This is a brief overview of the communication signals of the domestic cat and is designed to give veterinarians some skills in cat communication. A cat sends signals with its face, body and ears as well as with its vocalisations, which are interesting, highly individualistic and very expressive.
Many people still believe that cats are solitary and aloof animals that tolerate humans but are not interested in them. But as many cat owners are aware, this doesn't match their experiences nor does it gel with the findings of researchers investigating feline social behaviour and communication.
Cats can communicate complex signals in such a way that they are very clear not only to other cats but other animals such as dogs in the family as well as people. They do this by using sounds or auditory signals (meows, purrs, growls and hisses) in combination with visual signal changes in body language (expressive tails, ears, whiskers and bodies). They also use odours and tactile signals.
What is Communication?
Communication requires a sender, a message, a medium and a recipient, although the receiver does not have to be present or aware of the sender's intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus, communication can occur across vast distances in time and space. The communication process is complete once the receiver understands the sender's message, and this is where most problems between cats or between cats and people occur.
Put simply, communication is about sending and receiving messages between two or more parties. The messages may be sent instantaneously, like a hiss or a stare, or it can be 'posted' to be read by other cats as they encounter it, like scratch marks on a tree trunk or urine sprayed in a prominent place.
Despite the differences in the way messages are presented, cat and human communication has much in common - this is probably one reason that cats and people are able to get along so well.
Both species rely on vocal messages and visual signals (commonly called body language) to add meaning and nuance to messages sent. Humans also leave signs to be read at a later date in the form of signposts, books, blogs, graffiti and internet postings. While the technology is different, the intent is the same - to leave a message identifying ourselves to others who come later. Problems arise between cats and people when we misinterpret the messages they are trying to send.
Before we can do something about these misunderstandings of communication between cats and people, it is important to understand where cats have come from and how they organize themselves socially. These are important factors that influence the way cats communicate.
Cats are territorial - they claim, mark and defend territories where they live and hunt. The size of a territory is determined, in part, by the amount of food it contains. In areas with abundant food, such as in a farm hayshed, a large number of cats may live closely together. While cats are solitary hunters, they do live in social groups - queens will often live in a loose group consisting of a queen and kittens from her last one or two litters. Female family members may even have adjacent territories.
Adult males usually have territories that overlap those of a group of queens. The importance of this for those of us who share our lives with cats in the cities and suburbs is that these territories may not align with house property lines. Therefore, it is possible for a cat to claim the front yard of the house in which it lives as its territory but not the backyard.
Cats send signals using body language; that is by changing their posture, the position of their limbs and ears and with piloerection. Cats are very expressive, and it helps when trying to understand cat communication signals to look at each area of the face and body separately.
Body: Cats send messages to other cats, animals and humans using their bodies. The size and shape of the body, the position of ears and tail and the visibility of potential weapons such as teeth and claws all convey important messages to others. In general terms, confident cats stand tall and evenly on all four feet, with their tail up or level with their back, and their ears forward. In general, attacking cats try to make themselves appear larger to their opponent. They do this standing at their full height and raising fur. The tail will be raised and the fur piloerect. When a cat really wants to convince another cat or person that it means business, the cat will arch its back. The more fearful a cat is feeling, the lower their body gets to the ground. Uncertain cats may take the middle road, often lowering their rumps while keeping their forelegs available for striking.
Ears: A cat that is interested in what is going on around it will have its ears forward. A frightened cat will have its ears flat and backward facing. Often cats that are attempting to bluff another cat or who are not certain will hold their ears halfway between these positions, sideways.
Eyes: Interested cats tend to look at the person or object of their interest. Cats will stare at other cats or people as an aggressive signal. This should not be confused with making friendly eye contact. Aggressive stares are intense. Friendly eye contact can be soft, and often the cat may blink in an exaggerated manner. This can also be seen when they are trying to decrease tension between two cats.
Less confident cats and cats that wish to avoid a physical altercation will avoid looking at another cat or a person who is staring at them. By avoiding eye contact, the cat may simply look away, or if it is feeling really uncomfortable, it may engage in some intensive grooming activity or displacement activity (which in feline terms means a common feline rule of thumb - "When in doubt, groom"). Other cats often avoid looking at a cat who is engaged in a bout of composure grooming. The grooming behaviour is a displacement behaviour motivated by feeling threatened but unsure if it is best to run away or stay put.
Tail: Cat tails are extremely expressive and very rarely still - they swish when a cat is agitated or annoyed and sway gently when a cat is happy and relaxed. Vertical tails are seen at greetings, during play and in the female during sexual approaches. Horizontal tails are seen during amicable approaches. Lowered tails are seen in aggressive incidents and a tail held between the legs is seen when a cat really wants to avoid any altercation. The concave tail position where the tail is held vertically from the base and then curves over so the tip points at the ground is often used in aggressive incidences but may also be seen during play.
The vocalisations cats make have been studied for many years, partly as their sense of hearing is so much greater than that of humans and also because they were used as a model for the development of the bionic ear.
The sounds cats make can be divided into three main categories:
Sounds made with the mouth shut
Sounds made with the mouth initially open but then closing
Sounds made with the mouth held open
Some sounds are specific to particular circumstances, such as the sounds a queen makes for her kittens.
Closed mouth: There are two sounds made included in this group. They are the purr and the trill/chirrup/greeting meow. Purring has fascinated people for a long time. It is a monotone sound made by cats in a wide range of situations - the common feature of all the situations appears to be cat-cat or cat- human contact. Interestingly, cats also purr when in extreme pain. There is little information to explain why this occurs but some think this may be an attempt at self-calming by the cat.
The trill/chirrup/greeting meow is, as its name suggests, uttered upon contact with a known, and liked, cat or person.
Open-closing mouth: there are four sounds included in this group - the meow, the long meow, the female call and the mowl (a male call). Only the meow and long meow will are discussed here, as they are social communications that are often directed at humans. The other sound that is common, is used during the mating season (spring).
The meow is a general communication sound for cats, with the long meow being a high intensity version of the ordinary meow. Many cats have expressive meows that can be identified as having different meanings by their human families. Most cat owners learn what their cat's meow means - for example, when it wants to go out and when it wants some food. The variety in the meows of cats appears to be due to the individual differences between cats and, for meows directed at people, the result of interactions with humans. The role of the long meow in cat-cat communication is unclear at present, but many cat owners know what their cat means when they direct a long meow at them; for example - Open the door please! Hurry up with the food!
Open mouth: These sounds are the sounds of aggression; that is the growl, the yowl, the snarl, the hiss, and the spit. Growling, yowling and snarling are used when the cat signals it is threatening or actively attacking, while hissing and spitting tend to be used in defensive aggression, when the cat feels threatened or is attacked.
Cats recognize members of their social group or enemies by their appearance and by their smell. Each cat has its own particular smell, the result of secretions from glands in the skin of the corners of the mouth, sides of the forehead, and along the tail. Typical feline greeting behaviour involves sniffing these areas and around the anus. Cats will rub or bunt their faces against objects, people, familiar dogs and other cats to spread their scent around, not because they are necessarily friendly.
It has been suggested that this behaviour forms a group scent which identifies members of their particular social group. Members who go missing from the group may initially be rejected until they smell "right" again. This is why it can be useful in multi-cat households to rub a newcomer or a recently absent feline family member with a towel that has been rubbed over the other cat members of the family. The fact the cat smells 'right' can speed its acceptance into the group. The synthetic feline pheromone analogue Feliway® can also be used for this purpose.
Urine: Long-term odour signals are posted prominently using urine sprayed on vertical surfaces. The urine can smell very pungent, and acts to inform other cats of the sex and sexual status of the cat claiming the territory. Spraying increases when queens are calling (in oestrus and looking for a mate). Some cats will also spray if they feel worried or anxious. However, cats do not spray because they are angry or spiteful or mean.
Many cats are surrendered or euthanised because of behavior problems, but some of this may have been prevented if clients had a better appreciation of normal feline behavior and communication. Understanding cat communication signals assists veterinarians and their staff.
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