What is your cat trying to tell you?

Contributor: Samantha Bell, Cat Expert for Best Friends Animal Society

Samantha Bell has been working with shelter cats and cat behavior for over 20 years. She spent many years as the Cat Behavior & Enrichment Lead for Best Friends Animal Society and as a national trainer for Jackson Galaxy’s Cat Pawsitive program. Currently, Samantha is the Cat Content Strategist for Best Friends and runs her own cat business at samanthabell.org.

Champion Petfoods is a corporate sponsor of Best Friends Animal Society

Cats communicate with us (and other cats) through body language and vocalization, but it isn’t always easy to know what they’re trying to say. Here are 4 common questions about cat communication answered to help you get along better with your feline. 

1. What are some of the most common cat sounds, and what do they mean?

Cats communicate with us (and other cats) through body language and vocalization. Cats are able to produce an incredible number of different sounds, and each of those sounds can have multiple nuanced variations that reflect how they’re feeling. NOTE: if you notice your cat has started to vocalize more frequently or in new ways, please take your cat to a vet to get them checked.

The most common cat communication sound is “meow.” Newborn kittens meow to help their mothers locate them, and adult cats meow mainly to communicate with humans. A meow is a special form of communication between cats and their humans, and it can mean many things including a way to say hi, or a way to show they need something. If the meow sounds more like a howl, it can mean that the cat is in distress. 

Another common cat sound is one that we love: their purr. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when a cat is purring it’s because they’re happy, so enjoy it! There are very rare occasions when a cat is injured or severely stressed that they will purr to self-soothe, but most likely your cat is comfortable and feeling good when they’re purring. Sometimes cats also purr when they’re begging. Sometimes when they’re being so sweet and loving, it’s because they want something (usually food). You can tell because these purrs have a higher pitch and a bit of a whine to them.

Chirps and trills are how cats communicate with each other. Sometimes when I meet a shy cat who prefers cats to humans I’ll chirp to them to try to put them at ease. A chirp sounds like a high-pitched “brrrp” with an emphasis on the rolled r’s. These are happy sounds!

The hiss gets a bad rap and I want to help put an end to that. A hiss translates to “I’m not feeling comfortable right now.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Think of all the other ways a cat could express that they’re not feeling comfortable: a swat, a scratch, or a bite. A hiss is such a gentle way for them to express this. When kids are upset, we ask them to “use their words.” Cats already do this and should be celebrated for it! When a cat hisses, back away, or remove whatever is making them hiss. This is the best way to show them that you respect the hiss and will build trust between you and the cat.

2. Cats use many parts of their body to express themselves. Which are the most important, and what can they tell you? 

Cats express their thoughts, feelings, and intentions through body language. But you shouldn’t base how a cat is feeling off of one body part. Instead, you need to look at them all together to figure it out.

As far as ears go you want your cat’s ears to be upright and relaxed — that means they’re comfortable and interested. If you notice your cat’s ears are starting to turn or flatten (“airplane ears”), that usually means they’re feeling unsure or nervous. And if your cat’s ears are completely flat against the back of their head, they’re likely terrified.

When looking at your cat’s eyes, you want the pupils to be a normal size. This means they’re feeling relaxed and comfortable. If your cat’s pupils are extremely dilated that can mean they are quite scared (or the room is dark). And if your cat’s pupils are quite constricted that can mean they’re very focused (or the room is light). Also, if your cat is slowly blinking at you it’s a form of affection, and they’re showing you that they can trust you.

Your cat’s tail is another body part that tells us how they’re feeling. If their tail is up with a little bend at the top, the cat is feeling confident and friendly. If their tail is down and tucked under, that means they’re likely scared. And if their tail is flicking back and forth, that means they have a lot of energy in their body — they could be excited or they could be agitated. Either way, it’s not a good time to pet them when their tail is flicking.

3. How do cats express love and affection with humans and each other?

Humans associate love and affection with physical contact: touching, holding, hugging, etc. But cats do not. Domestic cats today still retain some of their wild instincts that could cause them to feel like prey when they’re being touched, held, or hugged. So, the best way to show your cat love and affection is by giving them choices and letting them call the shots. Put your hand out and let them choose to rub on it. If they do rub on it, then they’re reciprocating that love.

A cat’s expression of love and affection may be subtle, but they do express affection in several ways. When a cat chooses to sit close to you, next to you, or on you, they’re showing they love you. When a cat slow blinks at you or grooms you, they’re also showing they love you.

4. Cats are good at hiding when they are sick or in pain. What are some warning signs your cat might be unwell? 

To keep themselves safe in the wild, cats developed the ability to hide the fact that they are sick or in pain. They still retain this wild instinct today, so we have to be on the lookout for subtle changes in their behavior. If your cat seems less tolerant of touch or less interested in interacting with you, this could indicate that they’re not feeling well. Other indicators that your cat may be unwell are changes to their appetite, energy levels, and litter box usage. They may groom themselves more or stop grooming. Weight loss and gain, even in subtle amounts, is a great indicator of health. I recommend weighing your cats monthly to stay on top of their health. Pay close attention to these types of changes and book a vet visit if you spot a change in your cat.