top of page

Cat Communication:

How to Better Understand Your Cat's Language

Cat Behavior is something we all wish we understood and knew a little more about, so we thought it best to go over some of the common ways cats behave and try to communicate with us.  How cats communicate is one of the more important things to get a handle on when it comes to having a great relationship with your feline friend. When you can better understand your cat, it can help improve your relationship and make it stronger, creating a much happier world for you and your furry friend!

We'll cover some of the ways cats communicate with each other and with their people, and you might be surprised to learn that they communicate with us differently than they do with each other!

When cats communicate with one another it's more body language and scent, and while they can understand each other pretty well, it can be challenging for us to translate cat language to ours.  In fact, when it comes to cat communication, some people find it downright impossible to figure out what's going on in that feline mind! There are three basic ways cats use to communicate. Vocalization, body language and scent. So let's dive in and look at how to understand your cat and what they're trying to tell you! We'll start with vocalization and work our way through the three.


The Meow


Did you know that cats only 'meow' to us humans?  It's true.  Kittens will meow when they are tiny in order to talk with their mother, but once they mature, the basic kitty meow is reserved for human communication and rarely used between cats.  Some of the sounds cats use to communicate with each other are hissing, purrs, trills, chirps, growls, yowls, howls, and chattering to name a few.  Some of these sounds can also be used with when they communicate with people, but the 'meow' seems to be just for us. It's thought that cats have learned to talk to their humans using different types of meows to communicate their needs. I'm sure you've heard the difference between the meow that means "I'm hungry", or the meow that calls out to you asking "Where are you?". 


Many of us can tell the difference between our cat's happy meow, hungry meow, and an upset meow, so now that you know your cat meows are intended for human ears, try listening to see if you can hear the difference in the hungry meows and the playful meows your kitty makes for you.  When you think about it, it's actually pretty neat that cats have 'learned' to talk to us, so now maybe it's time we try and learn how to listen and understand what they're trying to say to us.  Cats are pretty amazing little creatures with all kinds of quirks, and their way of communicating can definitely be fun to learn!

The Purr

Many people think that when a cat is purring that he's happy, but this is not always the case.  Cats also purr when they are anxious, nervous, and also when they are in pain. Interestingly, the cat purr vibrates at a consistent pattern and frequency of between 25 and 150Hz, which scientist have found to be the same frequency range that promotes healing and can also improve bone density. It's also believed that the purr can calm anxiety, help with breathing issues (dyspnoea), lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, help with infection, inflammation, swelling, pain, muscle growth and repair, tendon repair, and joint mobility (  So the next time your feline friend is purring, remember, it's not always because they're happy, so be sure there isn't anything going on that may warrant a call to the vet.  Cats purr on inhale and exhale and the purr is a very unique and complex vocalization that isn't quite fully understood yet.  Cats can purr around people, other cats and objects


Cat's hiss both at people and other cats, along with objects, other animals or things that frighten them. It is usually a warning meaning back off, or else... Cat's prefer not to engage if at all possible, so the hiss is something they do to try and ward off any type of altercation.  If you're cat hisses at you, it's best to back away and let them be!


Everyone knows the growling sound a cat can make from time to time and it's fairly self explanatory. This, too, is a warning or threat to back off.  If your cat is growling, best not to approach her.  Try distracting her with a toy, or remove the source of her growling before something worse ensues.


Almost all cat owners have heard this sound from their cat at one point or another and thought it to be the cutest thing ever!  Most of the time it is heard when your cat is watching a bird or other prey animal from the inside and can't get to it.  It is thought to be a sound of excitement and possibly frustration as well.


This can be a threatening, defensive or offensive cry.  It can also be something you've heard your cat do from time to time when you are out of their site and is thought, in those instances, to be cry for you to get your attention. An adaptation to communicate with their people to let them know they're looking for you!


This sound is a bit of cross between a meow and a purr that has a rising inflection and is a sound used as a friendly greeting from your cat. Most cat owners have probably heard this sound and thought it to be the cutest sound

there is. This sound is a happy sound and is usually followed by a greeting with a rub against you or your leg.

There are all kinds of variations of the above as well as combinations, too!  Take some time to listen to the different sounds your cat makes and try to figure out what they might be saying.  Some cats are very vocal, usually the more outgoing one but not always, and some cats are very quiet.  It can be fun to listen to those that are vocal and try to figure out what it is they're saying, because they're always saying something, and they're talking to You! 

Body Language

Now let's look into the different ways cats communicate using body language.  One of the important things in understanding cat body language is to be sure and read the situation.  Be aware of the environment and what's going on around the cat, as this can play an important part in understanding what your cat is trying to tell you. 

  • Tail

    • Tail held straight up with fur flat and relaxed: He is alert and communicating that he is happy, inquisitive and confident.

    • Tail tucked between his legs or held very low:  He is saying that he is very anxious or insecure with his surroundings or something that is going on.

    • Tail lashing around or is quickly twitching back and forth:  His is agitated with or by something in his environment and the faster the tail is moving the more agitated and angry the cat.

    • Tail with fur standing up and puffed out:  This means kitty is angry or frightened! Watch out if this body language is directed at you.

    • Tail straight up and quivering:  This can mean one of two things.  Kitty is very happy and excited, or it can also indicate that your cat is preparing to 'mark' by spraying urine.

  • Ears

    • Ears forward:  he is alert and happy

    • Ears in motion or swiveling from side to side or independently:  Your cat is listening to what is going on around him and alert.

    • Ears laid back or to the side:  He is usually angry and upset, irritated or very frightened.

  • Eyes:

    • Cat eyes can be a little trickier to translate. The following are guidelines to what kitty could be trying to tell you so be sure to take your cats other body language into account and pay attention to what's going on in order to correctly understand what your cat is trying to tell you.

    • Wide dilated eyes, large pupils: Can mean that they are really excited, but depending on the situation, it could also mean that they are surprised or fearful. Be sure to take into account what is happening in their environment.

    • Squinting or half-closed eyes:  This usually means they are content and relaxed and trust their environment. It is a sign of affection and are relaxed enough to fall asleep. If your cat looks at you like this it means they trust you. 

    • Constricted pupils: This can mean that kitty is agitated, angry or annoyed. If a cat's eyes are big and round but the pupils are super small, it may mean that they are preparing to attack something they see as a threat.

  • Body Positioning

    • Back arched with Flat fur:  This is a welcoming pose, waiting for or wanting to be pet or loved on.

    • Back arched with fur standing up:  This is a frightened or angry cat.

    • Rolling over with belly showing:  A cat comfortable with his/her environment and relaxed enough to show the most vulnerable part of herself.

    • The kitty loaf pose:  Kitty is relaxed and comfortable and feels safe.  Tucking the paws means that your cat does not see the need to use claws in the foreseeable future and therefore can relax with tucked paws.

    • Rolling on the floor:  This can mean that kitty is looking to play or can mean that they are submitting.

    • Laying on back with the purr going:  This is a very content and relaxed cat!

    • Kitty back in your face:  The kitty butt in your face may seem a little unpleasant to us humans, but cats find tail sniffing perfectly acceptable and normal. In fact, it's one of the ways they say 'Hello'! So if your feline friend decides to back up to your face, consider it their greeting to you!


  • Kneading: 

    • While we're not quite sure why a cat does this, behaviorists generally agree that kneading is a through-back from when they were kittens and the kneading was used when nursing.  When kittens nurse, they knead on their mothers to stimulate milk flow and therefore most likely associate this kneading with the comfort of a full tummy and being very safe and content with their moms, so a kneading cat is almost always likely to be a happy cat!

  • Fur:

    • When a cats fur is neatly smooth all around this normally indicates a calm and confident cat. 

    • When the fur is standing up in a ridge along the cats back along the spine, ending in puff of erect fur at the tail base, the cat is usually feeling threatened.

    • Fur standing up throughout the cats entire body is an indication that he has been suddently startled or frightened by something or something has upset and angered him.

    • The reason for the above two scenerios is so that the cat will appear larger than they really are towards whatever has them on edge.

    • When only the cats tail is puffed, this is usually indicitive of a happy and playful cat. This is something mostly seen in kittens, but an adult cat can also display the tail puff when they are excited and very playful.  You do need to look at the environment and the rest of the cats behavior to confirm the playful puff, but you can usually tell by the playful nature exhibited in your cat when the tail puffs up that they are happy and ready to play!


  • Rubbing

    • When a cat is rubbing against something they are marking it.  When a cat is rubbing on something, or on a person, they are using their scent glands to mark with and claim ownership of whatever they happen to be rubbing against. The outer ear area, the temple or sides of the forehead, cheeks, corners of the mouth, chin, paw area, along the tail as well as the base of the tail are all area that contain scent glands that a cat will use when rubbing against something or someone to mark as theirs. So while your cat may be doing a little self petting when they rub against you, they are also claiming you as their own!

  • The Flehman Response

    • This is a facial expression that when I was growing up we always called 'the icky face', and looks somewhat like a cat has smelled something bad.  It's not necessarily that the cat has smelled something bad, however, but that they are using a combination of a cats smelling and tasting a scent for a deeper investigation into the scent they've encountered.  Because scent is such a very important thing for cats, they have so many more scent receptors than we human do, along with a very specialized organ that helps them to do an in depth investigation into smells. 

So we've covered some of the ways cat's use to communicate with us and with each other, and while there still may be other unique and special ways your cat tries to talk with you, we hope this will give you a stating point and some insight to better understanding your furry feline pal!  Learning to understand your cat is the first step in being able to communicate with him and we hope you'll use some of the information we've provided here to build a long lasting and happy relationship with your cat!  As always, if you have questions, we are here to help wherever we can!


bottom of page