Your cat has many ways to express her needs and tell you how she’s feeling. Along with a wide array of vocal noises, she also has a sophisticated body language. Learning how she communicates helps you understand her a lot better.

Next time your cat is sitting on a windowsill, watch and listen. If she starts “chattering”, you know she’s watching a bird. If her tail starts swishing, she’s in hunting mode. In short, cats are very communicative animals. They tell us when they’re happy by purring and when they’re hungry by meowing. They also express themselves through body language. A contented cat, for example, will be lying down with closed eyes, a relaxed tail and upright ears. Paying attention to your cat’s sounds and signals deepens your understanding of her, and strengthens the bond between you.

“If you don’t make an attempt to understand what [cats] are communicating you might as well get a fish or a lizard,” says Dr. Nicolas Dodman, animal behaviorist and author of The Cat that Cried for Help. “The beauty of cats is that they choose (or not) to spend time with us and do their best to be understood. They don’t have the benefit of a spoken language so the task is not easy (from their perspective).”

Vocal expressions

Cats speak to us primarily with meows, which come in many forms and carry many different meanings. Pay attention, and you will quickly become an expert translator of your own cat’s meows. Easiest to interpret is the meow of request, usually accompanied by a head-held-high, front-paws-together begging posture. Through vocal verbalization, cats also communicate immediate messages like “I’m hungry” or “I’m in the room”. My own cat meows loudly when she gets lonely and wants attention.

Cats speak to us primarily with meows, which come in many forms and carry many different meanings.

Cats have developed this communication system over the last 5,000 years, when the ancient Egyptians first adopted them as domesticated animals. They have learned to adapt their “meows” so we can better understand what they want. “Most people are very poor at really understanding cat communications,” says animal behaviorist Bonnie V. Beaver. “But cats are very good about figuring out which communication signals produce human actions that they like.”

Body language

A cat’s tail is most eloquent of all when it comes to feline body language. It clearly reveals her emotions and moods:

  • Straight up – happy and friendly
  • Swishing vigorously – anger or hunting mode
  • Arched and full – may attack
  • Twitching end – seriously annoyed
  • Lowered and full – afraid

How else does your cat respond to you and her environment? Do any of these look familiar?

  • Rubbing against your legs – affectionately marking you with her scent
  • Rolling over on back – completely trusts you
  • Arched back with staring eyes – ready to attack
  • Lying on your reading material – comfortable
  • Purring – generally signals happiness

The body language cats use for us is different from that used with other cats. According to a study of pair-housed cats conducted by veterinarian S. Crowell-Davis, cats spend 50% of their time out of sight of one another. “Cats use olfactory communication in certain situations with other cats, such as crossing another outdoor cat’s home range route or approaching their resting areas,” says animal behaviorist Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli. “It also helps indoor cats know the recent whereabouts of cohabitating felines.”

Knowing what your cat thinks, feels or wants is key to ensuring she is properly looked after. By being attentive, you can detect whether she is angry, hungry, tired, play- ful or in pain. In fact, by learning your cat’s signals, you can help identify any problems that may arise.

By being attentive, you can detect whether she is angry, hungry, tired, playful or in pain.

Early signs of illness or disease include a refusal to eat, scratching constantly, or hiding.

“Learning what cats are trying to communicate – or just how they are feeling – goes a long way toward creating a strong, healthy human-animal bond, which can work to the benefit of both parties,” says Dr. Dodman. With a simple meow or the flicker of an ear, our feline friends speak volumes to all who listen.