Cat Talk: Cat Language Explained

How to Understand Cat Language

Cat talk and cat language sometimes 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...MORE combinations, to understand what your cat is saying to you, and to the other fur-kids.

With practice, you will soon be an expert at cat language, to the extent that you may even be able to answer back, in some instances. 

  • 01 of 07

    Meows, Purrs and More

    Young tabby cat in a bed
    Andrei Spirache/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

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

  • 02 of 07
    What Do Jaspurr's Forward Tilting Ears Say?
    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.

  • 03 of 07

    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.

  • 04 of 07
    What is Jenny's tail saying?
    Jenny's Tail Talk. 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.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Fur Talk

    Cat With Bristled Hair
    Cat Displaying Fur Talk. Photo Credit: © iStockPhoto

    A healthy, calm cat’s fur rests smoothly against the body. Unkempt fur can indicate ill health, and should not be ignored, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, such as lethargy, or vomiting. But sudden fluffed coat, including a “bottle brush” tail, suggests fear or aggression.

  • 06 of 07
    Tiny Kitten Hisses at Unknown Scent
    Tiny Kitten Hisses at Unknown Scent. Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy

    We can’t always detect or interpret  the scent cues cats use for communication. However, among scent tools, cats employ strong urine marking and feces, bunting (body rubbing) behavior, and clawing to leave scented Post-It messages that other cats read. Cats are selfish about their territory, and the scents they leave behind are clearly designed to send the message that "this territory is MINE" to would-be interlopers.

    Cats' sense of scent is so powerful that even very young kittens...MORE utilize scent before they can see clearly. This tiny kitten pictured here was hissing at the foreign scent of my finger that was pointed at him.  (I later adopted him and he no longer hisses at me.) 

  • 07 of 07
    What Does This Cat's Body Language Say?
    What Does This Cat's Body Language Say?. Photo Credit: © iStock Photo/Debi Bishop

    The cat’s total 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.

    The cat in this photo appears to be relaxed and happy with his young woman companion.  I can tell so because of the visual clues:  His ears point slightly forward, his eyes are relaxed, and his whiskers are also pointed forward.