By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Perhaps you’ve stared deeply into your cat’s eyes and said to yourself, “If only I knew what you were thinking.” Fortunately for pet owners, animal behaviorists have dedicated years of research to understanding how cats communicate and have determined that felines exhibit very specific behaviors that let us know exactly what’s on their mind! Just because cats can’t talk doesn’t mean they can’t communicate.
Why Do Cats Purr?
Purring is one of the great mysteries of modern veterinary medicine. Although most people correlate purrs with contentment, cats can also purr when they are injured, nervous, or hungry. The same cat may even have different types of purrs for each scenario.
Purring occurs when the muscles of the larynx twitch, creating sound in the frequency of 25-100 Hertz. Sound frequency in this range has been shown to promote healing and improve bone density, so purring may represent an efficient way for cats to self-soothe.
Amazingly enough, meowing is one of the rare forms of communication that cats reserve exclusively for humans. With the exception of young kittens, who meow when they are hungry, cats do not meow to other cats.
As anyone with a chatty kitty knows, meowing can occur in a wide range of pitches and volumes. Cats meow as a form of greeting, a way to ask for attention, or to get their food bowl topped off. Older cats suffering from cognitive impairment may meow when they are disoriented. Certain breeds, such as Siamese, are known for high amounts of meowing behavior.
Growling, Hissing, Spitting, and Yowling
Although cats don’t meow to other cats, they definitely have vocalizations that they use to communicate. An angry or frightened cat may growl, hiss, or spit. Cats exhibiting this behavior are usually highly aroused and may act aggressively if you attempt to interact with them.
Yowling is a long, drawn out meow or howl that can indicate distress. In cats that have not been spayed or neutered, yowling is also a common mating behavior when a female cat is in heat.
If you’ve ever seen a mother cat interacting with her kitten, you may have observed her chirping; a musical, trill-like sound. Much like we use a whistling noise to get our children’s attention, chirps are a way for mother cats to round up the kittens. Some cats also use it to get their owners to follow them to an empty bowl.
Chattering, on the other hand, is a series of staccato noises a cat makes while she is watching birds, squirrels, or other prey animals on the other side of a window. While some behaviorists theorize it is a frustrated response, new theories indicate chattering is meant to mimic the call of a prey species, confusing it long enough for the predator to pounce.
The Eyes Have It
A cat’s eyes give you many clues to her state of mind. Dilated pupils results from a rush of adrenaline, indicating that your cat is excited, nervous, or feeling defensive. A cat who stares for a long time at one person or object is simply indicating interest—unlike similar behavior in dogs, it is not meant to show dominance or aggression. A slow, lazy blink is a sign of affection and trust, meaning your cat feels comfortable enough to let you out of her keen sight for a moment.
The position of a cat’s ears indicates a wide variety of emotional states. Ears pointing forward show alertness and interest. Ears turned up and to the side—“smile ears”—happen when a cat is content. Ears that are to the sides and flattened, however—“airplane ears”—indicate irritation or fear. And if the ears are completely flat against her head, watch out! That’s a fighting posture.
The tell-tale tail is one of the most reliable ways to assess a cat’s emotional state. A friendly cat will be holding her tail upright and relaxed. A stiffened tail indicates uncertainty, while a tucked tail indicates submission or fear.
If a cat’s tail is puffed up like a bottle brush, she’s angry or upset and is trying to look bigger and intimidating. A cat who twitches her tail back and forth like a whip is showing irritation. But a cat who wraps her tail around her side slowly is in a loving mood.
The Belly Maneuver
Rolling on her back to show you her belly is a very trusting behavior, as this puts a cat in a position to expose her sensitive abdomen while making it more difficult to run away. If your cat loves belly rubs, she’s asking for a little love and attention.
On the other hand, a cat who feels cornered and has no other way out may be on her back so she can swivel all four paws up to defend herself with a barrage of claws. Happily, it’s easy to tell the difference.
Signs a Cat is in Distress
Cats rarely make noise when they are in physical distress, so it’s important to look for other signs that warrant a call to the vet. Pacing in and out of the litterbox or hunching in the box can indicate a urinary infection or life threatening blockage. Open mouth breathing is a serious respiratory sign. And head pressing, where a cat pathologically presses her head against a surface or stands in a corner, is a sign of serious neurological disease that needs immediate attention.