How to Understand Cat Language
Ever more persistent meow
"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
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:
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! 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. This despite the fact that you called and called the night before but Kitty remained resolutely staring at you from underneath the car.
Interesting Fact 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.
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.
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 is usually moments before she defecates. The 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.
Position or Appearance of Tail
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
What Does a Cat's Tail Say?
But as mentioned, cats don’t just talk with their voice. Tails are also an excellent tool of communication: When Kitty’s cat 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.
Position of ears
All is well. Interested and alert
Pointing in different directions
Listening to an unexpected or unfamiliar sound
Trying to avoid an unpleasant sound
Ears flat against the head
Fear or aggression
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!
Body Position or attitude
Wide open eyes
Challenging (though not necessarily aggressive)
Half closed eyelids
Affection or friendliness
Slowing and Rhythmically clawing your lap
Tilting head slightly at you
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.
Some people are cat lovers, some are dog lovers. Which are 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
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?
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.Helpful 1
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?
Sounds like your kitten is challenging your older cat's position. Brave kitten!Helpful 8
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.
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.Helpful 5
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.
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.Helpful 4
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?
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.Helpful 4