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Cat Talk: Cat Language Explained

How to Understand Cat Language

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Cat talk and cat language puzzles us. Cats have been regarded for centuries as mysterious, solitary, unpredictable creatures because we can’t understand what they're saying. But savvy cat owners can decipher cat language. While people rely primarily on speech to communicate, “felinese” is predominately a silent language. Cats speak by using complex combinations of sign language, vocalization and scent cues. Learn how to recognize cat language basics, and figure out the most common combinations, to understand what your cat is saying to you, and to the other fur-kids.

1. Meows, Purrs and More

Even Kittens Talk With Meows
Photo Credit: © Amy Shojai, CABC from "Complete Kitten Care"

Cats use vocalizations to express emotion. Meowing, purring, hisses, growls and more are included in the feline repertoire, each with special meanings depending upon context.

2. Ear Talk

What Do Jaspurr's Forward Tilting Ears Say?
Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy

Cats also express emotion with their ears, as well as intent. Generally speaking, the more a cat’s ears swivel sideways and backwards, the greater the cat’s arousal.

3. Eye Talk

Kitty with wide open eyes.
Photo Credit: © Amy D. Shojai, courtesy of "Complete Kitten Care"

Cats communicate with their eyelids—how open or closed they are—as well as with the dilation of the iris (black portion of the eye). A sudden dilation (enlarging) of the iris results from sudden arousal which could be due to fear, interest or any other strong emotion.

4. Tail Talk

What is Jenny's tail saying?
Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy

The cat tail signals interest, affection, arousal, and more. The height of the tail, as well as the motion, has meaning. A flailing or thumping tail usually is a signal to keep your distance.

5. Fur Talk

Cat With Bristled Hair
Photo Credit: © iStockPhoto

A healthy, calm cat’s fur rests smoothly against the body. Unkempt fur can indicate ill health. But sudden fluffed hair, including a “bottle brush” tail, suggests fear or aggression.

6. Smell & Scent

Tiny Kitten Hisses at Unknown Scent
Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy

We can’t detect the scent cues cats use for communication. Among scent tools, cats employ urine and feces, bunting (body rubbing) behavior, and clawing to leave scented Post-It messages that other cats read.

7. Body Talk

What Does This Cat's Body Language Say?
Photo Credit: © iStock Photo/Debi Bishop

The cat’s body posture indicates everything from confidence to fear or submission. To understand the full message, the body talk must be read in conjunction with what the eyes, ears, tail, fur, and vocalizations express.

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