There are three different ways cats are able to communicate with humans and other felines. It is a common misconception that they are not as expressive as other animals, such as dogs, when it comes to bonding with their humans or other animal friends. But, if you know what to look for, it’s not so hard for us humans to pick up on what messages our kitty friends are trying to convey to us.
The first and most commonly recognized form of communication is meowing or vocalization. A cat’s meow can have different pitches, intensities and volumes for different physical and emotional reasons. Kittens are likely to meow more often than adult cats because they communicate with their mothers to signal if they are hungry or in need of something. Interestingly, once they are weaned, cats would not have a need or desire to meow if they were not communicating with humans. This ‘last resort’ evolved because most humans don’t take the time or lack the ability to understand the more subtle ways they communicate. Other forms of verbal communication are growling, howling and purring. The first two are used if they feel threatened or are hurt. Purring has a few different and mysterious meanings – but you’ll have to wait for our next installment for that bit of juicy info!
So if it’s not necessary for adult cats to meow in an effort to relate to one another, how do they communicate with each other? Body language such as using the whiskers, eyes, ears and tail will indicate their mood. Rolling over and exposing their belly is a sign that they want affection and attention. It is also how a female cat lets a male cat know that she wants to mate. Have you ever been playing with your cat, or accidently scared him, and seen for yourself the ‘Halloween Cat’ posture? A big raccoon tail with fur sticking straight up and arched back? Well, Kitty is wanting you to know how big, bad and scary he can really get so you better watch out!
When a cat goes up to another cat and bats its lashes giving soft blinks or closes its eyes, they are showing a sign of affection. A person can engage by blinking softly and relating a feeling of safety and trust. If the cat should blink back, Kitty is letting you know the feeling is mutual. If a cat trusts you, the eyelids may flutter or get droopy. However, we wouldn’t suggest engaging in a staring contest. Prolonging eye contact with a cat may make him feel threatened. A stare down is very unsettling to a cat; utilizing soft blinks or looking away may help alleviate stress. While it’s perfectly normal for Kitty’s pupils to dilate while playing due to excitement, be on the watch for enlarged pupils at other times as they could be a sign of pain, fear, or aggression.
Scent marking is a main way of Kitty disclosing information with other cats. Pop Quiz: In Part 5 of this series, which glands did we mention a cat has in their paws that secrete pheromones? If you guessed sebaceous glands, you’d be right! Cats have these glands in their face as well as their paws. The pheromones released from these glands indicate the cat’s weight, health, age and reproductive status. Felines are territorial and will leave their scent behind by kneading or scratching. Male cats also tend to spray as a way of marking their territory.
Another big form of relating a mood or message is the cat’s tail. It is made up of muscle, nerves and vertebrae. In addition to maintaining balance, the tail is used as a signaling mechanism. If it is held high, it is usually a sign of confidence or used as a greeting to another cat or human, and an invitation for contact rubbing. If felines curl their tails around each other (or you!) it is a sign of being friendly. A tail tucked between their legs is a sign of insecurity or anxiety. And of course, a twitchy tail conveys irritation and signals your furry feline friend needs a little ‘alone time’.
You may want to be on the lookout for ears that are flattened and or back, as this usually means the cat is experiencing extreme stress or anger. As for whiskers, it’s reasonable to assume that Kitty is feeling calm if the whiskers are relaxed or that Kitty is alert if whiskers are held out straight. However, whiskers will always be held back and close to the face when eating, greeting another cat, or feeling apprehensive.
Wow! As you can see a cat has a variety of ways to communicate. From now on, we hope you don’t make the mistake of saying they are aloof. The magnificent feline is constantly broadcasting its feelings and surprisingly is communicating with us all of the time!
…almost makes you wish you had a tail. It would be so much easier to keep pesky co-workers away, get back-talking kids to stay quiet, have your spouse stop complaining and maybe, just maybe, get helped a little quicker at the DMV all because you’ve got a twitchy, swishy tail.