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Your furry friend, like all animals, has her unique way of communicating, her own cat language, but cracking the code of these interactions can be tricky for human family members. So, how do cats communicate?
If your cat is trying to get your attention, she'll often meow, or she'll employ non-verbal communication, such as silently staring at you, pawing at your leg, knocking your coffee cup off the kitchen table or scratching the couch, but this only scratches the surface of how cats communicate.
The Cat's Meow
Cats do talk to their pet parents, typically using a meow to ask for her cat food bowl to be filled, or a whine to ask for more pets, and perhaps a hiss to tell you to back off. Some cat breeds, such as the Russian Blue and the Siamese, are very vocal and will chatter with you all day (and all night) long.
But what about cat-to-cat communication? If you share your home with more than one cat, you already know that they interact using verbal and non-verbal (scent markings, use of tail or paws, arching of the back, rolling around) cat language. Whether or not they understand each other in the same way that humans comprehend one another, however, is yet to be determined.
The majority of research conducted on cat communication focuses on how they communicate with humans. When speaking to their owners, cats employ a handful of distinct cat language sounds, including purr, hiss, howl, chirp, and, of course, meow. What's interesting to note is that your grown-up furry friend uses her meow as a special form of communication just for you and only you.
According to a study dubbed "Meowsic," launched in 2016 by Lund and Linköping universities in Sweden to examine how cats communicate with people (including whether or not cats mimic the same accents as their people), it was found that "adult cats only meow to humans and not to each other, most likely because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned off her milk," explains The Science Explorer. What this confirms is that your fur baby really is your baby, so go ahead and proclaim proudly your status as a cat mom or cat dad. So, if you ever hear your cat talking, you can probably guess that she's trying to communicate with you rather than chatting up your other cat in the house.
The ABCs of Cat Language
Post-kittenhood, cats may not meow when interacting with each other. More often than not, they rely on non-verbal body language to express their feelings toward one another. But they do use vocalization as part of their cat communication, which is perhaps most evident during playtime, when your little critters growl, hiss or yowl at each other sometimes in sport, sometimes in fear or sometimes in anger.
In many ways, how cats behave toward us is not much different from the way they communicate with each other: nonverbally. "Putting their tails up in the air, rubbing around our legs, and sitting beside us and grooming us are exactly what cats do to each other," John Bradshaw, a cat behavior expert, tells National Geographic. This use of non-verbal communication is effective with humans as well as other cats.
Cats are considerably less demonstrative with their affection than dogs, says Bradshaw, but this doesn't mean that cats don't feel strong emotion. They just communicate it differently.
Although the field of cat behavior research is sparse in comparison to the many studies conducted on dogs and how pups think, behave, and communicate, it is well documented that cats are smart creatures—but you already knew that! So, while cats tend to have an independent nature, just know that they are communicating with you — you just may have to pay closer attention to their nonverbal cues to truly understand what she's trying to tell you.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.