Although cats only have one method of vocal communication, “the meow”, they can alter it in many ways with sound and the use of body language to get their message across to both humans and animals. Felines have individual personalities just like people do, so understanding what they are trying to say is not difficult, especially if you know their cat moods and habits.
The number of different vocalizations a cat makes, depending on how vocal that particular feline is, can number anywhere from a dozen to almost 30 different sounds which vary in tone, pitch, duration and repetition. Cats will vocalize more often to people they know or feel comfortable around; rarely making any sound around strangers or even people they know, but do not like.
Some of the more common, and easily understood communications are:
1. Purr – usually used for happiness, contentment and when the cat is in a totally relaxed and peaceful state. A purring sound is often used by a cat when they want contact or attention. Purring has also been found to be used by cats when they are injured or ill, because the soothing rhythm of it helps to keep them calm when they are uncomfortable or fretful in a tense situation.
2. Hiss – a cat hissing most often means the cat is startled or frightened suddenly, to signal to all those nearby, both animal and human, to keep their distance until the cat is calm once again. This vocalization can sometimes include spitting, depending on how frightened or upset the cat has become.
3. Chatter – is used as "cat talk" with other animals when they want attention. For example, when a cat watches a bird outside a window, or a squirrel gathering food on the ground, or even another cat walking by, they will “chatter” a string of half meows and almost clicking sounds like a whole sentence of vocalizations. Chattering is also used around humans to get their attention when they are not close enough to hear them purr.
4. Cough or Bark – a hoarse, quick, single tone sound which usually precedes regurgitating a hairball, or when food is swallowed too quickly. A cat may also make this sound simply to clear their throat. Surprisingly, this sound also has a negative use which can be used when a cat is angry, such as making clear its territorial boundaries to an intruder or another animal who may live in the home (in the case of an indoor house cat).
When a cat communicates, it will also use its body language to help make its message clear. One important thing to remember when trying to understand a cat’s body language is that some postures may mean more than one thing, so to fully comprehend the message you need to pay attention to all parts of the cat, from his head to his tail. Sound is also important, because in some instances, a feline will communicate without using any sound at all. Felines are highly intelligent and know that vocal sounds do not always communicate their intent; that humans who surround them may not fully understand what they want by using only sound. To help communicate, a cat will also use body language to help identify their mood and what they want. There are several postures used by felines for communication, and the use of different body parts indicates different meanings:
CAT TAIL LANGUAGE
- Thrashing – an indicator that a cat is irritated or angry, used as a warning to a stranger not to come any closer. This may be accompanied by the cat growling or guttural sound to help indicate the degree of irritation.
- Upwards – used as a greeting, or to invite affection or attention. This posture is clearly a friendly gesture and is often accompanied by purring or a light-hearted meow. When a cat raises its tail straight upwards around another cat, it is inviting it to sniff its scent to become familiar with it. When a cat takes this posture around humans, it may also raise its rump higher as you stroke, to let you know he wants you to become more familiar with him as well. This is a sign of acceptance.
- Twitching – tells observers that the cat is alert or interested in what’s happening. A twitching tail also shows the degree to which a feline is concentrating on a situation.
- Lowered – shows a state of submission.
- Fluffed – shows fear; generally displayed when startled suddenly.
CAT HEAD LANGUAGE
- Rubbing – a greeting of familiarity towards other house cats or humans that a cat has accepted into its territorial boundaries, or that it likes. A cat will transfer its own scent to the rest of its body by licking its paws and cleaning its head and neck, and by cleaning itself with its tongue. Transfer of this scent helps mark its territory and what is a part of it, including furniture and other animals or people. When a cat greets its owner, it often rubs its head and then its body along his leg to redistribute its scent. This usually includes purring to signify a peaceful state of mind.
- Stretched Forward – encourages interaction from animals and humans nearby, either in greeting or just to indicate total acceptance of any attention it may get at that moment. This also indicates the cat’s current state of mind as confident.
- Lowered – indicates the cat is feeling uncomfortable and may become aggressive, depending on the current atmosphere. A feline who is feeling less confident or comfortable may not be feeling aggressive, but simply feels submissive at that moment. If the chin is pulled in and a cat also turns its head sideway, or away from you, then he is showing he has no interest in you or what you want. This posture is a great indicator the cat is totally relaxed.
- Head bump – is also a greeting, especially to its owner. This also distributes the feline’s scent to the human to further solidify acceptance, and to make sure that no other cat can mark their owner as part of their territory. When feeling very content, the head bump will be followed instantly by rubbing the entire feline body along the bumped area.
CAT EYES LANGUAGE
With excellent peripheral vision, cats rarely have to look directly at something to decipher its direct effect on them.
- Eye contact – feline do not exhibit this often, as this makes them uncomfortable. When it does occur, it may only last a second or two if the cat is feeling friendly. However, if the cat feels threatened, a longer stare directly into their eyes will turn into anger and aggression quickly. Surprisingly, cats prefer going to someone who does not make eye contact with them, as this indicates to the feline they are not a threat.
- Stare – usually reserved for a rival cat, or other animal living in the home that is perceived as a territorial threat. Two cats may often try to resolve the territorial issue by a staring contest, with the dominant cat winning, either by holding the stare the longest, or by a confrontation that has escalated out of territorial aggression.
- Blinking – is a non-aggressive way for cats to communicate with humans it understands they are not a threat. When an owner looks directly at a cat and blinks its eyes slowly several times, it tells the feline they are not a threat. A cat that understands this “blinking message” will return the blink several times, almost looking drowsy, to let the human know it understands they are no threat.
- Dilated pupils – have dual meanings, depending on the situation the cat finds itself in at that moment. For instance, if it's mealtime, or in greeting, this could indicate an excited state of mind, or anticipation. If the cat is in a tense mood, dilated pupils may indicate that it might not be the best time to approach them hastily, or at all.
- Narrow pupils – means a cat is feeling confident at that moment, whether tense or not. This is true when the cat is angry and also when the feline is trying to focus better on detail.
CAT EARS LANGUAGE
A cat’s ears are very flexible, utilizing 20-30 muscles to control them. With the ability to swivel them in literally any direction, as well as bend them all the way back flat against their head, a cat’s ears are utilized quite often to help communicate its feelings and intentions.
- Upright and tilted slightly back – means the cat is relaxed and reasonably aware, but not concerned, about activity around him.
- Upright and pushed forward - signals the cat is totally alert and listening to everything going on around him, even if he appears to be snoozing or relaxed with eyes closed. One or both ears may swivel randomly to tract noises around him.
- Bent back – growing anxious and tense; the lower or flatter the ears are pressed against the head, the stronger the degree of anxiety or fear.
- Flat against head – indicates anger and a totally defensive posture; which could indicate an aggressive move at any moment.
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