Guide to Cat Communication: Vocalizations and Body Language

Cat Vocalizations

Cats make nearly 100 different types of vocalizations, including:

    • Meowing: Usually only used with people, meowing can mean many things depending on the volume and intensity (a hello meow is usually quieter than a meow used to request food or to be let outside)
    • Mew: Used to identify and/or locate another cat
    • Growling: A warning to keep your distance
    • Hissing: A “keep away” defensive sound, used to scare away an enemy by mimicking the noise a poisonous snake makes before striking
    • Spitting: A short popping sound, often occurring along with hissing if the cat has been threatened or surprised
    • Screeching or shrieking: A defensive, aggressive, or outraged sound; may also indicate pain
    • Chirping: Usually expresses a friendly greeting
    • Trilling: More musical than chirping; indicates happiness
    • Chattering: An excited sound made by a cat that sees a bird or other prey she can’t reach
    • Yowling: Often done by older cats at night; expresses fright, confusion, disorientation, or anxiousness; un-spayed females who want to attract mates will also yowl
    • Moaning: A drawn-out, sad noise that cats make when they’re about to vomit; elderly cats may also moan when disoriented
    • Purring: Signifies contentment or illness; cats often purr when sick or injured, because purring speeds the healing process

Cat Body Language

To figure out what the cat is saying to you with her body, look at her overall body position and then the positions of individual body parts:

    • Relaxed, friendly: Ears point forward, tail is relaxed or upright, whiskers are straight, fur is flat
Relaxed and friendly
    • Annoyed: Tail tip is twitching, whiskers are pulled back so that they are flat against the face, ears are flat against the cat’s head
The aggressor stares with ears rotated sideways; the submissive cat avoids eye contact (this was a minor conflict between young siblings, so there was no fur puffing or full attack)
    • Aggressive: Staring, hair on the tail and back may be puffed up, tail thumps the ground or swishes rapidly, lips are curled into a snarl, cat is facing forward and may have her butt in the air so that she can pounce easily
Fearful aggression shown by dilated pupils and hissing while attempting to hide
    • Scared: Hair is raised on the tail and back, tail is either held close to the cat’s body or lashing, whiskers are flat against the face, ears are flat against the cat’s head, cat may approach side-on to look bigger, pupils are dilated (large)
A mixture of fear and aggression (this kitten was about to start a fight with a sibling)
    • Sick: Eyes may be half closed or tired-looking, tail is between the legs, ears and/or whiskers may be in odd positions
Sick kittens (these kittens suffered from a severe, life-threatening neurological disorder; fortunately, they made a complete recovery)

The eyes, tail, and ears in particular can tell you a lot about your cat’s state of mind.

Cat Eyes

An unblinking stare suggests a challenge or a feeling of defensiveness. Round pupils may signify interest, excitement, or fear, and a sudden dilation of the pupils may indicate that the cat is ready to launch an attack due to fear or defensiveness. If the cat allows her eyelids to droop or slowly closes her eyes, she is relaxed and trusting.

Staring due to defensiveness (a nervous foster kitten)

Cat Tail Talk

The following are tail signals that most cats use to communicate:

    • Upright: Confident and friendly; a greeting or a request for food
    • Question mark shape: Indifference, curiosity, or interest
    • Inverted U: In adult cats suggests defensive aggression; in kittens may indicate playfulness
    • Curled and tucked under the body: Feeling threatened or wanting to be left alone
    • Slightly flicking: Indecisive, thinking
    • Flicking suddenly, rapidly: Anxiety or agitation
    • Flicking constantly: A critique of something in her surroundings
    • Thumping: Frustrated or annoyed, may lead to an attack
    • Lashing back and forth: The cat is likely to attack
    • Between the legs: A submissive posture
    • Straight back and puffy: Signifies aggression, dominance
    • Pointing downward and puffy: Indicates fear-based aggression
    • Upright and puffy: Terror and indecision about whether to launch a pre-emptive strike or maintain a defensive posture (often used by kittens when confronting dogs)
    • Upright and quivering: May signify an intention to spray, particularly in unfixed males; can also be a friendly greeting or signify mild excitement
    • Crouching with tail straight behind; tail may be twitching: Stalking prey, toys, other pets, or people
An upright, friendly tail

Cat Ears

The following ear positions and movements provide information about a cat’s mood and intentions.

Standing upright and rotated slightly forward

Ears that are “pricked” and pointing forward indicate that the cat is alert and interested in something, and that he feels confident enough to explore the situation. This can be differentiated from the relaxed ear position in which the ears are tilted slightly back.

Cats point their ears forward for activities that require being very alert to incoming sensory information, such as hunting. They may also swivel one or both ears toward an interesting sound, maneuvering them like satellite dishes.

Alert ears

Flattened backward

Cats flatten their ears when they’re feeling defensive. The flatter the ears lie against the skull, the more frightened the cat feels. Additional signs of defensiveness include whiskers flattening against the cheeks and pupils dilating (growing larger). A defensive cat may attack if she feels frightened enough, particularly if she’s so scared that her fur is standing on end.

Frightened ears
Mixed feelings

If only one ear is flattened, the cat may be feeling ambiguous about a situation. He is concerned about something, but not sure whether fear is warranted.

Flattened sideways

In the case of a cat-to-cat conflict, it can be difficult for owners to tell which cat is the instigator and which is on the defense, because a threatened cat may launch a preemptive strike, but owners can often identify the bully by looking at the ears of the combatants. The more aggressive cat will also have flattened ears, but her ears will be rotated to the side rather than straight back.

The body language of the two cats will provide additional clues. Like a defensive cat, an aggressive cat will usually have flattened whiskers and dilated pupils. However, while the defensive cat is more inclined to minimize his size by crouching or slinking and lowering his tail, the aggressive cat will stand sideways on his tiptoes, arch his back, and puff up his fur to make himself appear bigger and thus more threatening.

Sustained eye contact can also be a sign of aggression in cats. The dominant cat will stare, whereas the submissive cat will cast her eyes downward, avoiding eye contact.

Slightly aggressive ears (a feral kitten, shortly after arrival for fostering)

Twitching

Twitching ears often signify frustration or irritation, but if the cat is flicking or twitching his ears frequently and also scratching or pawing at them, this may indicate a medical problem such as infection or parasite infestation. In such cases, a visit to the veterinarian is warranted.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • Cats International. (2007). “Your Cat’s Tail, Ear, and Eye Signals.” CatsInternational.org.
    • Christensen, W., and the Staff of the Humane Society of the United States. (2002). The Humane Society of the United States Complete Guide to Cat Care. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
    • Dodman, N., Dr. (2009). “What Is Your Cat Saying? Reading Your Cat’s Body Language.” PetPlace.com.
    • Hartwell, S. (2009). “Cat Communication – Body Language.” MessyBeast.com.
    • Hotchner, T. (2007). The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. London: Penguin Group.
    • Tabor, R. (1997). Understanding Cat Behaviour. Cincinnati, OH: F&W Publications, Inc.
    • “Tail Talk.” (2006). FelineExpress.com.
    • Warner, T. (2007). Cat Body Language Phrasebook: 100 Ways to Read Their Signals. San Diego, CA: Salamander Books.

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