Cat Behavior – Understanding Felinese

by Amy D. Shojai cat behavior


We love our cats but don’t always understand cat communication. Our feline friends use a combination of vocalizations, body language and smells to talk with each other and their special people. Here are 12 ways cats communicate.

1. Meows: These are rarely aimed at other cats. Instead meows are requests pointed at humans. For example, cats meow to be petted, for you to open the door or for you to wake up and fill their bowls. The more demanding Kitty becomes, the lower the pitch of the meow.

2. Purrs: These vocalizations signal nonthreat. A cat’s purr has been described as a feline smile, and cats purr in the presence of other pets and humans. Purrs often express happiness.

3. Hisses: Keep your distance if you hear a hiss. Cats hiss at other pets and people. Hisses can be defensive or offensive, and arise from frightened or hostile felines.

4. Growls: This is a serious warning from a cat that an attack may be coming. Hisses that don’t succeed turn to growls when the cat can’t escape.

5. Chattering: This odd sound indicates frustration. Cats that watch critters through the window may chatter when unable to reach the evil squirrels.

6. Spit: This not-so-pleasant communication is the equivalent of a feline gasp of surprise.

7. Body Position: These movements indicate attitude. Confident cats face forward, while fearful cats stand sideways with arched backs to look larger than they really are. Defensive or submissive cats want to look small and nonthreatening, so they crouch low, with feet tucked, and ears and tail held close to the body. Cats show trust by placing themselves in vulnerable postures such as rolling.

8. Fur Position: The hair on a cat can telegraph emotional state. Fur is smooth in relaxed cats. Any kind of arousal — fear, aggression, happiness, stress — may prompt fluffed fur that stands straight off the body. For instance, you’ll see a bottle brush tail when kitty becomes excited.

9. Ear Position: The ears of relaxed and interested cats face forward. Ears turn sideways in uneasy cats. Fearful kitties hold ears sideways like airplane wings. Ears that flicker back and forth very quickly indicate great agitation. The cat slicks his ears tight to the head in preparation for attack. Cats with one ear forward and one sideways aren’t clear how they feel.

10. Eye Reactions: They dilate suddenly (pupils go from slits to round) any time the cat feels sudden excitement. That arousal might be anything from the sight of a dog to a bowl of favorite food or a feather toy. Cat stares indicate a challenge. Squinting shows strong emotion and possibly impending attack. But a slow eye-blink to other cats or people signals nonthreat and is known as a “kitty kiss” when aimed at people.

11. Tail Position: While these vary somewhat between cats, a tail held straight up, with just the end tipped over, is a feline “howdy” that signals to other cats and people a friendly greeting — it means kitty wants to interact with you. Relaxed cat tails are held in a gentle U, and the greater his interest, the higher the cat holds his tail. Tails tucked between the legs or wrapped around the crouched body show fear. The end of the tail flicking back and forth indicates frustration that may progress to tail-thumping wags that warn of imminent attack. A bottle-brush tail held straight up or behind the cat shows aggression, but if it’s held in an inverted U it is a defensive posture.

12. Rubbing/Scratching Behavior: When cats rub against you or scratch objects they are leaving the equivalent of scented Post-It notes. Scent glands in the forehead, cheeks, paw pads and tail leave behind the kitty’s signature scent. Cats rub or scratch to mark territory as owned — including scent-marking a beloved human with cheek rubs.

Understanding cat vocabulary can help you become more attuned to what your cat has to say. But every cat is different, so pay attention to what your favorite feline does. Some cats develop their own way of communicating — a particular meow, for example — the same way people who speak the same language may have different regional accents. Watch your own kitty to learn the way he or she talks.


Amy Shojai also appears on Animal Planet’s “Cats-101” and “Dogs-101,” and lives in North Texas with a senior citizen Siamese who routinely hurls cat curses at a smart-aleck German shepherd. Read her blog on Red Room.


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