The cat communication guide

From purrs to scent signals, body postures and blinking, yowls to growls – cats communicate in a variety of ways. They’ve even developed a way of communicating just with humans – cats don’t bother to meow to other cats, just us! Solve the mysteries of cat communication with our guide.
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16th May 2024

Cambridgeshire cat Bella has broken the Guinness World Record for having the loudest purr of a living cat. Her resounding purr smashed the previous record of 50 decibels, letting out a purr which clocked in at 54.6 decibels, equivalent to the noise from a boiling kettle.

Proud owner, Nicole Spink, said: “We've always known Bella had a really loud purr – we even have to turn up the volume to hear the TV over her purring – and that's always after mealtimes I couldn't be more thrilled that Bella has broken the world record. She has been our family's companion for many years – we love her to bits and are so proud of her achievement.”

How and why do cats purr?

While this has long been a source of debate, science is now fairly sure that the noise derives from a cat’s larynx. According to BBC Science Focus, essentially, felines can constrict the part of their larynx that touches their vocal cords, which causes vibrations with every inhale and exhale. As far as scientists now understand, we hear these vibrations as a purr.

However, there are still plenty of questions surrounding why cats purr. Featured on BBC Future, Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, says:  "We’re just beginning to understand it and there are more unanswered questions than answered. While the purr does generally represent contentment for cats, it can also express nervousness, fear and stress. It’s been speculated for decades that purring was a form of communication." 

And it’s certainly true that cats know how to maximise the purr to their advantage. A study at the University of Sussex identified that cats have developed a specialised purr referred to as a ‘soliciting purr’. This includes cries at similar frequencies to a human baby cry. Canny cats are able to ramp up the high frequency in order to get their human family members to feed them.

Celia Haddon, a cat behavioural expert, observes: “In the morning, loud purring can be used, together with human face patting or rubbing, to wake up a human and thus get breakfast. Most of us feed the cat before ourselves, which shows how effective their communication is.”

Discover more about unravelling the mysteries of a cat’s purr >>


Do you have a chatty cat?

While cats use a range of vocalisations such as yowling, hissing and growling to communicate with each other, meowing isn’t one of them. This is a behaviour they’ve adopted just for humans.

Although kittens meow to their mothers, adult cats don’t meow to other cats – probably because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned. Grown up felines reserve this vocalisation purely to communicate with humans.

“Cats vocalise so well to us because they’ve learned that we humans are really not all that on the ball in figuring out what the tail swish means, what the ear twitch means,” reveals Gary Weitzman, author of How to Speak Cat.

It’s a strategy that works. Essentially, meows are demands: Let me OUT. Let me IN. Pet me. Play with me. FEED me! As a cat becomes more insistent, their meows may grow more strident and lower-pitched until they get the response they require from their human.

Cats Protection video creator, Simon Tofield, whose cat Teddy likes to chirp, purr and meow, whereas his other feline friend, Maisy, is a much quieter cat, says: “The cat will use different sounds, depending on how their owner responds. This is very much a learnt behaviour with people, which is why if you’re a chatty owner, you might have a chatty cat.”

Find out more about what the noises your cat makes actually mean >>


CAT COMMUNICATION TOP TIP!

Saying ‘puss puss’, or making any noises at your cat with a strong ’ss‘ noise will put them off. This sounds like hissing to them, so they’ll think you’re being unfriendly.

Source: Cats Protection


Human – why can’t you read my body language?

Your favourite feline wants you to pay close attention to their eyes, ears, body and tail as all these are telling you exactly how they are feeling.

Cats Protection advises: “Cats are subtle and complicated in the way they communicate, but taking time to learn their body language can help to strengthen the relationship with your cat. Learning the signs that they are happy, or when they just want to be left alone, can be a big help to you both.”

However, cats are complex, and each one is an individual, so the better you get to know your own best feline friend, the more adept you’ll become at understanding their many moods.

To help you along, here are some cat mood clues to look out for:

EARS

  • Forward: Alert, interested or happy
  • Backward, sideways, flat: Irritable, angry or frightened
  • Swivelling: Attentive and listening to every little sound

EYES

  • Pupils constricted: Offensively aggressive, but possibly content (we never said understanding cat body language was easy)
  • Pupils dilated (large): Nervous or submissive (if somewhat dilated), defensively aggressive (if fully dilated), but possibly playful

TAIL

  • Erect, fur flat: Alert, inquisitive or happy
  • Fluffed up, fur standing on end: Angry or frightened. Cats have the capacity to fluff up their tails and the fur along their back to stand erect at a right angle to the skin. This gives the cat a much larger silhouette and is used, together with an arched back and a sideways stance, to signal defensive aggression to other cats. Some cats that experience a sudden fright will instinctively puff up their tail before investigating the perceived danger a little further
  • Held very low or tucked between legs: Insecure or anxious
  • Thrashing back and forth: Agitated. The faster the tail, the angrier the cat
  • Straight up, quivering: Excited, really happy. If your cat hasn’t been neutered or spayed, they could be getting ready to spray something

BODY

  • Back arched, fur standing on end: Frightened or angry
  • Back arched, fur flat: Welcoming your touch
  • Lying on back, purring: Very relaxed
  • Lying on back, growling: Upset and ready to strike

Learn more about reading your cat’s body language >>


Poker face? You’re missing a trick...

Although cats are often thought of as rather aloof creatures who give little away, a study has revealed that the opposite is true. US researchers observed the spontaneous interactions between 53 adult cats at a pet café in Los Angeles, recording their facial expressions. An incredible 300 different expressions used to communicate were recorded, suggesting that felines have surprising levels of social depth than was previously thought.

The cat-watching scientists logged 26 facial muscle movements, including parted lips, pupil dilation or constriction, blinking, nose licks, curling of the corners of the mouth, and differing ear positions, which the felines used to produce 276 distinct combinations. These communicated everything from playfulness to aggression and all moods in between.

While the scientists were unable to determine exactly what the cats were saying to each other with these various expressions, they found some overall patterns in their communications. For instance, researchers noted that the cats moved their ears and whiskers towards another feline during friendly interactions and tended to move them away from others during unfriendly interactions.


CAT COMMUNICATION TOP TIP!

If your cat does a little hop-up to greet you, they’re asking for a fuss. It would be rude not to oblige!

Source: Cats Protection


Look into my eyes and let’s talk...

When it comes to the mysterious task of understanding cat communication, focusing on one of a feline’s most appealing features – their captivatingly beautiful eyes – could be the key.

A study entitled The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication, is the first to investigate cat slow blinking as a means of understanding cat communication with humans.

Cat slow blinking – sometimes known as the cat smile or cat kiss – is typically a series of half blinks followed by narrowing the eyes or closing them. This behaviour, particularly a narrowing of the eyes, features in positive emotional displays from other species and even in humans.

What’s more, feline behaviour experts believe that blinking back at your cat is one of the best ways of communicating with them.

Professor Karen McComb who supervised the research says: “This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat–human communication and it is something you can try yourself with your own cat at home, or with cats you meet in the street. It’s a great way of enhancing the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would in a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves and you can start a sort of conversation.”

Cats Protection adds: “The most important thing to remember is not to stare at your cat. They can see this as a threat which can be scary for them and won’t respond in a friendly way! If your cat is telling you (through their body language) that they feel comfortable and relaxed around you, you can tell them the same. Slowly blink at them and move your head slightly to the side. If you’re lucky, your cat will do the same back.”

Want to communicate with your cat? Find out why the eyes have it >>


CAT COMMUNICATION TOP TIP!

If your cat is happy and relaxed with you, they might roll onto their back and show you their tummy. This is a sign of greeting and trust – not an invitation for belly rubs! To save your hand from the swipe of sharp claws, it’s best to give them a gentle head rub instead.

Source: Cats Protection


EVERY CAT DESERVES A DELICIOUS, NUTRITIOUS DINNER. At Burgess, all our cat food is made using premium ingredients, locally sourced wherever possible to support British farmers, to ensure excellent quality and superior taste to help keep your cat happy and healthy – from kitten, to adult and mature and our award-winning variety for neutered cats.

Adapting your cat’s diet throughout their life – what you choose to feed your cat can make all the difference >>

Our cat diet and nutrition guide is here to help you create a meal plan that's tailored especially for your feline friend

HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU FEED YOUR CAT? Find out why little and often suits most cats – and the reason why play should be part of your feeding routine…

Is your cat a Burgess cat? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

GOT A CAT QUESTION? Whatever your feline related query, we’ve got some fascinating answers for you >>

 


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