Your Cat Is Trying to Talk to You

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Cat lying in bed with a telephone.
Photo: SuperStock/Corbis

Dogs we get, mostly because they are so easy to get. They have expressive faces and body language that we can read pretty accurately, according to researchers who study animal behavior. Cats, on the other hand, are known for their emotional opaqueness and standoffishness; even the cat-ladiest of cat ladies might think that their pets don’t seem altogether interested in communicating with them, as long as the food arrives on time. 

But that’s probably not entirely accurate, say the researchers who study cat-human communication — and, yes, this is a real field of scientific study, albeit a small one. Deciphering meaning in the behaviors of pets — meaning that went much beyond feed me now, anyway — was once dismissed as mere anthropomorphism, but that’s no longer the consensus among this community of researchers.

Rather, there’s a growing belief that cats are as expressive as dogs, argues Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, who recently gave a presentation on the subject at a conference for cat behaviorists in Atlanta. It’s just that we misunderstand or don’t see what they’re trying to communicate.

Compared with dogs, Crowell-Davis said, there are likely many cat behaviors that owners are misinterpreting, at least partially because so much more research has been done on canine behavior. “I do think that, over time, we’ll see that cats aren’t that mysterious,” said Mikel Delgado, a Ph.D. candidate in animal behavior at the University of California, Berkeley (and the author of a recent study that suggested it’s totally fine to be a bit of an overbearing pet parent).

Researchers have already turned up some interesting stuff, though — here’s what the current findings can tell you about how to speak cat.

The one thing you probably think you understand about how cats communicate — purring means they’re happy! — isn’t exactly right. Cats do indeed purr when they’re happy, but that’s not the most accurate translation of the sound’s meaning, Cromwell-Davis explained. “You can have cats that are happy and content purring, but also a cat that’s injured or sick will purr,” she said.

Instead, purring means something more like, don’t go anywhere, please. It’s more likely a solicitation for care, in other words, than purely an expression of contentedness. “They haven’t got a good way of asking for help — it’s not in their language — so they do the next best thing, they do the purring thing,” said John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and the author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. “The meaning is not exactly right, but it’s the closest they can get to it.”

Your cat is happy to see you when you get home from work, maybe. Your cat rubs its little furry self against your legs when you walk in the door, and you think, It wants something. That … is probably true, but it’s not all the cat is trying to communicate, Cromwell-Davis said, judging from her observations of groups of feral cats living together. (She believes that, contrary to popular opinion, cats are not as solitary we tend to believe; she finds feral cats tend to stick together in groups or families.)

When cats are coming back from hunting, what we commonly see in the feral situation is they may spend several minutes rubbing up and down, up and down, against each other,” she said. “They’ll also wrap their tails over each other’s backs — it’s like a human hug.” It’s a commonly performed behavior when cats are reuniting after a period of separation, she said, and the meaning likely applies to the way the animals interact with their humans, too. “When you’ve been at work or school all day, and your cat comes up and rubs back and forth against you, and he may wrap his tail across your calves — what your cat is doing is taking a friendly greeting behavior that normally functions within their species and moves it to relating with the human species,” said Cromwell-Davis. It’s the cat-language way of saying, You’re back! I missed you!

Cats have facial expressions. Most people don’t pay attention to their cats’ facial expressions because we don’t think of cats as having facial expressions. But Crowell-Davis doesn’t believe that’s true, judging from her own work with cats that have behavior problems. If you do begin to pay attention to their faces, she said, “you’ll see when they’re stressed or when they’re pained the facial muscles are tensed, and when they’re happy or relaxed, their facial muscles are relaxed.”

More specifically, watch for a long, slow blink, said Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and author of How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language. “The slow blink really is an acceptance gesture,” Weitzman said. “They do that when they’re absolutely comfortable with you, and they do it with other cats as well.” It’s not clear why cats do this when they’re feeling calm and comfortable, but Weitzman said, “it’s likely an autonomic response … having to do with the cat having its cortisol [stress hormone] levels down.”

Cats and their humans develop a secret language of meows. Cats don’t really meow to communicate with other cats, Bradshaw said, which in itself is a pretty surprising little cat-fact. But in his observations of feral cats, he said, “you get a meow about once every hundred hours. They’re very silent.” And yet domesticated cats, as you know if you’ve got one, will often meow their little heads off, all day (and sometimes night!) long. “People think of it as an absolutely classic cat behavior … but it’s something they’ve learned to do to get our attention,” Bradshaw said. “It’s really something they’ve adopted as a way of communicating with humans.”

As such, there’s not exactly a universal cat language when it comes to meows. Rather, as Bradshaw writes in his book, “a secret code of meows … develops between each cat and its owner, unique to that cat alone and meaning little to outsiders.” This was demonstrated in a 2003 study by Cornell researchers, documented in Bradshaw’s book, in which they recorded meows from 12 cats in five everyday scenarios. They then played those recordings to pet owners, and found that only the owners could correctly decipher the scenario in which the meow was recorded. So cat owners can tell with some accuracy what message their cat is trying to get across via its meows, whether it’s feed me or I’m bored or whatever else, but “each meow is an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound rather than some universal cat-human ‘language,’” Bradshaw writes.

Cats might take a little more work to understand than dogs, in other words, but the experts suggest that they’re just as communicative as their canine counterparts — just in their own cat-specific ways.