Cat communication consists of a range of methods with which cats communicate with humans, other cats, and other animals. While superficially cats may seem to lack social behavior, in fact close study reveals a wide repertoire of subtle behaviors, which serve cats in their natural wild setting where they form organized hierarchies, and in their domestic interactions with humans.

When passing solid waste, cats, like many types of predators, release from anal glands a small amount of liquid that scents their feces to mark their territory. Other animals such as the skunk use similar glands for self-defense. During moments of excitement or other strong emotions, a cat's anal sac may discharge, releasing a foul-smelling brown liquid. Anal irritation, possibly shown by the cat rubbing its bottom on the floor and frequent licking of the area, can be a sign that the cat's anal sacs are not being emptied when waste passes. Although this condition can be treated through the addition of a small amount of bran to each meal, it may require veterinary attention. Shorthair cats are more prone to this problem.


The unique sound a cat makes is rendered onomatopoeically as "meow" or similar variants ("miaow", "miau" etc.) in most European languages as well as Mandarin Chinese. Japanese has it as "nyaau", "nyu", or "nyan"; Korean as "yaong" or "nyaong". In Arabic the sound is transcribed as "mowa'a" or "naw". Other variants exist throughout the world. The sound of an increasingly annoyed cat is transcribed in James Joyce's Ulysses as "mkgnao", "mrkgnao" and "mrkrgnao".[1]

The cat's pronunciation of this call varies significantly depending on meaning. Usually cats call out to indicate pain, request human attention (to be fed or played with, for example), or as a greeting. Some cats are very vocal, and others rarely call out. Cats are capable of about 100 different vocalizations, compared to about 10 for dogs.

A kitten's call first starts out as a high-pitched squeak-like sound when very young, and then deepens over time. In sterilized cats, especially males, the call tends to remain similar to that of a kitten through adulthood.


Main article: Purr

Cats can also produce a purring noise that typically indicates that the cat is happy, but also can mean that it feels distress, thus a purring cat is not necessarily a happy cat. A cat in great pain, distress or even a female giving birth will purr. Cats purr among other cats—for example, the mother when she meets her kittens, or the kittens when suckling. Until recently, there were many competing theories to explain how cats purr, including vibration of the cat's false vocal cords when inhaling and exhaling, the sound of blood hitting the aorta, vibration of the hyoid apparatus, or resonation directly in the lungs. Currently, though, it is believed that purring is a result of rhythmic impulses to the cat's larynx.

It is possible for a cat to call out and purr simultaneously. In addition to purring, cats may blink slowly or partially close their eyes when they are relaxed and happy.[2]

However, purring may also be a way for the cat to calm itself down. As stated above, cats have been known to purr when hurt or distressed. Although not proven, research has suggested that the frequency of the vibration produced by purring may promote healing of bones and organs in cats.[3]


Cats will bite out of playfulness or aggression. A common misunderstanding about the motivation behind a cat's bite is that it is a form of affection. People most likely assume this because a cat will sometimes bite suddenly while it is being petted. A petting-induced bite is not a form of affection, but rather a mildly aggressive signal to inform the human to stop petting. While this behavior may seem unexpected to humans, a cat will usually give other subtle indications, such as "tail-lashing or thumping, skin rippling, growling, cessation of purring, ear flicking or rotation sideways, or shifting of body position" to announce that it does not wish to be petted.[4]

Other noisesEdit

Most cats growl or hiss when angered or in danger, which serves to warn the offending party. If the warning is not heeded, a more or less serious attack may follow. Some may engage in nipping behavior or batting with their paws, either with claws extended or retracted. With cats who are improperly socialised and do not know their own strength, this can result in inadvertent damage to human skin. Like any injury, cat scratches can become infected, and in extreme cases can result in cat scratch fever.

Cats are also known to make chirping or chattering noises when observing prey, or as a means of expressing interest in an object to nearby humans. When directed at out-of-reach prey, it is unknown whether this is a threatening sound, an expression of frustration, or an attempt to replicate a bird-call (or replicate the call of a bird's prey, for example a cicada). [5] Whereas this conduct was originally viewed as the feline equivalent of song, recent animal behaviorists have come to believe this noise is a "rehearsal behavior" in which it anticipates or practices the killing of prey, because the sound usually accompanies a biting movement similar to the one they use to kill their prey (the "killing bite" which saws through the victim's neck vertebrae).

A type of chirrup, the chudder, is used as a greeting. Tigers also use this sound.

Cats in close contact with humans use vocalization more frequently than cats who live in the wild. Adult cats in the wild rarely vocalize; they use mostly body language and scent to communicate.

Body languageEdit

Main article: Cat body language

Cats will twitch the tips of their tails when hunting or angry, while larger twitching indicates displeasure. They may also twitch their tails when playing. A tail held high is a sign of happiness, or can be used as a greeting towards humans or other cats (usually close relatives) while half-raised shows less pleasure, and unhappiness is indicated with a tail held low. A scared or surprised cat may puff up its tail and the hair along its back and turn its body sideways to a threat in order to increase its apparent size. Tailless cats, such as the Manx, who possess only a small stub of a tail move the stub around as though they possessed a full tail, though it is not nearly as communicative as that of a fully tailed cat. Touching noses is a friendly greeting for cats, while a lowered head is a sign of submission. Some cats will rub their faces along their guardian's cheek or ankles as a friendly greeting or sign of affection. This action is also sometimes a way of "marking their territory," leaving a scent from the scent glands located in the cat's cheek.

When cats are happy, they are known to paw their guardian, or that on which they sit, with a kneading motion. Cats often use this action alongside purring to show contentment and affection for their guardians. In the vernacular this action is often referred to as paddy-pawing, happy feet, making muffins (or biscuits), boop bopping, stompy or treading paws. It is instinctive to cats, which use it when they are young to stimulate the mother cat's breast to release milk during nursing. As a result, cats hand-raised by humans may lack this reflex. Pawing is also a way for cats to mark their territory. The scent glands on the underside of their paws release small amounts of scent onto the person or object being pawed, marking it as "theirs" in the same way they would urinate to mark their territory.

How to tell when you cat is sickEdit

Cats, like children, aren't good at telling us when or where they hurt. In fact, a lot of cats will try to mask their pain or illness making our job that much more difficult. This makes your most important job knowing your cat's routine and normal behavior. Anything odd or out of the ordinary could be a problem with their health. Some symptoms will be obvious, such as diarrhea, runny nose or eyes, sneezing, coughing, vomiting or elimination problems. More subtle problems can include puffiness or lumps under the skin, sudden behavior changes, a dry coat, increased scratching or grooming or even lack of grooming. Schedule a trip to the vet if you see any of the following:

  • Refusal to eat for more than one meal
  • Sudden increase in appetite as if your cat can't get enough food
  • Inability to urinate or pass feces
  • Foul smelling or oddly colored urine
  • More than one instance of watery diarrhea not related to a food change
  • Swollen areas or lumps under the skin
  • Refusing to allow themselves to be touched or held
  • Hiding for more than a day or any avoidance that isn't normal
  • Temperament changes -- suddenly becoming very aggressive or very shy
  • Constant grooming, especially if skin irritation is involved
  • Stops enjoying their favorite activities or is much less active
  • Often shaking their head or pawing at their ears

Remember, if it seems unusual or out of the ordinary to you, it probably is. Learn your cat and watch for those subtle clues!


  1. Calypso (Ulysses ch4). URL accessed on October 24, 2005.
  2. (2004). Cat Communication. 21cats. URL accessed on 2006-03-17.
  3. (2001). The Felid Purr: A bio-mechanical healing mechanism. Fauna Communications Research Institute. URL accessed on 2006-05-29.
  4. Why Cats Bite retrieved July 10, 2006
  5. Example of chirping cat