Getting Curious About How Your Cat Communicates
You’ve likely heard the trope that cats are aloof, independent creatures who prefer to look upon the humans they live with more as subjects than soulmates. And while there may be some kernel of truth to the demand for royal treatment, as any friend of a feline knows, cats are caring, intelligent, social animals who thrive on companionship.
Household cats aren’t as dependent on humans for survival because they weren’t deliberately domesticated. Instead, cats and people grew closer due to cats’ great skill at hunting mice and other rodents— this feline pastime helped keep diseases at bay and food secure in human communities. With time, this mutually beneficial relationship flourished into something more: cats and people came to enjoy each other’s company and develop strong bonds.
More than meows
Despite our species’ bonds, cat communication can still be somewhat puzzling to even the most feline-fluent humans. Vocalizations like mews, meows, purrs and hisses typically convey pretty clear intentions, but cats have a whole host of behaviors and signals that help tell us what they want and need.
Getting a great greeting
Have you ever walked in your door to have your cat come running to your feet and immediately flop over, belly to the sky, arms outstretched, and head tilted sideways? This is a warm welcome home! Cats only assume this kind of position—exposing their vulnerable bellies—when they feel relaxed, safe and secure. When they do this in front of a person, it means they feel very comfortable around them, and may even be asking for some pets or playtime.
Cats also often greet people by slinking their bodies in and out between our feet, curling their tails around our legs as they go. This behavior can be coupled with a sense of ownership or possession— “you belong to me,” they might be thinking.
What a cat’s face can convey
What their whiskers are telling you
Whiskers are not just fun facial features, but an invaluable tool for cats. Whiskers help them navigate, keep balance, sense vibrations in their environment, and, you guessed it, communicate. Wiggling whiskers lifted above their eyes mean a cat is intrigued or excited. On the other hand, an anxious or threatened cat will pull their whiskers taut toward their face and then flare them out sideways.
What their mouth is telling you
Cats don’t typically move about with their mouths open unless they are yawning, biting or vocalizing (in other words, rarely will you see a cat with their tongue hanging out or panting). If you do notice that your cat is panting, they are likely very stressed and perhaps sick, so you should pay close attention and visit the vet if this behavior continues.
What their eyes are telling you
Cats are better than humans at seeing in low-light conditions, but we have the edge when it comes to clarity and colors. Still, their eyes can help us see into their psyche. Widened eyes convey fear or surprise, while narrow, slit pupils are targeted concentration. Droopy, half-closed eyes signify a comfortable kitty, while a direct stare down is exactly that— a challenge.
What their ears are telling you
Any time an animal flattens features against their body, they are usually experiencing some form of discomfort— you can liken this to the inclination we have to “get small” or “melt into the wall.” When cats flatten their ears back on their head, they are angry or fearful. Ears twitching and turning with a sideways flick convey irritation, while ears forward are simply attentive.
Pay attention to posture, paws and appendages
With her back up against the wall and marriage falling apart, playwright Tennessee Williams’ leading lady Maggie exclaims, “I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.” The line became an instant classic because it inspires an iconic visual— a “Halloween” cat with clawed toes spread, back arched like the curve of the moon, and tail a spiny cactus. What this meant for Maggie in the play and what it means for cats is the same— they’re in a state of extreme nervousness and anxiety, bordering on defensive aggression.
Other, less “extreme” postures and movements can also tell us a lot about how a cat is feeling. Loose, floppy movements indicate a desire for attention and play; a still, crouching “pounce” stance says a feline is feeling frisky and in prey-drive mode; and a “sphinx” pose with open eyes often means a cat is alert but comfortable.
Some people like to say that their feline friends are most pleased when “making biscuits.” They are referring not to actual baking, but to the kneading motion of a cat’s paws opening and closing, on your lap, blanket or other surface. Indeed, scientists think this “kneading” happens when a cat is completely relaxed, and often when around their favorite person.
Like their whiskers, cats’ tails have many different functions. They help cats balance and move stealthily, but also convey lots of information. For example, think of a deliberately thumping tail as a clock ticking on a cat’s tolerance of a given situation. Similarly, twitchy, jerky movements, usually at the end or tip of a raised tail can be signs of annoyance or predatory behavior. Generally speaking, stiffness implies a cat is poised for action, while a looser, “flowy” tail means they’re at ease.
Learn your cat’s “love language”
For many of us, our instinct is to express love and care for our cats by petting and snuggling them. But this may not be the type of affection that your cat likes. It’s important that we pay attention to how cats respond to different touches, and respect their preferences as we would any person.
To that end, typically, cats’ least favorite place to be touched is generally around their tail. Most cats feel pretty particular about their tails, as this is a vulnerable part of their body and a highly sensitive extension of their spine. The base of their tail, where it meets their hindquarters, is easily overstimulated by petting, which can be uncomfortable.
Think instead about the parts of their body that cats offer up for scratching. Have you noticed how often they rub the sides of their mouth and face against you? The areas around cats’ noses, cheeks and chins are filled with scent glands.Rubbing these mixes your scents together which is a positive experience for them.
Every cat is different, and context is key
3Ellis, S. L. H., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. E. (2015). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat’s response to being stroked. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 173, 60–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002
Considering all of a cat’s’ cues, movements and postures will help you learn to understand what they are trying to express. Still, fluency takes time, especially since the same gesture or expression can vary in meaning across different scenarios.
When learning kitty lingo, it’s important to consider things like whether the cat is in a familiar or unfamiliar space with new versus known cats, people or other animals around. For example, one method that indoor cats sometimes use to communicate —feline house soiling/urine spraying— can be problematic, and even disrupt your bond. Why might they behave this way? If they live in a multi-cat household, this behavior could be a form of territory marking. However, it could also be the result of a medical condition that needs to be addressed.
All cats are individuals, so they will have unique quirks, qualities and behaviors, just as people do. In short, cats experience needs and desires and express themselves in many ways. The more we understand what they are trying to say, the better companions and caregivers we can be.
Horwitz DF. Common feline problem behaviors: Urine spraying. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2019;21(3):209-219. doi:10.1177/1098612X19831203