).
Cats kept with other cats are communicating with each other all the time through body language and scent. They are communicating with their owners all the time too, it’s our problem that we can’t understand their language. Cats work out which sounds elicit suitable responses from humans (positive feedback) and learn to make those sounds in order to achieve a particular aim e.g. for a door to be opened.
Since humans are in charge, it makes sense for the cat to learn to communicate vocally though it must sometimes be frustrating to a cat which has clearly communicated its mood using facial expression to have to explain things vocally to humans. It is the feline equivalent of speaking slowly and loudly to a foreigner!
Cats have different personalities and this affects how much they want to "speak" to humans. Personalities are partly controlled by genetics and partly by upbringing so both factors contribute to how much an individual cat talks. Like some humans, some cats probably have nothing much they want to say! Also, some owners are good at reading cat body language and the cat simply doesn’t need to vocalize quite so much.
Most cats tend not to vocalize with strangers unless the stranger approaches them (less often the cat approaches a stranger for food or fuss). The vocalization then depends on whether the cat is fearful or friendly. If fearful the cat may hiss or growl and thrash its tail (agitation) to warn the stranger not to approach any closer. If friendly it will meow or purr and its tail will stick upwards (greeting) inviting attention, or possibly begging for food. Stray cats living around restaurants learn to beg appealingly to diners – this is linked to food begging, though some do enjoy interaction and a fuss.
Cats also learn to communicate with other household animals e.g. dogs. They are less likely to vocalize because dogs can interpret scent signals and can learn some feline body language. Sometimes the cat must reinforce its unspoken message with a hiss if the other animals ignores or fails to understand body language. Like cats, dogs also rely greatly on body language. In a household setting, cats and dogs are in close enough proximity for long enough that they can learn each other’s body language to some degree.
Feral cats rely more on their native body language. They don’t need so many variations of "meow". They use all the "major sounds" e.g. yowl, growl, etc but they rely much more on non-verbal communication to convey meaning – posture, gesture, facial expression, tail position, whisker position, ear position, scent-marking – with vocalization often being a last resort to augment or reinforce the non-verbal communication or when they can’t see each other properly.
Feral cats with little or no contact with humans don’t learn so much "spoken" language as do housecats. They have no need to learn a vocalized "second language" because they are communicating with native speakers of "cat body language".
Details of big cat vocalization is out of scope of this article. Big cats have their own repertoire of sounds e.g. the rumbled greeting of lionesses and the distinctive "chuff" of tigers. Two important differences are that big cats cannot purr because the structure of their throat does not permit it and small cats cannot roar. Cubs may "mew", but adult big cats do not "meow".
Individual big cats are sometimes tamed e.g. if hand-reared, but big cat species have never been domesticated in the same way as the housecat. It has been suggested that living alongside humans has meant that the process of evolving a domestic subspecies from a wild ancestor went hand-in-hand with increased vocalization in domestic cats. Big cats have not been through thousands of years of evolving a domestic subspecies and have not needed to communicate with humans.
The Language of Smell
The first language a kitten learns is that of smell. It is blind, deaf and defenseless but it has well-developed senses of smell and touch (including warmth detection) to guide it to the mother cat’s nipple. A kitten recognizes its own scent on the nipple and aims for the same nipple each feeding time. The mother identifies her kittens by their individual scent and by her own scent on them. This then is the first mode of communication the kitten learns. Scent will play an important role all through the cat’s life.
Cats have scent glands on the chin, lips (in the corners), temples and at the base of the tail. Each cat has its own scent signature. When it washes, a cat transfers its scent from these glands to its fur.
They use this scent to mark areas and objects around them, other cats, humans and other animals in the household. This helps create a communal smell. A new cat must literally rub up to superior members of the group to mix their scents before becoming an accepted member of the group. Its home territory also has a smell profile and any new smell – another cat or even a new piece of furniture or a scent carried in your shoes or clothing – can cause insecurity and lead to a frenzy of marking activity!
When a cat scratches it leaves both a visual marker and a scent marker from its paw-pads. It will mark its territory by rubbing its chin or cheeks onto upright objects (posts, chair-legs, door edges etc) and also by spraying or depositing feces. Scent is so important that blind cats can navigate around their indoor territories using a combination of memory and scent trails.
Cats who are familiar and friendly with each other often have a greeting ritual. They use a similar ritual to greet their humans or other household animals. They rub their head, flank and tail against the other cat or person to exchange odors. They hold the tail straight up so that the other cat can sniff the anal glands. When stroked, cats raise their rumps even higher (almost standing on tiptoe) to invite you to sniff their anal glands!
Unlike dogs, cats do not generally co-operate to hunt or form cohesive packs. Cat colonies are much looser groupings than the strictly hierarchical wolf-pack. They haven’t needed to evolve the social rules for pack living. They mix with other cats when mating, raising kittens and in sociable groups such as feral colonies or multi-cat households. Feline body-language is complex and subtle with ate least twenty-five different visual signals used in sixteen combinations. There are doubtless many other, more subtle, nuances which we don’t notice. Most owners can learn to recognize at least some of their cats’ visual signals.
The most dramatic body language occurs when rival males meet, during courtship or over fiercely protected territory (in general, cats are happy to let other cats pass through their territory or even time-share it, but the core territory may be fiercely protected). Neutered cats generally have less extreme interactions. Many visual signals are displayed when cats play, either on their own, with other cats or with humans.
The aim of body language is to convey a message and to avoid or end physical confrontation. The aggressor or challenger would prefer to win its case without resorting to teeth and claws since it could be badly injured in a fight. Many disputes are resolved by staring each other down and yelling. Sometimes it is so subtle that humans cannot tell there was potential conflict – the dominant cat, having won the confrontation, simply walks away from the loser, sits down and looks in another direction (or start grooming – a favorite feline activity).
Body language has to be read by looking at the whole body – the face, the posture and the tail position. Looking at one of these in isolation is misleading since they all combine into an overall message. For example when a cat arches its back, is it upset or is it friendly? The same basic posture means two very different things depending on the facial expression, whether the fur is bristling and the eyes and the ears.
A cat’s head position tells us several things. If its head is stretched forward, the cat is encouraging touch or trying see its owners or another cat’s facial expressions. This is a greeting message. In conflict, an assertive or confident cat may raise its head, but an aggressive cat will lower its head. An inferior or submissive cat will also lower its head submissively. An inferior cat which is fearful and defensively aggressive will raise its head though. To understand the message, you have to look at the other end of the cat – its tail!
If the cat keeps its head down, pulls in its chin and turns sideways to prevent eye contact it is conveying a lack of interest and the fact that it is not threatening. It will also pull in its chin when relaxed. To understand the whole message you have to look at the way it holds its body.
Friendly cats will head-but or head rub and will extend this into a full body rub. Cats will also head-butt and body-rub their humans. The nose-bump is another friendly greeting. When cats meet, they sniff each other’s faces – sniffing the scent glands around the lips to determine the identity of the other cat and whether it is a family member or not.
The back-turned ears and the posture (pulling away, but head turned to face the person approaching it) shows that this young cat is flinching away (see later for details on posture). It had just arrived at a shelter and was friendly but nervous of its new surroundings.
Humans love eye contact – it is friendly. For a cat, prolonged eye contact is an assertive, or even threatening, signal. The classic case is when several people are in a room for a social occasion and the host’s cat walks in. It unerringly goes towards the person who doesn’t like cats. Is it simply being perverse? The answer is in eye contact. Cat lovers will be watching the cat, hoping it goes to greet them. Those who don’t particularly like cats will ignore it, hoping it will leave them alone. For the cat, the eye contact made by the cat lovers is somewhat threatening. It avoids them. The people who don’t particularly like cats are not making eye contact – to the cat, they are signaling that they pose no threat. They are being polite in cat terms, so it goes to socialize with them.
Rival cats try to out-stare each other to resolve conflicts. When a cat realizes it is being watched or stared at, it may stop whatever it is doing, assess the "threat" and then continue with its activity, but in a far more self-conscious way. The cat knows it is being watched and becomes uncomfortable. Only when it is no longer being watched, does it relax again. This is one reason it is hard to study cats! Slowly blinking breaks up an aggressive stare and is a reassuring signal between cats and between owners and cats. Yawning is even more reassuring! When relaxed, most cats have their eyes half-open, giving the appearance of being half-asleep.
Cats have excellent peripheral vision and tend not to stare directly at something unless they are getting a fix on a moving object in preparation for pouncing. When a cat sits day-dreaming, it appears to be not looking at anything in particular. It is actually taking in a great deal of information with its peripheral vision.
The pupils of the eyes convey part of a cat’s message. As well as dilating or contracting according to the amount of light around, they contract or dilate to indicate mood. Dilated pupils accompany fear, aggressive excitement and also the mild excitement of seeing its owner, a feline friend or even dinner! The more fearful a cat is, the wider its pupils expand – it is as if the eyes are trying to take in as much information as possible. An angry, confident cat has narrowed pupils. It may be ready to provoke a fight and by narrowing the pupils it can focus better on detail and also reduce the risk of damage to that part of the eye.
Nutmeg, the cat in the photo is alert and interested (whiskers pricked forwards), but her dilated pupils indicate apprehension. She was, in fact, rather apprehensive of the strange apparatus (the camera) pointed at her at relatively close range. However her pricked whiskers indicate that she is not actually frightened.
The eyes alone cannot convey a whole message and if the cat is blind, its permanently dilated pupils cannot convey a message at all. It is necessary to look at the rest of the cats face to piece together what it is saying. This sounds like a lot of work, but most humans read human expressions instinctively. If you can read human body language and facial expression, a little practice is all that is needed to learn the cat’s facial language.
Cats’ ears are extremely mobile. With 20-30 muscles controlling them. They can swivel through 180 degrees and move up and down. They can be pricked forward or flattened sideways or backwards. The Scottish Fold cat, with its permanently folded ears, is at a slight disadvantage here. A cat can move its ears independently of each other. Not only do they pan around like radar dishes, scanning for any sound, the ears are important instruments of communication – they act like semaphores signals.
Some wild cats species have dark ears with white or pale markings on the back. The make the ear signals even more visible, especially at dusk and dawn when cats are most active. Ear tufts, such as seen in the lynx and caracal, also emphasize the movement and position of the ears and may help short-tailed species (e.g. lynx) compensate for their lack of tail. Note: in experiments with caracals, the ear tufts also help pick up sound vibrations, caracals whose ear tufts were trimmed off were less able to hunt small prey in long grass.
When content and relaxed, a cat sits with its ears facing forward but tilted slightly back. However, its ears demonstrate that the cat is alert even when it appears half asleep. If the cat’s attention is caught by a noise or a movement, its pricks its ears more upright, maybe swiveling one or both to track the source of the noise.
If the cat grows anxious, its ears move slightly back and flatten down. An fearful cat has lowered ears. The more anxious or fearful the cat is, the flatter the ears until they are lying straight backwards, flat to the skull. If the cat is fearful but aggress, the ears flatten sideways – a combination of the forward pointing "alert" ears and the flattened/lowered "fearful" ears.
If one ear is flattened and the other isn’t, the signal is more ambivalent and the cat isn’t yet sure how to react to what is going on around it. Generally it will withdraw a short way in order to consider the situation. While considering, the ears shift and change as it processes stimuli and possible responses. A similar highly mobile state occurs when the ears are panning round to catch noises, but the cat’s entire demeanor will be one of alertness or interest, probably with a slightly twitching tail.
The Whiskers and Mouth
The whiskers are not just for judging the width of gaps or the proximity of objects. They are also mobile and help to indicate the cat’s mood. In a normal relaxed "neutral" state, they are held slightly to the side. As the cat becomes more interested in something around it, the whiskers perk forwards, ultimately coming forwards in front of the muzzle (a good position for the shorter whiskers to detect the bite point on the prey’s neck).
The cheek pads also seem to swell out as the muscles pull the whiskers into position. If the cat is fearful, it pulls its whiskers back alongside its cheeks to signal that it is non-threatening. This also makes its face look smaller.
A cat rarely uses its mouth to signal aggression. An open-mouthed yawn may signal non-threat. An open-mouthed snarl or hiss show that the cat feels threatened and defensive. Growls are delivered with the mouth only slightly open. The teeth-bared grimace is not a dog-like snarl, it is the cat’s flehmen reaction – one way in which a cat analyses scent signals.
When reading a cat’s expression, be aware of its surroundings. Affy may look angry (narrow pupils, ears back) but she is actually yawning. Many cats partly flatten their ears when they yawn widely.
Flower, the cat in the photo is yawning – its whiskers are pricked slightly forward, its ears are pricked (the flattened one is actually listening to a sound!) indicating alertness. The cat is at ease – neither aggressive nor defensive and though relaxed, it is still alert to its surroundings.
Some cats sit with their tongue sticking out a little. This seems to show relaxation and contentment or that the cat has become interested in something. On the one hand it gives the cat a rather daft look. On the other hand it gives the cat a look of concentration. Licking the lips may indicate anxiety or anticipation depending on what is happening around it. Cats may lick their lips slightly as food is presented, but reserve real lip-licking for the after-dinner wash.
When cats yawn they are not so much bored as signaling reassurance and contentment. Sometimes yawning at a timid cat (and blinking slowly while gazing into space) will help it to relax. Cats also yawn during their waking-up routine e.g. as they stretch. When a cat yawns its whole face appears to split open!
The tail is an organ of balance, a rudder/counterbalance for manoeuvring at high speed and a means of communication. While hunting or stalking, the tail is kept almost horizontally behind the cat. This prevents it from fouling in low-hanging shrubs and prevent the prey from seeing a telltale tail. It may spring upright during the final rush.
The tail also conveys a cat’s interest and concentration with a twitching movement as it corners its prey. You can also see this twitching movement, usually just the tip of the tail, when a cat sees something interesting through a window. When a cat is crouched low to the ground, edging forward towards prey, the slight twitch of its tail indicates how hard it is concentrating.
The tail is an important tool for communicating with other cats and with humans. It is highly mobile: side to side, up and down, graceful and slow, thrashing and whip-like. It can be a sleep coil folded around a sitting or sleeping cat, a fluffy scarf across a curled cat’s nose or an erect bristling bottlebrush when the cat is frightened. A mother cat may also use it – deliberately or accidentally – as a toy for her kittens.
When a cat is relaxed, confident and alert, it walks with its tail horizontally behind it or even slightly drooping. This prevents the tail from becoming snagged in undergrowth. If it meets a friendly cat or friendly human, the tail goes up like a flag-pole to convey its friendliness. If it is friendly but cautious of the other cat or person, the upright tail is hooked over at the tip indicating a degree of uncertainty. A mother cat’s upright tail is a signal for her kittens to follow and their upright tails may help littermates or their mother to spot their whereabouts.
A spraying cat also adopts the tail up posture, tail a-quiver and treading/dancing with the hind feet, trying to lift its rump higher. When a cat meets its owner and wants to extend a friendly greeting, the tail goes up and quivers, but there is no spray of urine. It is the cat’s version of "I am SO happy to see you, I am overcome with emotion." Many owners refer to this as "feather-dancing" because the upright tail resembles a quivering feather. It may pull its upright tail slight forwards over the back, kinked down a little at the tip and give a little chirp at the same time. This invites the cat/person it is greeting to sniff the anal glands and confirm its identity as a group member.
When kittens greet their mother, they run to her with their tails upright like small flag-poles. They droop, twine or rub their tails around their mother’s rump or tail to solicit food from her. Adult cats also tail-twine. They entwine tails with friendly cats as they rub against each other (the tail has scent from the anal glands on it from where the cat has washed it). They also wrap their tails around human legs or objects. This both marks the leg or object and, if they are tail-wrapping part of the owner, is an attempt to get attention, fuss and food!
When a cat is at rest, but readying itself for action, it sweeps its tail erratically from side to side. It seems to accompany the feline thought process of "do I or don’t I?". As it becomes more alert or more emotionally charged, the tail swishes faster, wider and in a more regular manner. If the cat is lying on its side, the tail will be thumping on the floor, often loudly.
Though this is most often associated with anger, it may also indicate another highly charged emotion – some cats thrash their tail in ecstasy when being groomed. Violent thrashing therefore indicates high excitement or imminent aggression. A swishing or thumping tail is sometimes an invitation for another cat to join in a bout of play. Very few cats wag their tails in happiness like dogs.
The other easily recognizable tail signal is the upright bottle-brush tail. This indicates that the cat feels seriously threatened and has become defensively aggressive i.e. it would rather get away, but if provoked it will defend itself. The tail doubles in size and the hair on the cat’s spine also stands erect (pilo-erection). As well as indicating the cat’s state of mind, it makes the cat look bigger than it really is in an attempt to make the aggressor leave it alone.
The "inverted L" is a sign of conflict. The first inch or so of the tail is horizontal and the remainder points straight downwards. The "Inverted U" or "Horseshoe" tail, often with the fur erect, is defensive aggression, but can also be seen during the "mad half hour" when the cat rushes around as though it has the wind under its tail.
Kittens frequently use the inverted horseshoe during play and mock-battle. When the cat stretches its forelegs, its tail may come right forward over the head. When it stretches the back legs, the tail may end up upright and hooked over.
Sometimes the upright tail is jerked suddenly and briefly forwards. This seems to be the feline version of the human "two fingers" obscene gesture. It denotes mild irritation or derision. You might see this if you address your cat as it is walking around – the cat acknowledges you, but has its mind set on other things and is making a "So what!" exclamation.
As previously mentioned, a defensive cat erects its fur to appear bigger than it really is. A dominant cat will also try to look bigger than it really is, perhaps swaggering a little. In both cases, the cats are bluffing to try to avoid conflict.
An aggressive cat will straighten its legs (the hind legs are longer than the forelegs, so its rear end will be higher than its shoulders) and erect the hair along its spine and tail into a ridge to make itself look more impressive. A defensive cat erects not only a ridge of fur, but all of its fur, puffing itself out. It arches its back and positions itself side-on to its aggressor to make itself look larger still. It wants the attacker to think twice about attacking it. If the attacker pauses, the victim may move sideways in a crab-like fashion (frequently seen in playing kittens); it moves slowly away from its aggressor, watching for any sign of attack. The slow retreat is an attempt to avoid provoking a sudden or instinctive attack.
In contrast, a submissive cat wants to appear small and unthreatening. It may shrink into a crouch indicating that it wants only to be left alone. If this doesn’t work, it may sink down on one side demonstrating its submissiveness. If the other cat still threatens, the victim will roll over onto its back, turning its head to face its attacker.
This is an appeasement gesture. Unlike the dog, which will go belly-up in full submissive mode, a cat on its back is still a formidable opponent. It has done its utmost to avoid conflict, but if the aggressor continues to press the attack, the victim is able to fight back with all four sets of claws and with teeth.
In this position, if the aggressor jumps on its victim, victim’s fore legs can clasp the aggressor close to the victim’s teeth. Meanwhile, the hind legs are especially dangerous as they may disembowel the other animal (and are sometimes used in this way against same-size prey such as rabbits which have not been killed outright – something which can be seen when a cat plays with a stuffed toy).
There are other reasons a cat rolls over. A playful cat will roll over in order to use all four paws, claws sheathed, to "defend" itself, sometimes mock-biting the other cat or the owner. Some cats roll over to greet their owners – this is kitten behavior and an invite for us to "groom" the cat’s belly.
Unfortunately the kitten behavior and the adult behavior often conflict with each other with painful consequences for the owner. Other cats, those with a great degree of trust and affection, love having their bellies rubbed. Estrus females roll wantonly in front of males to solicit their attention. Cats also roll as a way of scratching their backs, often rolling on hot pavements or in dust-baths.