What is your cat trying to tell you? A Cat/Human Dictionary
Although cats are quite capable of verbal communication – and some, like Siamese, are very adept – this is always a secondary channel to them. A verbal signal is used to draw attention to something else – something that we’ve often missed! To complicate matters further, compared with humans, cats have a limited repertoire of vocalised “words” and although there is a great deal of variation in tone, most humans can’t recognise all the subtle variations. Of course, scent is also important to cats – but this isn’t a communications mode that we are able to access, most of the time.
As a result, to understand what your cat is trying to say you need to understand their underlying body language as well as the verbal component! In this blog, we’ve compiled a “dictionary” of the most common cat signals, and what they usually mean. Remember, though, that cats are intelligent, learning animals – they often modify their language around their owners to make their point understood, by learning what signal gets what response. Communication is, after all, a two-way process…
1 – Facial Expressions:
● Narrowed pupils – I’m angry (or, the light’s too bright!).
● Wide or dilated pupils – I’m afraid (or, it’s dark out here…).
● Ears rotated sideways – I’m angry or afraid; or I’m going to fight you.
● Ears pointed forward – I’m relaxed, I’m interested or I’m curious.
● Ears flat against head – I’m terrified and I’ll bite if you threaten me.
● Eyes half-closed – I’m quite happy now and feeling contented.
● Whiskers spread out in front – I’m very curious, I’m tense, or I’m hunting.
● Whiskers relaxed and pointing sideways – I’m relaxed.
● Whiskers pulled tightly back towards the face and neck – I’m scared or nervous.
2 – Eye Contact:
● Staring at you and blinking a lot – I’m relaxed and happy, but I just want you to know that I know you’re there and that’s fine.
● Staring without blinking – I’m not happy, you’re too close, or I’m angry with you.
● No eye contact – I’m not interested in you right now.
3 – Tail Position:
● Vertical – I’m friendly and coming to say hello.
● Horizontal backwards – I’m nervous.
● Horizontal and wagging from side to side – I’m angry, get out of my way, or I want to play a hunting game with you (which one will depend on what other signals they’re giving you, and either way may well end up in bloodshed on your part!).
● Up but not vertical, and fluffed up with the hair standing on end – I’m terrified and trying to make myself look big and strong – and I’ll bite if I think you’re threatening me.
● Tucked forward between back legs – I’m nervous, or I’m submitting, please don’t hurt me.
4 – Curve of the Back:
● Arched – I’m ready to defend myself, watch out!
● Crouched and cringing – I’m scared.
● Stretched out – I’m feeling confident (can change to I’m about to attack you very quickly – a display of confidence can be a subtle threat in some situations).
● Bottom stuck up in the air – I’m in heat and want to be mated (this is the natural meaning; however, cats can learn use this posture to communicate other things with people sometimes, such as I want you to stroke me).
5 – Rolling:
● Rolling on back and showing belly – I’m friendly or submissive or I feel safe here (this does NOT usually mean they want their belly stroked though!); can also mean I want to play-fight.
● Lying on side with neck curved and paws waving – I want to play or I want to play-fight.
6 – Head rubbing:
This is part of the I want to say hello routine, and is linked to scent marking.
7 – Murmuring Sounds (those made with the mouth closed):
● Purring – Often misinterpreted by people, because it has so many different possible meanings, depending on the circumstances and what other signals they’re giving. Purring most often means I’m happy and relaxed, or Hello, good to see you. It can mean You’re safe with me (e.g. a mother with her kittens) or Come and make a fuss me. However, it can also be a signal that I’m not threatening you or even, sometimes I’m afraid, please leave me alone. In the latter case, if you don’t leave them alone, it can result in the cat feeling more afraid and escalating to I need to defend myself and an (apparently) unprovoked bite or scratch.
● Chirruping – Hello again.
8 – Miaows:
Again, there are a wide range of subtly different miaows, with different meanings, but mostly they mean Let’s be friendly in one way or another. The partial exceptions include:
● High pitched prolonged miaow – I’m hungry, please feed me!
● High pitched short miaow – I’m not happy now.
● Middle or low pitched prolonged miaow – Look out! Often with “pointing” behaviour to indicate a possible threat from outside, e.g. another cat or a dog that they want to warn you or another cat about.
9 – Aggressive sounds – all of the following mean Get away from me or I’ll hurt you, or in some cases just I’m going to try and kill you for that and may be used equally in aggressive or defensive situations:
As you can see, feline communication can be just as complicated as ours, and to understand what they really mean, you need to look at all the components – not just one!