You, too, can understand what your cat is saying—and even talk back in a way that the cat can understand.
Because most of an animal’s speech is body language, posture, and gesture, the key to understanding your cat is learning to read her body language. Vocal speech, in the sense of sounds with a particular meaning, also exists, but is secondary.
Most of the “words” in this glossary exist in combinations rather than singly. Thus, a cat with slitted eyes and ears hard down will probably also be arched or tense, whereas a cat with narrowed eyes and ears slightly down and to the side may also be purring and will be relaxed.
Ears hard forward—The cat is alert, interested, ready to move. If you’re holding your cat and the cat suddenly looks at something and pricks her ears forward, she may be getting ready to jump, either to pounce or to run.
Ears forward but relaxed—The cat is also relaxed, aware of her surroundings but not alarmed.
Ears slightly down and to the side—Usually seen when the cat is very relaxed and happy. Eyes will be closed or slitted; the cat is usually purring.
Ears back but not flat—The cat is agitated, threatened, may jump or run away. The cat may also hear something behind it.
Ears flat back on head—The cat is angry, threatened, frightened; may scratch if cornered.
Tail high, relaxed, waving—The cat is relaxed, happy, confident.
Tail trailing behind body but not held low—The cat is relaxed but alert.
Tail held low—The cat is cautious; it may be looking for a safe place, especially if the body is also held low to the ground.
Tail bristled—The cat is fearful or aggressive; other body cues will tell you which.
Body relaxed, soft, feet tucked under or kneading—The cat is relaxed.
Rolls on back—The cat is very relaxed, trusting. A cat does this when it is absolutely confident of safety. It may also be asking you to play or rub its stomach.
Back arched, cat on toes, standing sideways-on—The cat is fearful and may fight, but will probably run.
Back arched, cat standing face-on—The cat is aggressive and will almost certainly fight.
Eyes wide—The cat is alert. Other cues will tell you if the cat is relaxed or threatened.
Eyes narrowed—The cat is alert, but may be fearful or aggressive. Look for other cues.
Eyes slitted or closed—The cat is relaxed.
Pupil dilation is also important—Wide pupils can signal high interest, excitement, or possibly fear or aggression.
Whiskers hard forward—The cat is alert, interested, perhaps sees a threat, prey, or food.
Whiskers back—The cat is calm, relaxed.
Whiskers bristled—Usually seen with other cues that indicate fear or aggression.
What does the cat say? “Meow”—but only when she is speaking to her human! As a rule, cats don’t meow at each other, although they have a range of vocal signals. Kittens mew loudly when they’re hungry or frightened, but once they’ve stopped being dependent on their mother, they also stop this kind of calling behavior. Adult cats do have several vocal signals. When you hear your cat meowing, she is talking to you.
Hiss—This is fear and threat. The cat is saying, “Back off.” Depending on how confident the cat feels or whether it is in its own territory, she may fight or run. You can use the hiss to tell your cat to stop doing something—this will get her attention and usually stop the behavior.
Yowl—This is a step up from the hiss and is definitely a threat. The sound is “wow-wow-wow,” but modulated: “woOOOowwwoooOOOoowwwooOOOoow,” with the middle of each “wow” rising both in pitch and volume. A cat making this sound is getting ready to fight and may scratch if you try to touch her. Use the yowl to move a strange cat off your property. Yowling can also indicate discomfort or emotional upset. A smothered or muffled yowl may indicate a hairball coming up.
Purr—The jury is still out on precisely how the purr is produced. It may be a vocalization, or it may be produced by some other means. However it’s produced, this is a multipurpose sound. The purr usually indicates relaxation, trust, and well-being, and a cat may purr itself (and you!) to sleep. A nursing mother will purr while the kittens nurse, and they purr along with her. This seems to be a bonding and reassuring sound related to the later adult “relaxed” purr. Adult cats often purr while grooming each other.
Occasionally, a cat will insert a trilling sound into the purr. You usually hear this when you’re holding and petting the cat, not when the cat is simply purring to itself or another cat. This is referred to as “singing.”
Cats also purr over prey. There is a theory that the purr acts as a hypnotic on the prey animal and reduces its struggling.
Finally, an injured cat will sometimes purr, but the purr is deeper and raspier and quite loud. While the relaxed purr, the nursing purr, and the trill are accompanied by kneading, the prey purr and the pain purr usually are not.
Chirp—This is an abbreviated sound, “prrt” or “prrt?,” almost like a purr cut short. It usually happens as a greeting between cats that know each other well. Cats will also sometimes use the chirp to respond to a human voice.
Some cats do a chattering sound, very soft and sometimes accompanied by a silent or almost-silent meow. They usually do this when they’re frustrated by seeing prey that they can’t get at, like that squirrel dancing in front of the window.
Finally, cats make a number of very communicative gestures.
Kneading—This is a holdover from kitten behavior. A nursing kitten kneads its mother’s belly to promote the flow of milk. An adult cat may knead a person who is holding it to indicate contentment. If the cat’s claws are sharp, this can be a painful experience! A contented cat will sometimes extend and curl its toes (and extrude and withdraw its claws) while it’s purring, even if there’s nothing to knead.
Nose-rubbing—A cat that rubs its nose and cheek on you is marking you and indicating that you belong to it.
Arching—A cat that arches against you, sometimes even standing up on its hind feet, is asking for attention and wants to be petted or even picked up. A cat that flops against you is indicating trust.
Head butting—If your cat butts the top of its head against you, this is affection, pure and simple.
Grooming—Occasionally, cats will groom their people and may even bite gently. This is a variation on parent behavior, where an adult cat grooms a kitten and sometimes takes it gently by the nape to make it hold still. Cats will sometimes carry this affectionate behavior to the extent of rasping the skin away, so interrupt it before it gets to that point!
This is not an exhaustive glossary, but by paying attention to the rudimentary vocal and gestural vocabulary of your cat, you’ll more easily be able to figure out what she is telling you—and less likely to be scratched!
Elizabeth Creith has fifteen years of experience keeping chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys on her farm in Northern Ontario. She currently dreams of a new flock of fancy chickens. Elizabeth and her husband also have six and a half years experience running a pet store. On top of that, she's kept more animals than you can imagine from cats to cockatoos!