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How to Understand Cat Language

Anne has a BSc Hons in Applied Psychology (inc. animal psychology) and has trained dogs, cats, rabbits and donkeys over the past 40 years.

"I love you"

"I love you"

What Does It Mean When a Cat Meows?

Cats talk to us in all sorts of ways and not just with their voice. But we’re all familiar with the meowing sound, and any cat owner will tell you there are several types of meowing.

SoundMeaningAlternative Meaning

Ever more persistent meow

“I’m hungry”

"Let me in" or "let me out"

Low-toned long grumble

“Where have you been?”


Deep-throated meow

Fear and distress


Rhythmic deep-throated yowl

“Warning! Keep away!”



Happy and contented


Is My Cat Hungry?

  • There’s the “I’m hungry, feed me” meowing, an ever-more-persistent sound that is designed by nature to be impossible to ignore.
  • This can also be extended to "let me in" or "let me out," sometimes one immediately after the other!
  • And then there’s the lower toned and long grumble of “you left me out all night” that greets you when you open the door in the morning, despite the fact that you called and called the night before but Kitty remained resolutely staring at you from underneath the car.

Is My Cat in Trouble?

  • Then there’s the more serious deep-throated meow that communicates fear and distress.
  • This is the one I often get when Kitty is in her cage in the car on the way to the vet, and it usually comes moments before she defecates. Defecating is involuntary and is the ultimate sign of distress. Poor Kitty!
  • A rhythmic deep-throated yowling often indicates that there is a threat around, usually in the form of another cat.
  • It is a warning to the other cat to “keep away, this is my territory.”
  • Cats will only fight as a last resort; however, it might be best to intervene and separate the cats, just in case.

Does Purring Always Mean That My Cat Is Happy?

  • Most people know that cats purr when they are contented, but not many non-cat-owners know that cats also purr when they are frightened.
  • This is their way of trying to fool you that all is well and they’re not really frightened at all—a bit like whistling in the dark to pretend you’re not really afraid.

Interesting Facts About the Cat's Mew

In the wild, kittens who are still dependent on their mother mew when they want milk or are in trouble. It is said that adult cats never make that pitiful mewing sound to one another or to other animals. They only do it to humans. According to Desmond Morris, author of Cat Watching, that's because to our pet cat, we are their mother. Whatever way they may behave outdoors with other cats or animals, whenever we are around, they revert to being kittens.

My Experience With Our Cats

Having said that, I have occasionally witnessed a situation where an adult cat will mew at another. For example, we rescued a very elderly male cat named Cyril, who had a gentle and affectionate nature. A year or so later, we rescued a young adult female named Missy. From day one, Missy followed Cyril around everywhere and mewed at him whenever she was hungry or frightened. I believe it was because Cyril had such a gentle and nurturing nature, even though he was male, that Missy "adopted" him as her mother.

Tail up and curved: "Hmm, this white stuff is interesting."

Tail up and curved: "Hmm, this white stuff is interesting."

A bushy tail means your cat is interested and excited!

A bushy tail means your cat is interested and excited!

What Does a Cat's Tail Say?

As mentioned earlier, cats don’t just talk with their voices. Tails are also an excellent tool for communication.

  • When Kitty’s tail is straight up, then all is well in her world.
  • When it’s up, but slightly curved (a bit like a question mark!), then she’s curious.
  • If she’s very curious and excited by her surroundings, which is usually when she’s exploring new territory, then the tail goes all bushy and looks almost like a fox’s tail!
  • When it’s wagging from side to side, then Kitty is unsure or confused and conflicted, or she’s angry.
  • If she’s crouching down and thumps her tail on the ground, then she’s just about to pounce!
  • If Kitty’s tail is tucked under and between her legs, she’s frightened.

Tail Talk

Position or Appearance of TailMeaning

Tail straight up

All is well

Tail up with slight curve


Very bushy tail up with curve

Curious and excited

Wagging from side to side

Angry, or unsure and conflicted

Thumping on the ground

About to pounce

Ears to the side = "What's that sound?"

Ears to the side = "What's that sound?"

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Read More From Pethelpful

Cats Talk With Their Ears, Too!

Observing Kitty’s ears are also a good way of knowing what she’s thinking.

  • If they’re facing forward, then she’s interested and alert, but contented.
  • If she hears something unfamiliar or unexpected, then her ears will point toward the sound.
  • An unpleasant sound will cause her to turn her ears sideward.
  • And if Kitty is really frightened or threatened, she will flatten her ears against her head. This is often a sign of imminent attack, so be warned!

Ear Talk

Position of EarsMeaning

Facing forward

All is well. Interested and alert

Pointing in different directions

Listening to an unexpected or unfamiliar sound

Pointing sideward

Trying to avoid an unpleasant sound

Ears flat against the head

Fear or aggression

Half-closed eyelids show affection.

Half-closed eyelids show affection.

Other Cat Body Language

Is your cat being sly or affectionate?

Many people who don’t know cats label them as “sly” because of the way they look at you with those half-closed eyes. In fact, if a cat stares at you wide-eyed, then she’s challenging you and you must stare them down if you want to be Top Cat. The first to look away is the loser! A friendly cat will half-close their eyes and blink at you, showing affection.

Headbutting is also a way of showing affection, as is slowly rhythmically clawing your lap. This is because a kitten claws the mother’s teat to stimulate the flow of milk, and this action stays with them into adulthood as a show of comfort and affection. Kitty will also often tilt her head slightly, with half-closed eyes, as an affectionate greeting from across the room.

Cat Body Language

Body Position or AttitudeMeaning

Wide open eyes

Challenging (though not necessarily aggressive)

Half-closed eyelids

Affection or friendliness

Head butting


Slowly and rhythmically clawing your lap


Tilting their head slightly at you


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Have been feeding a male feral cat for several years. He interacts successfully with our domestic cats. At feeding time he approaches within three feet then stops and looks away. He will not come closer or turn his head back until I leave. What is he saying?

Answer: The feral cat is showing submissive behavior to you by not approaching or looking you in the eye. This is common behavior particularly around food. He is telling you that you are the Alpha and he does not want to challenge you.

Question: My new kitten approaches my older cat, stands tall then tilts his head to the side while staring at my older cat and approaching more. What does this mean?

Answer: Sounds like your kitten is challenging your older cat's position. Brave kitten!

Question: What does it mean when my cat sits directly on my chest like a sphinx, looking straight into my eyes, and at times tilting his head? Also, he's always on top of me, kneading my chest and face.

Answer: If he has his eyes wide open while looking straight into your eyes, then he is asserting his dominance (or at least his impression of dominance). But if his eyes are half closed, then it is a signal of submission and friendliness. The kneading is something all cats do when they are happy, but I wouldn't let him do it on your face. That is also a signal of dominance, and by allowing him to do it, you're submitting.

Question: My cat growls when someone pulls up in our driveway. She growls and does a cat bark when they knock on the door, then does a low army crawl run to the closet to hide. Does anybody else have a cat watchdog? I can't find too much info about my cat's dog-like behavior.

Answer: Your cat's behavior is not particularly unusual. All cats growl and can also make barking-like sounds whenever they're frightened or angry. Crawling on her belly to a hiding place is also typical of what a frightened cat does. It seems your cat is scared of people pulling into your driveway. Perhaps she's had a bad experience before, like being run over maybe.

Question: Both of my cats (less than 6 months and a 5 year old cat) both tilt their heads while looking at me, they make direct eye contact but dont act dizzy. They just tilt their head 90 degrees. They only do it every now and then. What does this mean?

Answer: It's said that cats tilt their head when looking at you because they can see you better that way. A bit like the way we squint when trying to read very small print. I know they also do it when they're listening, same as dogs do.

Question: Why does my cat swing her head rapidly side to side when someone approaches her?

Answer: I'm afraid though that I don't have a definitive answer. I haven't come across a cat that swings their head from side to side when someone approaches them. However, although it might not be typical cat behavior, there is a possibility that it is learned behavior. Kittens learn from their mother, but also, if they have a particularly close bond to their humans, or even to other pets in the home, they learn from them too. If your cat also has her belly to the floor and her ears tight against her head, she is frightened. But if she is a relaxed posture while swinging her head, and half closing her eyes, then she is showing you affection. Sorry, I don't have a better answer. I have heard about a book thought that might have the answer. I haven't actually read it myself, but I have heard it's very good. The link is below, and just so you know, I don't get any benefit or commission from recommending it to you here in the comments section ;-)

Question: What does it mean when my cat tilts its head?

Answer: Kitty will also often tilt her head slightly, with half-closed eyes, as an affectionate greeting from across the room.

Question: Why does my kitten run so much at night?

Answer: Cats are hunters by nature, and they conserve their energy for the hunt by sleeping a lot. But when they are being fed by us humans there is no need for them to hunt, so they need to get rid of this energy in some way. So they get what some people call "The Zoomies". It's natural, common, and just a way of getting rid of excess energy. And it's also fun for them!


annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on March 22, 2013:

Thank you for your kind comments, nArdchuleta. Yes, the slow blink is also what I was referring to when I mentioned the half-closed eyes. Exposing the stomach is often misinterpreted by dog owners as asking for a belly rub! Quite the opposite in cats, as you say, it's a show of trust that you won't touch that vulnerable area!

Nadia Archuleta from Denver, Colorado on March 22, 2013:

What a very interesting Hub. I love reading about cat behavior. Have you ever heard that a slow blink actually means "I love you"? Also that exposing the stomach is equated with trust? I like your explanation of cats purring when they are afraid, "like whistling in the dark." Thanks for posting this Hub!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 05, 2012:

Thank you :-) dog language is so different from cat language, isn't it? It's no wonder there are so many 'misunderstandings' between them.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on October 04, 2012:

Anne, I just loved this in-depth look at cat language. I'm pretty up on my dog language skills and now your Hub has given me some insight into cat behavior and feline-speak. The information, presentation and photos are great! Congrats on your HOTD!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 03, 2012:

Great story, Billrrr! I once knew a highland terrier who could say "sausages" quite distinctly. Most of our cats have come walkies with us, and I assumed this was the same with all cats until recently, when I met someone who rescues cats and can have up to 20 at a time. He's never known a cat to go walking with their owners!

Bill Russo from Cape Cod on October 03, 2012:

Purrty interesting. I have had several cats and one of them (Ozzie) actually spoke our language. His best word, which he intoned with great authority, was "Out". His out request, spoken clearly with accent on the 'ow', made it impossible to ignore him. Ozzie also went on nightly walks with Samantha (80 pound Rot-shep mix) and me. He'd usually remain out of sight. But as soon as we would stop, he would appear.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 01, 2012:

Thanks vibesites. I had fun writing the hub. Love that pic too. :-)

vibesites from United States on October 01, 2012:

Thanks for decoding cat language! And I love that pic of cats hugging each other... it's priceless! :)

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 30, 2012:

Thank you for you comment, KenWu. :-)

KenWu from Malaysia on September 30, 2012:

I'm a cat lover and owns two cats, what you have said are absolutely true. :)

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 29, 2012:

Thank you, Dancing Water, for such a lovely comment. All living creatures deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, would you agree? (But particularly cats and dogs! ;-) Lol)

Dancing Water on September 29, 2012:

A lovely, lovely hub! I was aware of most of the content here, but it bears reminding us who have kitties in our households. I so appreciate the clarity and flow of your writing__and the superb organization! The charts are very helpful as well for quick reference. Our fur babies are so very precious, and deserve our attention and study so that we may understand__and treat__them with supreme dignity and affection. Again, thank you for a wonderful hub, Anne!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 28, 2012:

Thank you, Klanguedoc. That habit of climbing up your leg could become quite painful as your kittens get older! :-) Thank you for your vote and your comment.

klanguedoc on September 28, 2012:

Great advice. We just got two kittens in July and we are still learning each other. Our kittens usually climb up my leg in the morning as soon as I get up, followed by some gentle meowing to let me know that they are hungry.

I am voting up

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 28, 2012:

Thank you everyone for your comments. I did try to answer each one individually but they seem to have got mixed up! I love the stories that so many of you have shared about your own cats. They are such interesting and charming animals. I'm babysitting my daughter's cat right now (my grandcat, lol), she's part feral and quite feisty, but I've just sat down to check my Hubs and she's on my lap and head butting my computer as I type...

Jeffrey Yelton from Maryland on September 27, 2012:

Very nice hub!

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on September 27, 2012:

How very interesting. I don't have a cat right now, but my mother does. She just loves her, and I want to go "observe" her for all these interesting communications. Congrats on HOTD!

Heidi from Gulf Coast, USA on September 27, 2012:

Sharing on my FB wall for all of my feline-loving friends!

Debby Bruck on September 27, 2012:

Congratulations, Anne! Super Hub on learning to understand cat language. I like the way you posted the story adjacent to the language charts. I wonder how many people intuitively understand their cats, without needing to learn all these signs? Blessings, Debby

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on September 27, 2012:

With five cats, I've seen most of these. I love both cats and dogs, having one dog, too. I like the tables you created. Well done. Congrats on hub of the day.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on September 27, 2012:

Congratulations on Hub of the day anne! Hubbers love their cats, so it is a win win page you've shared. I have heard every sound imaginable come out of a cat, they have a remarkable vocabulary, that's for sure. The distressed and muffled 'meow' I heard the other day from 'Lickey' was impossible to ignore as she approached me with a bird in her mouth! I reacted with a loud 'get out!' and she dropped the bird, and luckily the door was open and that clever bird managed to right itself and flew right out the door. A happy ending for all.

toiledejouy from Canada on September 27, 2012:

You certainly know how to read cats very well. I have had a couple of cats that used to pout when they were unhappy with something. They would sit with their backs to you and look around occasionally to make sure you noticed...!

CCahill from England on September 27, 2012:

I once heard that scientists put electrodes onto their heads and it turned out every single noise they made translated to "Feed me you stupid ape!"

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on September 27, 2012:

Great, thanks for this hub with insights into the feline world. Living with a 3 legged cat (accident with a trap some years ago - survived somehow) it is fascinating to watch how her moods change - you detail the body language behind these behavioural patterns, from the familiar head butts to the challenging paw strikes and confrontation. What an energy the cat has! Phenomenal speed! Then deep relaxation and contentment.

Votes for this hub.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Relationshipc. In fairness to your dad, I think people are way more complicated than cats! Lol

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Pamela. Yes, the cats do rule in our house too-even though they don't jump on furniture or worktops or go into the bedrooms...that is whenever we're not around!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you. :-)

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Laurel. It was fun to write!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Rogin-Jones.:-)

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Deb. I have-but only at cat shows which we used to attend when our children were small. (They used to enter their cats in the "moggy" section as we never "owned" a pedigree). They are loud, and so beautiful.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

I can see you love cats from you profile pic, kathleenkat (not to mention your username!) Both are great. Thank your for your comment.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you ftclick. You're right, it's not necessary to be at one with the animal in order to understand and love them.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Oh, I am sorry to hear that, Coffeegginmyrice. It has happened to us too! I don't believe a cat will ever voluntarily leave a loving home., but that something or someone has prevented them from returning. I love dogs too, they are just different from cats, but no less lovable!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, breathing. And regards to the beautiful MINI!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Tyler. Cats ARE cool! :-)

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

She's talking, not whining! Lol. Thanks for your comment.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you! Yes, you really do have to take them on their own terms. I saw a great picture last week on facebook, of a cat with its paw on a $20 bill. The caption read-"You want cuddles on demand? Go buy a dog!" lol

kathleenkat from Bellingham, WA on September 27, 2012:

Why is it that cats always seem to stand right behind your ankles, or walk between your feet, or step right in front of you? This is especially true when carrying large objects which obstruct your view of the floor.

I have not had a cat that hasn't tried to trip me multiple times!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Hahaha! I know some people like that too. Thank you.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Yes! Lol. We have a stray that was abandoned, and my husband is convinced that his previous owner was an elderly person whom the cat killed! (He's partly joking-I think...) and that's why he was abandoned because he does that all the time. We have to watch out for him if we're carrying anything with both hands.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Melovy. Whenever I look at a cat, particularly one who doesn't know me, I always half-close my own eyes so they know I'm a friend.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, dghbr. I intend to try!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on September 27, 2012:

Congrats on HOTD! A very well-done article. We have 6 cats--oh--no--not quite right--we just acquired #7, a foster kitten who, at 6 months of age, did not find a home, and the last adoption inquiry fell through. He was so stressed from being taken back and forth to the adoption events, that we finally decided he thought he'd already found his forever home, and would feel betrayed if we gave him away at this point.

They certainly do have many ways of communicating...and the purr is not only a 'whistle in the dark,' but also a biofeedback mechanism if they are in pain. I heard it from one of our girls after her spay surgery...when the dumb vet gave her pain meds before the operation, instead of sending them home for afterwards! She hid under a table, and the sound was definitely a purr--but a very different frequency than her normal purr--much deeper, and almost a cross between a purr and a growl.

(You might want to check your second capsule--you seem to have duplicated the paragraph...)

I voted for 'love both' in your poll...even though our current physical condition no longer allows us to keep up with a dog's we are just cat people now...

Well done, voted up, awesome, useful interesting and shared.

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you for sharing your cats! Yes, headbutting is so sweet. My cat, Harry, loves to jump on my knee in the evenings and we head but one another. My other cat, Cyril, who just arrived on our doorstep one day two years ago (we live in a remote part of the Dublin mountains so I assume someone abandoned him-their loss, our gain), sits on the back of my legs whenever I'm kneeling at the flowerbed. If I were to sit back I'd sit on him!

annerivendell (author) from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2012:

Thank you, Leah-I'm thrilled!

Kari on September 27, 2012:

Yep, didn't know that they purred when scared. That is really interesting that cats can bluff.

My dad has two cats and he knows every look and movement they make, and what it means, yet he can't read other peoples body language. I guess he pays more attention to the cats and what their body language is saying, than to people.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on September 27, 2012:

Great hub! And if we really know our cat, we know instantly what he or she wants -- when we hear the tiny little meow -- or the irritated meow because we're taking too long to do something that has been asked quite politely of us. I'm actually more of a bird person and then a dog person, but my cat does tend to rule the home.

I like the part where you say we have to stare down our cat if we want to be the Top Cat in the house. I'm on top of the dog etiquette so that I'm the leader, but the cat -- I just let her think she's in charge most of the time. I like to spoil her and there aren't serious ramifications from it because I trained her in her youth. lol

Voting up, useful and sharing.

Nadene Seiters from Elverson, PA on September 27, 2012:

Cute hub!

Laurel Brunvoll on September 27, 2012:

Very interesting and informative info on our feline friends!

Robin-Jones on September 27, 2012:

Thanks for such specific and interesting explanations! : )

Deb Welch on September 27, 2012:

Great Hub on cats. I wonder if you ever heard a Bengal. Very loud and vocal - amazing animal.


kathleenkat from Bellingham, WA on September 27, 2012:

I love cats. They all have their own little personalities. I also know what you mean about fearful purring; mine often do that along with shaking.

ftclick on September 27, 2012:

Really good stuff. I live learning about tendencies of animals and what they are sensing. Although, unlike a NY guy I don't "need to be one with the animal".

Marites Mabugat-Simbajon from Toronto, Ontario on September 27, 2012:

This is a very informative hub about a Cat's language, Anne. Though I don't have a cat this time, only my dog, I did have 2 cats before. They both just went away and never came back. Sharing your hub!!