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Cat Chat: Understanding Feline Language

  • Meows, yowls and other vocalizations are just some of the ways your cat lets you know how she's feeling. Photo by Liz Bergstrom/The HSUS

You and your cat might speak different languages, but you can still communicate with each other.

Important clues such as the look in your cat's eyes, the tone of her voice, the position of her ears and the motion of her tail can reveal her feelings and intentions. You can learn to read these signals so you’ll get a good idea of what's on your cat's mind.

Body language
A key to moods


Vocalizing: Your cat has something to talk about

You'll learn a lot when you can interpret your cat's wide vocabulary of chirps and meows. They'll tell you when it's time to get up (at least in your cat's opinion), when he's feeling affectionate and if he's feeling threatened or is in pain.

"Meow" is an all-purpose word. Your cat may be saying "meow" as a greeting ("Hey, how ya doin'?"), a command ("I want up, I want down, More food now"), an objection ("Touch me at your own risk") or an announcement ("Here's your mouse"). Some people have watched their cats walking around the house meowing to themselves.

Nobody’s perfect. Our Cat Answer Tool helps you change cat behaviors you don’t like >>

Chirps and trills are how a mother cat tells her kittens to follow her. Aimed at you, it probably means your cat wants you to follow him, usually to his food bowl. If you have more than one cat, you'll often hear them converse with each other this way.

Purring is a sign of contentment (usually). Cats purr whenever they're happy, even while they’re eating. Sometimes, however, a cat may purr when she's anxious or sick, using her purr to comfort herself, like a child sucking his thumb.

Growling, hissing or spitting indicate a cat who is annoyed, frightened, angry or aggressive. Leave this cat alone.

A yowl or howl (they sound like loud, drawn-out meows) tells you your cat is in some kind of distress—stuck in a closet, looking for you or in pain. Find your cat if he's making this noise. However, in unneutered and unspayed cats, these sounds are part of mating behavior (and very annoying). And if your cat is elderly, he may be suffering from a cognitive disorder (dementia) and may howl because he's disoriented. 

Chattering, chittering or twittering are the noises your cat makes when she's sitting in the window watching birds or squirrels. Some experts think that this is an exaggeration of the "killing bite," when a cat grabs her prey by the neck and works her teeth through the bones to snap them.

  • Sometimes it's obvious how your cat feels. When it's not, use our tips on reading body language and behavior. Photo by Melissa Guensler

Body language: Your cat speaks with his whole body

Does your cat arch her back up to meet your hand when you pet her? This means she's enjoying this contact with you. Does she shrink away under your slightest touch? Save the petting for later: She's not interested right now.

Pay attention to your cat's eyes, ears, body and tail—they're all telling the story. Here are some basic (though sometimes contradictory) clues:


  • Forward: alert, interested or happy
  • Backward, sideways, flat ("airplane ears"): irritable, angry or frightened
  • Swiveling: attentive and listening to every little sound


  • Pupils constricted: offensively aggressive, but possibly content
  • Pupils dilated (large): nervous or submissive (if somewhat dilated), defensively aggressive (if fully dilated), but possibly playful


  • Erect, fur flat: alert, inquisitive or happy
  • Fur standing on end: angry or frightened
  • 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, he or she could be getting ready to spray something.


  • 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


When your cat rubs his chin and body against you, he's telling you he loves you, right? Well, sort of. What he's really doing is marking his territory. You'll notice that he also rubs the chair, the door, his toys, everything in sight. He's telling everyone that this is his stuff, including you. But he does love you, too.


This is sometimes called "making biscuits," because the cat works her paws on a soft surface as if it she's kneading bread dough. It's a holdover from kittenhood, when a nursing kitten massaged her mother's teats to make milk flow. Your cat does this when she is really happy.

The Flehmen response

Have you noticed times when your cat—perhaps while sniffing your shoe—lifts his head, opens his mouth slightly, curls back his lips and squints his eyes? He's not making a statement about how your shoe smells; he's gathering more information.

Your cat's sense of smell is so essential to him that he actually has an extra olfactory organ that very few other creatures have: the Jacobson's organ. It's located on the roof of his mouth behind his front teeth and is connected to the nasal cavity.

When your cat gets a whiff of something really fascinating, he opens his mouth and inhales so that the scent molecules flow over the Jacobson's organ. This intensifies the odor and provides more information about the object he's sniffing. What he does with that information, well, we'll never know.

A Key to Your Cat's Moods

Wondering if your cat is happy, meditating or having a bad day? Here's are some tips:

Content: Sitting or lying down, eyes half-closed, pupils narrowed, tail mostly still, ears forward and purring—a really happy cat will often knead on a soft surface.

Playful: Ears forward, tail up, whiskers forward and pupils somewhat dilated—playing is hunting behavior; your cat may stalk her prey (a toy, a housemate or you), then crouch down with her rear end slightly raised. A little wiggle of the butt, then…pounce! Your cat will grab her prey, bite it, wrestle it the floor and kick it with her hind feet: Her toy is now dead.

Irritated or over-stimulated: Pupils dilated, ears turned back and tail twitching or waving—your cat may growl or put his teeth on you as a warning to cease and desist. Intense play can quickly turn into overstimulation in some cats, resulting in biting and scratching.

Nervous or anxious: Ears sideways or back, pupils dilated and tail low or tucked between legs—your cat may slink through the house close to the floor, looking for somewhere to hide.  He may turn his face to the wall to shut the world out.

Frightened or startled: Think Halloween cat—ears back and flat against her head, whiskers back, back arched, fur standing on end and tail erect or low. She may yowl, growl, hiss and spit.

Defensive: Crouched, ears flattened, whiskers back, tail between his legs or wrapped around his body, and pupils dilated—he may meow loudly, growl, hiss and spit.

Angry, aggressive: Ears back, pupils very constricted, and her tail may be up or down with the fur standing on end—an aggressive cat will stare down another cat and growl or yowl until the other cat gives way. Cats don't really want to fight; they prefer standoffs, but this can progress to fighting if one of the cats doesn't back down.

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