Cats are intelligent, thoughtful creatures and despite what many people believe, actually enjoy human contact and interaction. For cat owners, it is sometimes a mystery as to what their cat is saying to them but with careful observation, and listening you can learn to understand and improve your communication with your cat. This will enhance your relationship and make it more enjoyable.
Body language and voice are most important. This is what your cat responds to. The softer and higher your voice is the more your cat will respond to it. When naming your cat it is better to choose a one-syllable name or nickname as research shows cats respond better to short names and learn them faster.
Never raise your voice in anger at your cat as they will become fearful of you. When you stand over your cat or kitten consider how your posture and positioning could frighten them. Where possible, interact with them at their level so they do not feel threatened. This establishes trust between you.
Cats respond to your emotions. If you are upset and scared they will show fearful body language. If you are excited and happy they will respond playfully. When you meet a cat for the first time, be still and calm and let the cat come to you first to greet you. The cat has time to have a look at you and a good sniff. A typical cat greeting that lets you know the cat is comfortable in your presence is the ‘slow blink’. When performing this action gaze at the cat’s eyes, relax your face and posture, and then slowly blink. Then hopefully, if the cat likes you it does a slow blink in return.
Cats communicate more through their body language rather than vocal language. Cats have an excellent sense of smell and they use scent to identify their territory. When cats meet each other they will smell each other first usually around the head and rear as this is where the scent glands are located. When first meeting a cat, offer them an item of yours that they can smell such as your hand and clothing, so they can get used to your smell before you get too close. Avoid calling to a cat using ‘puss puss’ or other words that have an ‘ss’ sound as to a cat this sounds like hissing.
Cats have an acute sense of hearing and respond to high-pitched sounds beyond the range of human hearing and they can learn to recognize familiar sounds and their associations. The body language that your cat uses communicates specific messages. They have a range of gestures such as head tilts, tail position, ear movements, and facial expressions. When a cat is frightened they will crouch low, draw their ears back and dilate their pupils. When they are ready for a fight they will arch their back, have their tail in a hooked position and ears flattened, eyes squinted, and move slowly in a sideways position. If your cat is hunting they will crouch low, pupils dilated, eyes wide, tail swings from side to side, and when they get ready to pounce they wiggle their rears and move back slightly. Beware, banging, or swishing their tails can be a sign of irritation and they may want to be left alone.
When cats are content and relaxed they are usually in positions such as laying across the floor stretched out, on their backs, or curled up with their tail around them, eyes half-closed. When your cat is curious and interested and following you to see what you are doing, he will have his tail up, ears forward and eyes wide. Similarly, they will adopt this posture when coming to the door to greet you when you come home. Kneading you or ‘making biscuits’ as some call it, is leftover behaviour from kitten-hood where the kitten kneads its mother’s teats to get her milk. This is an endearing behaviour that indicates their familial bond with you.
Red flag behaviours to watch out for that may indicate pain or illness include: hunched up posture or curled position with head down, tail drooping, eyes may be half-closed and third eyelid may be visible. They may lash out and be angry if you try to disturb them. Any sudden change in your cat’s behaviour may be a sign of illness so it is always best to get them checked out by a vet if this is the case.
All cats have a range of vocalisations and sounds to indicate mood or to ask for what they want. With good listening skills, you can get to know what they mean when they talk to you. The obvious would be a loud throaty yowl which could indicate fear, distress, or asking for attention or food, depending on the situation. Mother cats will chirp softly at their kittens and you may find your cat uses this call for you as they see you as their mother. Plaintive persistent cries may indicate illness/injury or fear. Some cats will even growl when they feel threatened. Hissing and spitting often occur when the cat is in conflict over territory with another cat or pet. When in hunting mode, your cat gets excited watching a bird outside for example, and they will make small chirrups as a sign of excited anticipation. Tiny quiet meows, chirrups, and trills are normally greeting calls or to let you know they want attention, to interact with you, play or cuddle. The classic purr is associated with a happy contented cat but cats in pain may purr to self-soothe.
Some breeds are more vocal than others. For example, the Ragdolls, Maine Coons, Burmese, and Siamese are very vocal and have a range of calls for their humans. It is even possible to have a conversation with your cat. When your cat chirrups or meows at you then copy the sounds and you will find they will talk back. Such interactions will help bond with them and help you understand their language.
Whatever breed of cat you have, whether it be a pedigree or a standard moggie, understanding their body language and behaviours will help you to understand them better. In return, they will reward you with love, loyalty, and companionship. Interestingly, researchers have confirmed that when cats meow, they are only talking to their owners and not to other cats. This is due to the fact that their mothers stop responding to them when they are weaned. So you can quite rightly say you are their cat-mum or cat-dad as they talk to you only!
I Just Got A Kitten. What Do I Do? By Mordecai Siegal (2006.) published by Simon and Schuster ISBN 978-0-7432-4509-8
Total Cat Mojo by Jackson Galaxy (2017.) published by Penguin Random House
Ragdoll Cats A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual by Karen Leigh Davis ISBN 0-7641-0732-1
Guide To Owning a Ragdoll Cat by Gary Strobel and Susan Nelson (2002). TFH publishing