Cat Chat: Communicate Better with Your Cat

How can you tell whether your cat is happy, or hungry, or scared? Just look -- and listen.


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One way to know how your cat is feeling is to simply listen to it. Some breeds are more vocal than others -- Siamese are known for being especially talkative -- but most cats at least occasionally get their messages across by making a variety of sounds. These can include hissing, growling, chirping, and clucking. Two of the most common cat vocalizations are meowing and purring.

Meowing

What says "cat" more clearly than "meow"? Yet when adult cats talk amongst themselves, meowing seldom enters the conversation. Meowing is a means of communication reserved mainly for mother cats talking to kittens (and vice versa), and for cats talking to humans.

Not all meows sound the same. Just as a mother comes to recognize what each of her infant's cries means, you'll eventually come to know what each of your cat's meows signifies, from "It's dinnertime" to "Let's play!" Most meows, however, can be grouped into two broad categories:

High-pitched: The higher the meow, the happier the cat is likely to be. Your cat may give a high-pitched meow to greet you when you come home from work.

Low-pitched: A deep meow means the cat is unhappy or upset. Many cat owners think of low-pitched meowing as their pet's "going to the vet" noise.

Purring

The mechanism of purring is a mystery. Many experts believe that cats purr by rapidly contracting the muscles of the larynx (voice box). A few cats may purr when they are agitated or ill, but the majority purr only when they are happy or content. You may hear your cat purring as it nestles comfortably in your lap or basks on a sunny windowsill. Its purr is saying, "Life is good."

Cat Got Your Tongue?

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Some cat breeds, such as Persians, tend to be relatively quiet. Even among more-talkative breeds, there are exceptions to the rule -- individual cats who prefer to express themselves in nonverbal ways. If your pet has always been the quiet type, there's no need to worry or to try to get it to speak up.

However, if your usually chatty cat falls silent, a physical problem may be to blame. Sometimes cats stop talking or grow hoarse because their larynx is inflamed (the condition known as laryngitis). This can occur as a result of a medical condition or stress. Consult your vet to identify the cause and treat it promptly.

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Even without making a sound, a cat can telegraph its emotional state in no uncertain terms. Your pet's entire body tells you how it's feeling and how you should respond. Here's how cats express some common emotions -- from head to tail.

Happy and Relaxed

  • Ears: Pointing forward and slightly outward
  • Eyes: Open or half closed (sleepy), with pupils normal size; showing contentment with long, slow blinks
  • Tail: Curved down, then up at the tip

Excited or Intrigued

  • Ears: Pricked straight up and pointing forward
  • Eyes: Wide open and sparkling
  • Tail: Standing straight up or raised slightly and curved

Anxious or Agitated

  • Ears: Twitching
  • Eyes: Wide open, with enlarged pupils
  • Tail: Held low, possibly between hind legs, or with tip quivering

On the Offensive (Watch Out!)

  • Ears: Held flat back against the head
  • Eyes: Pupils fully dilated, making eyes look totally black
  • Back: Arched, with fur bristling
  • Tail: Swishing rhythmically from side to side, arched, or standing straight up with fur puffed out or bristling

When your cat gets to know you and feel secure in your care, it will show some unmistakable signs of comfort and trust. These are generally behaviors that cats in the wild exhibit either only among their own kind or when they feel safe from predators or other threats. So take them as a compliment. Your pet is either saying, "You're my kind of cat," or "I know I don't have to worry when you're around."

You'll know your cat loves and trusts you when it:

  • "Kneads" your lap, much as kittens knead at their mother's breasts to stimulate milk flow.
  • Greets you with its tail held high and straight, as if to say, "I'm so happy you're home!"
  • Rolls over to expose its belly, not always to invite you to scratch it, but to show it trusts you enough to assume this vulnerable position.
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