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Useful Notes / Cat Communication

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Did you know that cats can make one thousand different sounds and dogs can only make ten? Cats, man. Not to be trusted.
Jensen, The Losers

Cat communication is a highly individual thing with most cats preferring indirect methods of communication. A cat’s disposition and temperament towards humans is very personalised, though most cats that are socialised early in their lives and never abused are very friendly. Unsocialised cats will be very distrustful towards humans and shy away from them. If a human presses the issue, they will see it as a threat and react accordingly.

Cats communicate by means of body language and, to a lesser degree, through vocalisation.

  • Eyes are of paramount importance in understanding cats and communicating with them. A cat will stare at whatever it considers a threat and will, conversely, consider anyone that stares at the cat a threat. Cats that are continually staring at humans are expressing a negative sentiment towards them. A cat that looks occasionally at a human and then looks away while slowly blinking is trying to say that it considers the human a friend/non-threat. To get a cat to like you, look at it briefly, then look 90 degrees away and slowly wink with both eyes. Repeat as necessary. A cat that stares at an object or place and then briefly stares at its owner is trying to get the owner to look where it is looking and do something with that thing or at that place. This may or may not be accompanied by meowing and is usually a matter of the food/water bowl being empty, or needing to be let out. This behavior is also why cats seem to gravitate to the cat-haters of any group. The cat-lovers all stare at the beautiful cat, complimenting it. What would you do if you walked into a room full of hostile strangers? Seek out the one person not threatening you. However, there are some exceptions. Sometimes, a cat will stare at you just because they're curious. If the cat has a habit of staring at you for a long time and then blinking and they don't otherwise act antagonistic towards you, they're probably just curious. And cats don't necessarily go for the cat hater: some cats can actually sense a person's intentions through body language and be attracted to someone who likes cats or actually be nervous of someone who doesn't like them.
    • Cat pupils also reflect their mood. Dilated pupils indicate aggression or excitement; tiny pupils and wide eyes indicate fear; narrowed or relaxed pupils and half-closed eyes indicate contentment or calmness. A caveat— If the cat's pupils are dilated but the cat doesn't seem aggressive or excited and it's also dim, the cat's pupil is probably just letting more light in, and the reverse is true for an unhappy-seeming cat with narrow pupils. Sometimes, and nobody knows why, a cat will have one eye more open than the other.
    • Looking down on another cat often is a sign of dominance, i.e. communicating "I'm the boss".
  • If a cat is pointedly sitting with their back to someone or something — say, checking over their shoulder at the ignored party or cocking an ear in their direction, or becoming very interested in washing their paw — the cat wants you to Tell Him I'm Not Speaking to Him. This can also be a sign of a cat attempting to ignore the fact that they just did something uncatlike, such as fall off the couch.
  • Like horses, cats signal with their ears. If a cat’s ears are flattened, it is a definite sign of aggressive intent. If, on the other hand, a cat's ears are folded up against its head, it's very afraid. A cat’s whiskers will be extended out from their face when the cat is inquisitive, but flattened to the sides of its face when it is prepared for battle. An open mouth is a sign of playfulness. If the teeth are prominently showing, then the cat is aggressive. A cat that "bonks" a human with its cheekbones or forehead is giving a friendly greeting and would like to be petted.
  • The tail of a cat is perhaps the clearest indicator of its mood.
    • A cat usually carries her tail horizontally behind her, with an upward curve to keep it from dragging on the ground.
    • A rising tail is a sign of interest or confidence.
    • A half-raised tail is a sign of a so-so mood, and a tail held low signifies the cat is unhappy or scared.
    • A feline tail that is lashing back and forth is a sign of high excitement and/or aggression.
    • A tail raised to vertical and twitching signifies excitement, though a tom will use the same gesture when spraying (i.e. when marking territory with his urine).
    • A twitching tail that is held low or horizontal is a sign of irritation — if it starts forcefully thrashing back and forth in a way that reminds you of Punctuated! For! Emphasis!, the cat is indicating that someone is about to lose some skin.
    • A tail held upright with a bend at the tip is a sign of interest or puzzlement.note  If the tip is twitching, this indicates the cat is very curious about or interested in something, or thinking a situation through: say, trying to figure out if they can get to that bird in the tree, or wondering what you're planning to do with that can of tuna.
    • If a cat's tail is puffed up like a bottle brush, this can mean the cat is angry, excited or afraid.
  • A cat lounging with his underside showing is relaxed and friendly; by exposing his most vulnerable side, he shows that he trusts you and is not on guard. This is similar to the basic cat defensive position, so look for other clues. If his claws are extended, he is preparing to defend against an attack, but if his claws are in, he probably just wants to play. A cat will arch her back, puff out her fur along her spine and tail, and turn sideways (all designed to make the cat look bigger) when started or scared; she may also growl, hiss, vocalize, lay her ears back, and show her teeth. Such a cat is best left alone.
    • This doesn't necessarily mean that the cat is inviting you to stroke her underside, though. Some cats are fine with it, but other cats will view such an attempt as a breach of their trust and good reason to give you a clawing. Approach with caution, and stick to the cat's inverted flanks unless you know she's OK with more.
  • A cat with their rump pointing upwards, their head close to the ground, and their front legs outstretched is stretching in a similar way we do when we've just woken up or have been sitting still for a while. Some cats will also raise their bottoms when stroked in that area.
  • If a cat crouches low to the ground, it can mean they're either hunting or preparing to jump. Cats will often wiggle their bottoms before leaping.
  • If a cat is walking very slowly, it is either trying to get away from a threatening cat without being chased or hunting.
  • If a cat is asleep curled up in a ball, it could be trying to keep warm or wanting to be left alone, however, if none of those things seem to apply, the cat's probably just being a cat (cats evolved to have an instinct to sleep in that pose).
  • If a cat appears to "pretend" to bite you (i.e. sort of nibbling you without clamping down), this could be a warning or it could also be a sign of affection, known as a "love bite".
  • If a cat is licking a human, it is generally a sign of affection but can also mean that the cat likes the way the human's skin tastes, similar to when a dog licks a human.
  • When a cat rubs up against objects, they are leaving a substance from "scent glands" on the object. This serves as a warning to animals who could be a threat (normally dogs and other cats, although only unfamiliar dogs or cats. Dogs and cats who the cat knows are not generally bothered by the scent.) and provides the one doing the scent-marking with a sense of familiarity. This is also sometimes done by urinating on objects, called "spraying", common in unaltered toms, although neutered toms and mollies/queensnote  can also spray occasionally, particularly if they're apprehensive about something. Kittens generally do not spray until they are six months old (the time between six months and a year is considered adolescence for cats, and most cats who spray are able to mate unless they've been altered) but kittens do scent-mark by rubbing against things. Keep in mind that if your cat produces a lot of pee, is squatting, and is peeing on a flat surface, they're probably just urinating, not spraying.
  • Rolling on their backs is a sign of happiness.
  • Sometimes a cat kills a small animal without intending to eat it. This is because they have an instinct to hunt even if they're not hungry. A cat will also sometimes throw their prey around. The reason for this is unknown, but it has been suggested that it is an attempt to tire the prey out so it's easier to catch. Nobody really knows why cats bring their owners prey, but it has been suggested that they're trying to teach us how to hunt or that they're leaving "presents".

Cats can vocalise more than a hundred different sounds.

  • Purring is a vibration of their vocal box with a frequency of 25 to 150 Hz and it shows contentment and relaxation, which will be followed by a kneading and a nap. In rare occasions when the cat is in shock and is attempting to calm itself, it will also purr. These instances can be recognised by the cat bleeding, being bent and/or flattened in ways they normally can't, or having a kitten emerging from its business end. In short, either the cat is happy or desperately wishes it was.
  • Meowing can mean a lot of different things. Usually a cat's meow is a call to the owner to pay attention to the cat. Low meows with chirping and purring almost always signify a greeting. Cats will sometimes chirp without a meow or purr when they are very interested in something. Whining meows are a form of protest. Meows of distress can be recognised by their similarity to the wailing of human babies. Sometimes, a cat will open and close its mouth without audibly meowing, also known as a "silent meow" or a "mute meow", which is possibly just a meow too high-pitched for us to hear.
    • Incidentally, adult cats almost never meow at each other, and meowing as adults is a learned behavior only present in socialized cats. Since kittens will meow at their mothers, it is speculated that perhaps cats meow at humans because they see us as surrogate parents. Another possibility is that, since most cat communication is too quiet and high-pitched for humans to hear, cats eventually figure out that meowing is the only non-hostile sound that reliably gets a reaction out of humans.
    • Some people believe that cats put more emphasis on the "ow" part of the meow when they're unhappy, but if your cat always sounds like this and doesn't seem unhappy, it's probably just the cat's way of meowing.
    • Mewing is high-pitched meowing. All kittens mew because their vocal cords aren't fully developed, but some adult cats also mew.
    • Sometimes, cats will do a long, wailing version of their meow, known as yowling or caterwauling. This can mean the cat is unhappy or looking for a mate.
    • Some breeds are more vocal than others. Siamese/Oriental cats and breeds with a lot of Siamese in their gene pool like Cornish Rexes meow loudly and frequently. Maine Coons are also quite talkative, and are known for a sort of "chirrup" noise.
  • Hissing and growling are obviously dire warnings and should be taken as such. (The exception is newborn kittens — during their earliest weeks, kittens will hiss at anything that doesn't smell like their mom.)
  • Some cats can imitate other animals' noises, such as barking or the chittering of a squirrel.
  • A chattering sound means they've seen something they regard as prey, though to reflect a basic form of mimicry. Most often, cats do this while observing song birds, and indeed the "chattering" does resemble avian tweeting to some extent.
  • Some people report having heard cats actually speak. While the "words" are unintelligible, as a foreign language, observers report the cats appear to hold conversations or recite what sounds like a poem or even a prayer. The Oh Long Johnson cat is addressing another cat. He has his ears back flat and is probably uttering threats.

Feline-human miscommunications

Cats are getting a bad reputation in large part due to humans not understanding their preferences or not knowing their peeves.

  • Cats knead. That is, they push their paws repeatedly into a surface, claws in or out, when they are happy, sleepy, feeling frisky, showing affection, marking their territory, or all of the above. This is not an act of aggression on their part, regardless of the consequences of them being in your lap at the time. Any disturbance on your part during this "ritual" of theirs will be met with surprise or irritation from the cat.
  • Cats are distrustful of strange humans and will avoid being cornered or herded, and you should never attempt to capture a cat, as they will fight you. Leaving a cat its space is always best. Cats require a part of their day on their own, without any interference. Cats will typically only let their humans pick them up, but some breeds, like the Turkish Van or the Bengal, will never consent to being carried.
    • Most cats will wriggle if they don't want to be carried, but some will jump right out of the human's arms.
  • Stereotypically, Cats Hate Water. Like most blanket statements, there are exceptions; various breeds and moggies have greater or lesser affinities with water (Turkish Vans are famous for swimming), and of course individual personalities vary as well. More stereotypically, cats don't like being wettened without their consent, but then how many humans do you know who enjoy being soaked without warning?
    • A misconception is that this is bound to always remain true. Regular ambient or slightly warm baths can and will make the cat realize that their owner means no harm in this. Some grow so fond of this that they won't mind temperature AT ALL. Hairless cats need to be bathed regularly anyway, and most breeders of such cats will accustom them to it from kittenhood.
    • Some cats don't mind their body being wet, but become extremely uncomfortable if their paws get wet.
    • Another thing folks with cats will have noticed is that cat do spend time in the sink/bathtub (when it's not being used). Cats are attracted to running water because (in the wild) it's generally safer to drink than standing water (in the wild, water that's been sitting out is likely to have bacteria or other dirty things in it, while running water is more fresh). They don't necessarily want to get wet though.
    • The domestic cat's closest wild ancestors hailed from desert regions, so two things are worth remembering in this context: cats have slightly higher body temperatures than humans, and cats have fur. Water which is comfortable for you will feel cold to a cat, and wet fur will feel cold the same way wet clothes will for the several hours it takes for it to dry completely. Slightly warmer water and careful drying will help getting your cat into the bath.

And now you know.