How Cats Chat – The Subtle Art of Feline Communication
Dr Caity Venniker
As humans evolved so did our reliance on communication through spoken and then written word; with the use of gestures remaining more significant in certain cultures, and body language becoming gradually more subtle and more commonly overlooked. In contrast, vocalisation in cats is just one part of their system of communication. They rely as much on visual cues, tactile behaviours and scent messages, resulting in a nuanced and multidimensional form of feline language. Today we take a look at each of these aspects of feline interaction.
Making Small Talk - Vocal Communication in Cats
Siamese cats and Oriental breeds are renowned for their talkativeness (just ask Molly, one of KatKin’s founding felines, she’s sure to tell you all about it!). Classic miaowing as we know it is mainly reserved for human interactions; and is rarely used between cats(2). We tend to reinforce miaowing behaviour by giving attention or food, so some cats learn to produce a repertoire of different miaows for different purposes(2). Basically, our cats train us to respond to short commands, not exactly sit or stay, but certainly feed and stroke. Who’s a good boy now?
Inter-cat vocalisations most commonly express aggression (growling, hissing and spitting); mother-young signals (trills and chirrups); as well as greetings (high pitched chattering or gurgling). Purring usually signals contentment, but can be a sign of stress or illness, which is why you may find your cat often purrs during vet visits (more on this in our upcoming blog Why Cats Purr).
Reading the Signs - Visual Communication in Cats
This form of communication in cats includes a great range of signals involving body language and specific postures; eye contact; and lasting visual signs such as scratch marks on objects of significance.
- Body Language
As humans we tend to notice the obvious body language cues from our cats; as if reading capital letters of the written word. Paying attention to smaller details may help us to read the fine print of their moods and better understand this subtle and intricate language.
Generally a cat in an aggressor stance will puff up and hold itself tall to appear larger; while a cat in a defensive position will seem to shrink by holding the ears and tail close to its body, and withdrawing the head close to the shoulders.
Feline body language is much more nuanced than that in dogs. While dogs may wag or drop their tails; a cat’s tail stands out in the natural world as a remarkable instrument of expression. When held upright it indicates a friendly approach, but it will fluff up like a toilet brush in aggression. The tail is held stiffly behind or lashed from side to side to show offense; or wraps closely around the body in a defensive stance.
Ear position is also an important aspect of visual communication in cats. Flattened ears indicate fear and defensiveness; ears held sideways can show conflicting emotions or anxiety; and turned back ears are a sign of aggression. Rolling on the ground by a female to male cat can be a type of feline flirtation, while between males it is seen as a sign of appeasement(2). When directed towards humans, rolling is seen as a friendly or playful interaction. (For dog owners it’s easy to misinterpret this as an invitation for a belly rub… Good luck with that!)
- Eye contact
Cats that are trying to avoid confrontation will generally not engage in direct eye contact, as this can be perceived as threatening. However, context changes everything; as in friendly encounters eye contact can be peacefully maintained, and a stare with slow blinks is believed to show trust and affection(1).
Pupil size varies according to ambient light, with bright conditions causing constriction, and dim light leading to dilation. However, pupil size can also change in response to pain or according to emotional state. This can be difficult to interpret. Cats' pupils may constrict in situations of arousal such as aggression, fear, predatory play or pleasure. Pupils may dilate in fear, anxiety, surprise or excitement. It's helpful to interpret pupil size in relation to other body language cues.
- Claw Scratching
Claw scratching leaves both a visual and a scent marking; and is understood to be used for both navigation purposes along regular routes(2) as well as for increasing a sense of security and familiarity to an area.
Feeling the Way - Tactile Communication in Cats
While some cats are very affectionate and others more aloof, this system of communication is easy to interpret. Cats groom and rub each other to show affection and strengthen the sense of unity within a group. Resting and sleeping together signifies trust and can be a measure of social bonding – either with you or with another cat.
Getting to Nose You - Olfactory Communication in Cats
In this aspect of feline communication, humans are unable to join the conversation. While we jabber and text away using on average at least 10 000 words per language, our cats silently engage in an intricate system of scent signals.
Cats have an excellent sense of smell and are fluent at interpreting odours from other cats to gain information about them. This information most likely includes reproductive status, emotional state as well as where the cat was at a given time(2). Because scent markers remain in the area they are deposited, they can allow cats to learn about each other without having to meet, and so avoid confrontation.
Olfactory signals are deposited in different ways for different purposes. Marks such as urine spraying, faeces and claw scratching are most likely used to establish territories, provide individual information and create a sense of familiarity. Rubbing (especially around the face where there is a high concentration of scent glands) helps to establish a group odour(2) between family members; signals good relationships and increases group stability. (More on this in our previous post, Pheromones- What, Why and How We Can Use Them).
A Dialogue with a DifferenceHumans and cats have very different methods of communication. Cats’ finely tuned senses, and attention to detail, give them access to a dimension of discourse from which we are largely excluded. Being aware of subtle cues in their behaviour allows us to better understand them, and better appreciate the intricate system with which they engage with the world, each other and ourselves.
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Bishko, A. What your cat’s body language is saying. WebMD. Retrieved from: https://pets.webmd.com/cats/features/cat-body-language
Rochlitz, I. (2017). Basic Requirements for Good Behavioural Health and Welfare in Cats. In D. F. Horwitz & D. S. Mills (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (pp. 136-144). British Small Animal Veterinary Association.