Cats are known to cuddle up to their owners as a way (among many others) to communicate and even signify comfort. When it comes to felines voicing how they are feeling with fellow cats, however, that's a little trickier to decode. "I feel these are cues [like meowing] most often seen with cats that have been socialized either with other cats, pets, or with humans," says Dr. Yolanda A. Markley, DVM, an associate doctor at Banfield Pet Hospital. "They have been able to experience a range of interactions where they have been able to determine what makes them comfortable and what doesn't."
If you want the cats in your household to communicate more, it's best to ease into the process—like by familiarizing each others' scents or introducing them through a divider to establish common ground, explains Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, DVM, the medical director of Behavior Vets of New York and a resident at American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. In the event that you simply want to know what feline communication signals mean when you do see them interact, stay tuned.
Here, our veterinarians break down all of the commonly used cues.
"Adult cats actually do not usually communicate in an auditory spectrum that we can hear," reveals Dr. Tu. "[They] are in ultrasonic spectrums." While they use this silent code between one another, cats (especially kittens) do also meow to communicate. "[They] will meow to mother cats," adds Dr. Tu. "When you look at how cats use verbal cues to communicate with each other, it is like a child-mother relationship with the meow coming from the child." Meowing is not to be mistaken for chirping, though: a choppy, bird-like sound that cats can use as a friendly greeting to fellow pets. She also notes that cats use this sound to indicate that they are looking at prey.
"Hissing would be a verbal cue that a cat is bothered, in fear, or uncomfortable," shares Dr. Markley. Plus, this communication can also serve as a way to create boundaries between felines. "When you communicate in a hissing noise and when you are fearful, you are asking for space from what is scaring you," adds Dr. Tu. "So, a hiss is trying to scare something away because you yourself are very scared or you are trying to request increased distance." Oftentimes cats will growl before hissing as a way to make themselves heard, and then they up the ante and hiss to show that they are scared and want more separation.
Dr. Markley explains that purring is a sign to cats—and humans, of course—that they are comfortable, feeling affectionate, and relaxed. This is also used often by kittens to help them communicate their needs with the mother cat.
Soft eyes mean that a cat is happy. Dr. Tu mentions that a slow blink is a sign of comfort around another feline. However, cats avoiding eye contact altogether likely is indicating to another that they are feeling mildly anxious. In addition, Dr. Tu says that partially dilated pupils mean the same thing. Cats often dilate their pupils for hunting purposes, especially if it's dark; this allows more light into their eyes, so they can scan an area before it gets dim.
When you see your cat kneading near another feline, this is also a good sign. Dr. Markley explains that kneading something with their paws (often called "making biscuits") means they are happy and relaxed. They exude the same emotions when they rub their head or body against another cat.
Stiff Body Language
"Ears that are out to the side and are kind of pushed back flat against the head (sometimes called 'airplane ears') are the ears of a really scared cat," says Dr. Tu. Tight body language, particularly in the back and shoulders are also indicators of fear to other felines. "You think of that typical Halloween cat image, where their back is arched, their legs are crouched under their body, and they are ready to run," adds Dr. Tu. "They have made their back big. This is a continuation of the discussion of fear, you want to make yourself look big and scary so then the scary thing doesn't approach you." Keep your eyes on the cat's tail, too. A fast-moving tail usually means fear and anxiety, whereas a tail held high over the body, almost curled forward toward the head, is a friendly greeting sign. If the tail is pointing straight up, and twitching, though, that means the cat is about to spray urine or mark something.