Cat Language and Signals Explained

Cat talk and their non-verbal messages are sometimes puzzling. Cats have been regarded for centuries as mysterious, solitary, unpredictable creatures because humans can’t understand what they're saying. 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

    Vocalizing With 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 have learned to meow at humans. Some scientists 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

    A ragdoll cat

    Teresa A. Schlinger

    Cats also express emotion with their ears, as well as intent. Forward-facing ears express interest. 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

    Close-up of cat's eyes

    Michael Bodmann / E+ / Getty Images

    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. Wide-open eyes show trust while narrowing the eyes to a slit can signal fear or aggression. If your cat shows droopy, sleepy-looking eyelids it is the sign that your cat is relaxed and trusting. Try a slow blink and see if your cat blinks back, showing a "kitty kiss" of affection. But if your cat is staring at another cat without blinking, that is a sign of dominance or aggression.

  • 04 of 07

    Tail Talk

    Cat with raised tail

    Michael Kloth / Fuse / Getty Images

    The cat tail signals interest, affection, arousal, and more. The height of the tail, as well as the motion, has meaning. Cats hold their tails up when they want to be approached, it is a sign that interaction is welcome. A flailing or thumping tail usually is a signal to keep your distance. A tail that's swishing back and forth could be a sign of play or that the cat is frustrated. If the fur on the tail bristles, it shows defensiveness. When held high and bristled, the cat is ready to fight. When tucked between the legs, the cat is very fearful.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Fur Talk

    A standoff between cat and dog

    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

    Cat smelling flowers

    Enrico / Flickr

    Humans can’t always detect or ​interpret the scent cues cats use for communication. However, among scent tools, cats employ strong urine and feces marking, bunting (body rubbing) behavior, and clawing to leave scented 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. Their sense of scent is so powerful that even very young kittens utilize scent before they can see clearly.

  • 07 of 07

    Body Talk

    A cat with sideways ears and arched back
    Theresa DePorter, BS, DVM, DECAWBM, DACVB

    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.

    A relaxed and happy cat would have ears point slightly forward, eyes relaxed, and 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.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.