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Question How do cats communicate with each other?

Answer

Cats have different ways of communicating with other cats and with humans. Cats communicate vocally (meowing, purring, and hissing) and with their bodies and behavior.

Frances Benjamin Johnston’s cats, Herman and Vermin, seated on brick railing of New Orleans house, Louisiana. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer, between 1945-1950. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

For the most part, cats meow only to communicate with humans, not with other animals, according to anthrozoologist John Bradshaw in his book, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet (2013). Part of his evidence is that feral cats do not meow nearly as much as domesticated housecats.

Additionally, scientists believe that the meow is a manipulative behavior cats adopt to get what they want. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine argues that cats can learn which noises are most effective at getting their owners to do what they want them to do (Robins 2014).

Two cats, one sitting up and one laying down with ears back. Charles Fenderich, Philadelphia, 1832.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

But how well do humans understand what cats are saying?

Back in 1895, when cats were just beginning to become common household pets, a man named Professor Alphonse Leon Grimaldi wrote an essay explaining what cats were saying to humans. Before 1895, cats were mostly outdoor animals. They were used to catch rodents but were not brought inside frequently or loved as companions. In his essay, “The Cat,” Grimaldi translated some of the most common cat words into human words. For example, he believed that “Aelio” meant “food.”

Page from Pussy and her language By Marvin R. Clark and Alphonse Leon GrimaldiExternal, New York, 1895.  Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Over a hundred years later, some cat experts still believe that certain cat noises can be understood by humans. Jean Craighead George, an author and naturalist, categorizes cat vocalizations in a way that seems very simliar to human communication. For example, she says that “Mee-o-ow” (with falling cadence) is a protest or a whine (Robins 2014).

American aviator John B. Moisant looking at cat on his shoulder.  1911.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

But not all scientists believe that cat sounds can be interpreted so easily. A 2003 study by Nicholas Nicastro and Michael Owren called “Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners” found that cats do not use vocalizations to attract attention from humans, but the ability to interpret those noises depends a lot on the human. Owners are much better at interpreting the meaning of their own cats (Nicastro and Owren 2003).

A wary farm cat at the Dunnum Family’s Top of the Town dairy farm near Westby in Vernon County, Wisconsin. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, 2010.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

One common misunderstanding among cat owners is that cats only purr when they are happy. Sandy Robins explains that while most cats do purr when they are happy, they also purr when they are anxious or in pain (Robins 2014). 

One of the other main ways that cats communicate both with humans and other cats is with their tail. A cat walking with an upright tail is relaxed and friendly. A tail swishing back and forth quickly can mean a cat is angry or curious. If a cat’s tail is fluffy and the hair standing on end, that means the cat is threatened and is trying to make it look bigger to scare away a threat (Newman, Alexander, and Weiztman 2015).

Cat looking into radio speaker, 1926. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Another common behavior is when cats head-butt humans and rub against them. Scientists believe this is either a way to greet humans and say they are happy to see them – or as a way of spreading their scent and marking their territory. Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, jaw, and near their tail. When they rub those parts of their body on an object or another animal, they transfer a scent that only other cats can smell (Robins 2014).

Advertisement from Pussy and her language By Marvin R. Clark and Alphonse Leon Grimaldi,External New York, 1895. Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Here are some tips for improving your communication with your feline friend, found in The Original Catfancy Cat Bible:

Cat kisses. The way to “smile” at your cat is to look your cat in the eye and slowly blink. They take this as a loving gesture, and will often do it back to you. (Robins, p. 470)

Talk back to them. Many cat owners have found that their cats are more talkative when they respond to their meows! (Robins, p. 466)

Speak to your cat in a soft and calm voice. Cats are sensitive to tone, and tend to not be very forgiving. (Robins, p. 469)

Avoid saying negative things along with their name. For example, if you say “No, Fluffy! Stop! Fluffy, get off the counter!” This will confuse them! It is best for your cat to associate their name with happy and calm words. (Robins, p. 469)

Know how to approach. The best way to approach a cat is to get on their level and extend your hand with a closed fist and one finger slightly extended. (Robins, p. 469)

Pay attention. The more you watch and listen to your cat, the easier it will be to understand what they are communicating. Notice patterns in their behavior – do they make one type of meow when they are hungry and another when they first see you? (Robins, p. 466)

Cats decorating a Christmas tree. Louis Wain, c. 1906. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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