Cat Language Explained

How to Understand What Your Cat Is Trying to Say

Cat talk and cat language sometimes puzzles us. Cats have been regarded for centuries as mysterious, solitary, unpredictable creatures because we can’t understand what they're saying. But savvy cat owners can decipher cat language. While people rely primarily on speech to communicate, cats predominately communicate in a silent language. Cats speak by using complex combinations of sign language, vocalization, and scent cues. Learn how to recognize cat language basics, and figure out the most common combinations, to understand what your cat is saying to you, and to the other fur-kids.

With practice, you will soon be an expert at cat language, to the extent that you may even be able to answer back!

  • 01 of 07

    Meows, Purrs and More

    Young tabby cat in a bed
    Andrei Spirache/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

    Cat's use vocalizations to express emotion. Meowing, purring, hisses, growls and more are included in the feline repertoire, each with special meanings depending on their context. While adult cats normally don't meow at each other, domesticated cats it seems have learned to meow at humans. Some scientist think this is a sign that cats see their owners as kittens because generally only mother cats and their kittens communicate through meowing.

  • 02 of 07

    Ear Talk

    lost cat with broken ear
    Pay attention to your cat's ears. Fred Bchx/Flickr

    Cats also express emotion with their ears, as well as intent. Generally speaking, the more a cat’s ears swivel sideways and backward, the greater the cat’s arousal or distress. Backward ears and a hiss or swipe ​are a sure sign your cat feels threatened or doesn't like what you're doing. 

  • 03 of 07

    Eye Talk

    Henry the cat
    Your cat's eyes say more than you think. Caroline Granycome/Flickr

    Cats communicate with their eyelids—how open or closed they are—as well as with the dilation of the iris (black portion of the eye). A sudden dilation (enlarging) of the iris results from sudden arousal which could be due to fear, interest or any other strong emotion.

  • 04 of 07

    Tail Talk

    Cat Tail
    Cats can signal how they are feeling with the motion of their tail. Barbara Wells/Flickr

    The cat tail signals interest, affection, arousal, and more. The height of the tail, as well as the motion, has meaning. A flailing or thumping tail usually is a signal to keep your distance. A tail that's swishing back and forth could also be a sign of play. 

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Fur Talk

    Springer Spaniel Dog and Cat - a Standoff
    Cats fur is raised when they are scared or aggressive. Tim Graham/Getty Images

    A healthy, calm cat’s fur rests smoothly against the body. Cat's are self-grooming animals which mean the state of their fur can tell you a lot about the health of the animal. Unkempt fur can indicate ill health, and should not be ignored, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, such as lethargy, or vomiting. But a suddenly fluffed coat, including a “bottle brush” tail, suggests fear or aggression. It's best to back off from a cat exhibiting this kind of aggressive response.

  • 06 of 07

    Smell and Scent

    Smell the flowers while you can
    Cats mark their territory and communicate through smell. Enrico/Flickr

    We can’t always detect or ​interpret the scent cues cats use for communication. However, among scent tools, cats employ strong urine marking and feces, bunting (body rubbing) behavior, and clawing to leave scented Post-It messages that other cats read. Cats are selfish about their territory, and the scents they leave behind are clearly designed to send the message that "this territory is MINE" to would-be interlopers.

    Cats' sense of scent is so powerful that even very young kittens utilize scent before they can see clearly.

  • 07 of 07

    Body Talk

    Cat posture speaks volumes. ReflectedSerendipity/Flickr

    The cat’s total body posture indicates everything from confidence to fear or submission. To understand the full message, the body talk must be read in conjunction with what the eyes, ears, tail, fur, and vocalizations express.

    The cat in this photo appears to be relaxed and happy with his young woman companion. I can tell so because of the visual clues: His ears point slightly forward, his eyes are relaxed, and his whiskers are also pointed forward. The more you pay attention to your cat the easier it will be to read it's body language and learn what they're trying to tell you.