People with cats know that cats can send complex signals to those around them. More interestingly, it seems that cats can communicate in unseen ways sometimes. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How do cats communicate?” then you’ve come to the right place. Today we look at the different ways that cats can transfer information.

How Do Cats Communicate?

There are many ways that cats are able to transmit information. These modes include:
  • Vocal
  • Visual
  • Tactile
  • Olfactory
We’ll look at these different modes of data transmission separately below.

Vocal

A cat’s vocal communication may be the one mode that most people are aware of. We can all imagine the look and sound of a meowing kitten or a purring adult cat sitting comfortably on a lap. These are methods of vocal communication. A cat’s vocal communication includes:
  • Purring
  • Mewing
  • Meowing
  • Chirring
  • Chirping
  • Growling or hissing
  • Howling or wailing
  • Other ultrasonic vocalization
Almost everyone knows the “happy” sounds that cats can make. These would include purring, mewing and meowing. Purring is rather unique to cats though even some big cats can purr. Most people believe that purring is used to signify a positive social mood. So, some cats will purr when they are comfortable in their owner’s lap. Some cats will purr after a traumatic event when they are open to friendship for comfort. Some cats purr just to say, “thank you.” Many people also believe that mewing or meowing are almost the same thing. The youngest kittens let out a mew when looking for their mother. By the age of four or five months, kittens stop meowing, but will meow instead. Because adult cats don’t seem to meow to each other, meowing seems to be an extension of mewing. In place of a mother cat, a meow is usually used to gain the attention of the cat’s owner. Chirping is usually done by a kitten’s mother to call them back home. And a call means a female cat is looking for a suitor. Growls and hisses show the cat is feeling threatened or is willing to threaten another. In pretty much all cases, a hissing cat tells others to back off and leave them alone.

Visual

When considering how do cats communicate, visual cues sometimes tell a large part of the story. You can look at a cat’s posture, tail or face to help read the situation. Imagine in your mind a cat lounging in the sun, lying on their back. Their belly exposed to the world shows that they are feeling safe and trust their owner. Compare this to a cat who is meeting a new dog for the first time. They may have their back arched and hair on end. That cat is saying ‘don’t mess with me.’ A cat’s eyes and ears can tell a story too. A surprised cat may have their ears at full alert, whereas a defensive or angry cat may have their ears tucked back. Eye contact can also give clues as to how a cat is feeling. You’ve certainly seen your cat “stalking” their prey. They do not break eye contact and hardly blink. The cat can’t take their eyes of their prey. If a cat makes eye contact and blinks, it shows they are relaxed and ready for approach. A cat’s tail also helps them communicate. They may flick their tail lazily from side to side to show the cat is relaxed and ready to hang out with you. A tail that twitches may show excitement or playfulness. And a tail that is in full motion shows indecision or discomfort.

Tactile

Cats sometimes like to touch and feel their environment. Cats can sometimes be found grooming their friends by licking. Cats have also been known to touch noses with other cats or people they are fond of. Cats also do not often touch the backs of other cats, so many cats do not like long strokes on their backs like a dog might. Cats are more used to gentle touches on their face or head and pets on the side of their bodies. Have you ever had a cat sit in your lap and start kneading your legs? This is another tactile way cats communicate. It’s thought that kittens would use the same action to stimulate a milk let-down by their mother. While your cat may not be trying to get milk from you, this action shows your cat’s affection for you. Cats also have scent glands on the underside of their paws. When they knead their paws on you, they are likely transferring their scent to you as well. This brings us to the last mode of cat communication.

Olfactory

Cats can communicate using the scent of urine, feces, and pheromones. This can explain why cats may rub their face on your leg. They have pheromone producing glands in their mouth, chin, forehead, and cheeks. Rubbing their face on you marks you as theirs. Cats sometimes also spray urine to mark their territory. This spray lets other cats and animals know that the area belongs to them. Outdoors this is not a huge problem and can even help deter small pests. A smart mouse is not going to risk traveling around is cat territory if they can help it.

Last Thoughts on Cat Communication

Just like with people, cat communication is complex. You’re certainly asking yourself “How do cats communicate?” because you’re noticing some strange or out of place behavior in your own cat. Hopefully, after reading this you have a better idea of what your cat might be doing and what they are trying to tell you.

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