There are two sides to every conversation. Some of us come home from work and talk to our cats about our day. Or we’ll let them know we’re working as fast as we can while preparing a late dinner for them. Maybe we go through a little one-sided banter while playfully leading them around with yarn. But are we listening? Are we paying attention to the clues and queues our cats are giving us? Or are we completely missing the other side of the conversation? Here’s a quick run-down of cat communication and how to figure out what our kitty-companions are really telling us.
According to National Geographic, when cats enter adolescents, they outgrow meowing as a way to communicate with other cats. Adult cats meow, but only as a means to communicate with humans. When interacting with other cats, they rely more heavily on visual and olfactory signals. So, it makes sense that Swedish scientists at Lund University are studying the meow to try and decode what cats are trying to tell us. If they are only meowing for us, it must be because they are trying to say something - and we should be figuring out the message.
The research being conducted is also looking at whether cats have different accents and dialects. It will look at whether cats consistently sound different around the world, according to their region. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out whether cats have a New York, Jersey, California Valley Girl, or Texas twang to their meowing?
Right now, we only have a cursory understanding of cat communication with humans. There’s so much more to their interactions that escapes our understanding. What do we know right now about cat communication?
It’s more than vocalizations. Some cats may be more vocal than others, but they also use visual queues to talk to us. It’s thought that most vocalizations are just to get our attention. There is a growing agreement among scientists and cat behaviorists that kitties are just as expressive as dogs, we just don’t ‘see’ what they are trying to tell us. This is partly because there is so much more research that has been done on dog behavior.
Purring isn’t what you think. One cat-companion behavior we often misinterpret is purring. Most people believe purring is a sign of contentment and happiness. This is only partly true. While purring can indicate happiness, many cats also purr when they are sick or injured. A more accurate translation of purring might be, “don’t go anywhere, please. I need your company.”
Rubbing against you has two meanings. When you get home from work or make your way into the kitchen around dinner time, does Mr. Socks pace and rub against your leg? Most guardians translate this as, “I need something.” It turns out that can be accurate, but it may also be an affectionate greeting. Research is revealing cats are not as solitary as initially thought. In feral colonies, they often gather in communities and families. After a hunt or day apart, they will rub on each other and wrap their tails as a hug or affectionate greeting. So, while they may be rubbing on us because they have a need, Mr. Kitty Fantastico may also be telling you he missed you.
Cats have facial expressions. Most people don’t think of cats as having facial expressions, but if we watch, over time we’ll be able to identify expressions and what they are communicating, not just expressions of personality. Long, slow blinking means they are content and is a gesture of acceptance. A tense face can be a sign of discomfort or pain. Those of us who watch closely will, over time, be able to identify the difference between a stressed face and a pained face.
Cats have language capabilities. It turns out, cats have about 16 different types of meows and can make at least 30 different sounds, with 19 variations. This is a tremendous opportunity to learn what our cats are saying. Do they have a particular meow for, “I’m hungry” and a different meow for, “I will not be talking to you for the next hour because you took me to the vet?” Do our cats have a name for us and do they call to us with that name? One behaviorist adopted a Siamese and was actually able to communicate with sign language. She would sign and then watch her cat for particular reactions, which they both understood as their language.
Tummy display is not a request for belly rubs. One big trouble many guardians have is trying to apply what they know about dogs, to their cat-companions. Cats will sometimes roll onto their backs to expose their tummies. But if we try to rub that belly, we’ll be met with an aggressive paw, or they’ll jump up and leave. Instead, our cat was displaying one of two messages. The first is total relaxation and contentment. The other is a defensive display because the position allows them to make full use of teeth and extended claws.
Ultimately, nobody will know their cat better than their guardian. We should always take context into account. We need to keep in mind that cat communication is different from human chatter and dog expressions. We should observe and learn from our kitties over time to better understand their meaning and nuances. Mostly, we can trust the behaviors, signals, and language we have built with our feline friends.