We have been living with humans for about 5,000 years trading freedom for the comforts of lap and canned food. During all that time humans have learned very little about how to understand our most basic requests. Even though you observe each other very carefully, raised eyebrows, folded arms, frowns, and listen with sensitive hearing to raised pitch, talking faster, and louder words, you don’t do the same with us. So I’ve written this simple guide to cat body language and sounds so you can understand us better.
Body Language for Cats
Look at us – Like you we communicate with our entire being - called body language – Start with how we’re standing – standing tall with our heads held high means we’re feeling good and confident about life and ready for adventure. Crouched low to the ground means we’re trying to look small – avoid a predator or plan an attack. When we take the Halloween arch (as some humans call it) you should know we’re startled or really really mad. When we roll on our back we’re bringing our strong claws into action. Curled up, tells we're comfortable and feeling safe.
Watch our tail – a great advantage over humans – we fly the flag of communication with our tails. When we’re standing tall with tails straight up it means that we’re happy to see you and you’re our friend. Tail down means we’re scared, Swishing tail says we're annoyed, and the faster we swish the more upset we are. You're a big favorite if we curl our tail in a question mark when we're close to you. If our tails are fluffed and vibrating we're VERY happy to see you. A fluffed tail held in an N shape means we're really angry and about to attack.
Can you wiggle your ears? We cats have 32 muscles to control our ears (you have only 6) ,and and we use them to communicate. Pointed forward says ‘ wow! I like what you’re saying; pulled down close to my head means I may just attack in a moment, Airplane airs means that I’m really interested in what might be something good to attack.
Moves Matter – Humans tell a lot about each other by how you move: strut, sidle, prance - lots of descriptions. We do the same – We scuttle close to the ground when we’re frightened, move like a lion when we’re confidently hunting, kneed bread with our paws when we’re feeling loving, and puff up to scare enemies.If we're flicking our tongues we're worried or anxious. When we rub against things we're asserting ownership. Head bumps are our way of being friendly and affectionate. A face lick is the ultimate "I love you."
Eye to Eye – Just look at our eyes and you’ll know we’re mad – fierce, angry and ready to attack, or watch our slow blink that says I trust you enough to close my eyes. If my pupils are dilated it can mean we're playful, excited or aggressive.
With our powerful non-verbal tools we cats don't need to say much to each other, but we do have a lot to say to you. Research at Cornell in 2003 found that we develop an individual set of communications that our humans understand. So, listen carefully! If you use a pet stroller walks become a wonderful opportunity to listen to your cat's response to what they see.
Pleeeezzzzzzz – Listen to kittens call their mother for food – a soft, pleading meoooww.. Once mom delivers we learn that the meow works to request what we want. And as we deal with humans there are many things we want: food, walk, ride in our pet stroller, affection, play time, another YouTube video, the list is endless. Like you we can ramp up our requests to PLEASE!!!! And then PLEASE!!! Since some humans are slow to get it we are able to persist for lengthy periods of time. Most of the time eventually you get it and our request is granted.
STOP – Every cat has had a human who petted too long, or tried to take our chipmunk away. We start with a deep MEOW - this is your first warning. If you don't get the message we may repeat it with greater force, or move directly to the HISS. This is your final warning. What follows is rarely good. A gently clamped bite may be a measured response, or sometimes a full clawed slash or a bite. It's a good idea to listen to the first warning!
There's lunch!! - Our clicking sounds, ick ick ick, or chatter let you know that prey is nearby. Listen carefully, and you'll find different sounds for different types of prey - one for big birds, another for small birds and yet another for mice and chipmunks. Next time we're out on in the stroller listen carefully!
Purr - Purring worked for us to locate mom for food as kittens without making sounds that would attract predators. Over time we come at associate that sound with affection and use it to say we're happy and close. If we're sick or very frightened we may use it as self-comforting.
Despite what some humans say we are not aloof solitary creatures. We have a lot to say to you if you look carefully, listen to us, and get to know the special vocabulary we build with you.