Cat communication, cracking the code

30 second summary:

  • Meowing is a unique form of communication that cats use almost exclusively for human-directed communication.
  • Purring occurs at a frequency between 25-140 Hertz. This particular frequency range has been shown to stimulate healing and improve bone density.
  • Cat Chatter: Chattering is a sound a cat creates while watching chipmunks, squirrels, birds or other prey animals.
  • Posture tells us almost everything we need to know about a cat’s emotional state: from exuding complete confidence to abject fear and submission.
  • Hiding pain is believed to be an evolutionary holdover from pre-domestication days, where illness or injury is an invitation for would-be predators.

Many – if not all – cat parents have stared longingly into their cat’s eyes for some kind – any kind – of understanding of what’s going on inside their cat’s cranium. Trying to determine exactly what makes a cat ‘tick’ is a fool’s errand, but human efforts continue unabated.

For many cat lovers – and a few haters – felines are a fascinating psychological study in frustration. Unlike their canine counterparts, they don’t bend easily to our will and harbour a well-deserved reputation as enigmatic, solitary and impulsive animals.

Fortunately, animal behaviourists have dedicated years(!) of research trying to decode how cats communicate. Great strides have been made in this beguiling area. Many specific feline behaviours have been decrypted to help us understand their different states of mind.


Cats use sounds to express emotions and sentiment. Meowing, hissing, purring, yowls and more are all included in the feline collection of vocalizations. Depending on the context, each has it’s own distinctive meaning.

Oddly, domesticated cats have learned to meow at humans, but not at each other. Generally speaking, only mother cats and their kittens communicate through meowing. Is this is an indication that cats see their owners as kittens/possessions? Some scientists think so…HA!

1. Meowing

Meowing is one of the unique forms of communication that cats use exclusively for human-directed communication. With the exception of hungry kittens, cats do not meow to other cats.


Cats have learned that they cannot communicate with us the way they do with other cats, so they vocalize using meows. They have evolved more refined, non-verbal ways to communicate with each other.

Meowing can occur in an assortment of pitches, volumes and cadences. It’s important that we understand what our cat is trying to tell us, especially when it comes to pain or discomfort.

  • “Hello” Meow: This is generally a quick or short meow. Cat hasn’t seen you in a while? This is your cat’s greeting before the more important meows happen.
  • “Excitement” Meow(s): After a long-ish absence, you may get you the multiple meow treatment. An enthusiastic greeting to show you gratitude for re-entering their life. This is the most short-lived meow in the feline kingdom.
  • “Notice Me!” Meow: This is a mid-pitch, pleading meow. Your cat desires something – usually food or attention.
  • “Demand” Meow: Not necessarily loud, but certainly drawn out – bordering on grouchy. Your cat is demanding some type of action. Again, usually food or attention.
  • “Bad Human – You’ve Crossed Me” Meow: This is a typically a meandering low-pitched meow, bordering on growling. This is your cat being grumpy about something you have done wrong.
  • “I’m Really Mad / I’m in Pain” Meow: This is THE attention-getter, as it’s a high-frequency, bellowing meow. Your feline friend is annoyed or in pain. If you’ve ever stepped on your cats tail, you KNOW the sound.

2. Purring: Healing Power

This complex vocalization is one of the enduring mysteries in veterinary science. Although most people associate purring with happiness, cats also purr when they’re injured, anxious, or hungry.

When the muscles of the larynx spasm, purring occurs with each inhalation and exhalation. This creates a comforting sound with a frequency between 25-150 Hertz. This particular frequency range has been shown to stimulate healing and improve bone density. It’s not hard to imagine that purring may signify an effective way for cats to keep calm and stay at ease when in discomfort.

3. Growling, Spitting, Hissing and Yowling

When a cat is afraid, they growl and hiss to communicate to other cats that they should stay away. If the other cat doesn’t back off, they may intensify their vocalization to a snarl or spit prior to an attack.

Cats howl (or yowl) when in pain or distress. This is expressed as a long, drawn out meow. You know it when you hear it! Cats displaying this behaviour are typically highly agitated and may act out aggressively or need immediate medical attention. Yowling is also a common mating behaviour when a female cat is in heat.

4. Chirping

When mother cats interact with their kittens, you may hear a melodic, trill-like sound – this chirping vocalization is used to summon attention – a way for mom to get the immediate attention of her kittens. Crafty cats also use it to get their human slaves to follow them to an empty food dish in lieu of a “Demand” meow (see above)

5. Chattering

Chattering is a sequence of staccato sounds created while watching chipmunks, squirrels, birds or other prey animals.

Although the science is inconclusive, there are a couple of theories behind this behaviour. Some animal behaviourists believe it’s simply a frustration response, while some speculate it’s meant to imitate the call of prey species – a vocalized diversion designed to confuse prey, just long enough for an ambush. At the very least, it’s fun to watch.



If one looks closely enough, a felines posture can demonstrate an entire range of emotion: from exuding complete confidence to abject fear and submission.

1. My Domain, Back Off: Chemical Signals and Marking

Cats are territorial. The scents left behind are designed to send dominant messages to all aspiring trespassers – back off! When cats rub against each other or things, pheromones – oils from scent glands – remain behind to mark their neighbourhood boundary.

In more extreme cases, cats will use urine and feces-marking to leave messages for wannabe interlopers. This can often be seen when a new pet is introduced to a household with an existing cat.

2. Windows to the Soul: Cat’s Eyes

Cats eyes give you many clues to their state of mind. A rush of adrenaline will dilate pupils indicating a cat that is excited, nervous or cautious. Don’t worry about “death” stares – a cat that glares at a person or object is indicating interest. But if your cat is staring at another cat without blinking, that is a sign of dominance or aggression. A relaxed, lazy blink is a sign of affection and trust meaning a cat feels comfortable enough to let you out of their sight momentarily.

3. Attitude Adjustment: Ear Position

Ears pointing forward show alertness and express interest. Ears turned up and to the side happen when a cat is content. Ears that are to the sides, swivelling backward and/or flattened, indicate irritation or fear. And if the ears are completely flat against her head, beware! That’s a fighting posture.

4. The Mood Meter: Tail Position

The position and motion of the tail have specific meanings and is one of the most consistent ways to assess a feline’s emotional state.

Happy and Relaxed Tails: Cats holding her tail upright and relaxed indicate they want to be approached – interaction is welcome. A tail wrapped around the side slowly is a cat in a loving mood.

Mad and Anxious Tails: A tail thrashing back and forth could be a sign of play or, most likely, frustration – usually a signal to keep your distance. This can be a tough one to decode. A stiff tail can indicate doubt, while a tucked tail signifies submission or fear. If a cat’s tail is puffed up, it’s an attempt to look larger and intimidating – ready for a fight.

5. Show Me Love: Belly Exposure

A cat displaying the belly is a trusting behaviour. This puts a cat in a vulnerable position that exposes the abdomen while making it more difficult to run away – a risky proposition in the wild. Cats that love belly rubs are asking for a little love and attention – until they’re not!


Cats are inclined to hide their pain, making it difficult for pet parents to recognize discomfort or underlying illness. This can delay veterinary care when they need it most.

Why do cats hide their pain?

It is believed to be an evolutionary holdover from their pre-domestication days, where illness or injury is an enticing invitation for would-be predators. This makes sense, as hiding vulnerability for survival is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.

Signs your cat is in distress or pain:

  • Loss of interest in people, pets or activities
  • Not grooming or excessive grooming in one area
  • Hiding (very common)
  • Purring, excessive meowing or uncommon vocalizations
  • Edginess or aggression
  • Business activities beyond the litter box

It’s important to schedule a visit with our veterinarians any time your cat appears to be in pain, or you believe them to be – you can use our Pet Health Checker as a starting point. We can determine whether changes in behaviour are due to pain or illness. Only then can the underlying cause be treated.