Thursday, September 1, 2011

Unlocking the Secrets of Cat Communication!

If you are a cat owner, you know that understanding your cat’s behavior is the key to a healthy and happy companion animal.  We are trained by our cat to respond to certain tasks like “feed me, clean my litter box, pet me, play with me, etc.”

But did you know that cats communicate mostly with other cats through the use of body language and scent?  Their body language is subtle, so cat owners and sanctuary animal caretakers must learn to read some more of their obvious cues.  Let’s take a look at some of those signs so you can better interpret what a feline is trying to tell you.


It has been estimated that there are at least 19 different types of “me-ows” which differ in volume, tone, pitch, and when used in various situations.  You are probably familiar with the cat’s purr used to communicate contentment, self-assurance, or an invitation to pet or play with the animal.  But the "meow" and purr are just two of at least thirteen different categories of sound made by cats: caterwaul, chatter, chirrup (chirp), cough-bark (rare in pet cats), growl, hiss (with or without spit), meow, mew (of kittens), purr, scream, squawk, yowl and idiosyncratic sounds (i.e. sounds peculiar to an individual species of cat)!

Of course, when domestic cats verbally communicate with us, they tend to use a wider spoken vocabulary because they know we can understand sounds but cannot easily interpret feline body language. Cats learn which sounds elicit the desired response from their human companions and speaking from experience, some cats have a wider "vocabulary" than others!

Exotic wild cats have a language all of their own such as the rumbled greetings of a lioness, the “chuff” of a tiger, or a happy cougar chirp.  Two important differences are that big cats such as lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards cannot purr because their throats are built for roaring.  Conversely, the small cats (bobcats, servals, etc.), cougars and cheetahs, screech or yowl rather than roar.  Although there are a few reports of purring-type sounds (a breathy groaning sound rather than an in-and-out purr) from lions and tigers, it seems that a cat can either purr or roar, but not both. Purring is also found in cheetahs, cougars and most small cats such as the serval and ocelot. Cubs may "mew", but adult big cats do not "meow".

Exotic cats do not have an extensive vocalization since exotic cats have not been domesticated over thousands of years, and therefore do not necessarily need to communicate with us.  At In-Sync Exotics, the animal caretakers have to rely not only on the cats’ vocalizations, but they must interpret and understand the cats’ body language as well.

Stare Into My Eyes

Many people believe that the eyes are the windows to the soul, so we like to gaze into the eyes of others, including animals.  Problem with that is prolonged eye contact can be interpreted as assertive, aggressive, or even threatening to domestic and wild exotic cats.

Have you ever watched two rival cats try to out-stare each other to resolve conflicts?  The staring contests can last a long time!  Now if a cat catches you staring or watching him, he may stop whatever he is doing and assess whether or not you are a threat before continuing with his activity—but in a far more self-conscious manner.  Cats tend to relax once you stop staring at them.

Many people have learned that slow blinking or winking may break up the aggressive stare, becoming a reassuring signal that you do not intend to challenge or harm him.  Believe it or not, yawning can even be more reassuring!  You know when the cat is relaxed when he has his eyes half-open, giving you the appearance that he is cat-napping.  

How Does My Head Look?

Observing how a cat holds her head is a great way to know if the cat sees you as a friend or foe.  For instance, if her head is stretched forward, then she is encouraging attention or simply trying to look at your facial expression, as a way of greeting you. 

However when in conflict, a confident cat may raise her head, while an aggressive cat may lower its head.  You can always tell when the cat becomes submissive when she lowers her head submissively.  Confusing?  Well, to understand the intended message, you have to look at the other end of the cat—her tail (but we’ll come back to this topic in a moment)!

We have noticed that when the In-Sync Exotic cats greet one another they tend to head-butt or head rub, leading into a full body rub.  Also, when cats meet, they tend to sniff each other’s faces as the scent glands are found around the lip.  The sniffing of the glands determines the identity of the cat and whether or not she is a family member.

Stop Staring At My Butt!

You may have observed that when a cat is relaxed he tends to walk with his tail horizontally behind him.  If the cat meets a friend, then the tail tends to rise up to convey friendliness.  If the meeting is friendly but cautious, the cat’s tail upright tail tip is slightly hooked, indicating a degree of uncertainty.

Have you ever been sprayed by a lion or tiger?  If so, then you already know that a spaying cat raises the tail, and with the tail a-quiver, starts treading with his hind feet, trying to raise his hind quarters up higher, projecting a spray of urine—at you!  This happens to be the way the cats conveys he is SO happy to see you!  This is also an invitation for you to sniff the spraying cats’ anal glands to confirm his relationship with you as a member his family.  Needless to say, we at In-Sync Exotics do not recommend you accept the cat's invitation!

When a cat is at rest, but readying for action, he sweeps his tail erratically from side to side.  As he becomes more alert or more emotionally charged, the tail swishes faster, wider and in a more regular manner. If the cat is lying on his side, the tail will be thumping on the floor or ground, often loudly. Though this is most often associated with anger, it may also indicate another highly charged emotion-– excitement!  A swishing or thumping tail is sometimes an invitation for another cat to join in a bout of play. So Smuggler best be careful when he swishes his tail, for clearly he is sending an open invitation to Aasha that he wants to play!

Pucker Up!

Have you ever watched a cat hiss?  Does she hiss to signal aggression or to show that she feels threatened or defensive?  If you guessed the latter, then you are correct!  Cats rarely use their mouths to signal aggression.  Growls are emitted with the mouth only slightly open.  The teeth-bared grimace is one way a cat analysis scent signals and it’s called “flehmening.”  Flehmening is when a cat screws up its face, the lips curl back baring its upper and lower teeth allowing more chemical aromas to register in the Jackobsen's Organ. The Jackobsen's Organ is situated in the roof of the mouth in two sacs. In wild cats this aids in knowing the "lie of the land", and aids in knowing what other animals may be in close proximity.

As to the whiskers, well they are not just ornamental or used to judge the proximity of objects; they also help determine the cat’s mood.  In a normal relaxed state, the whiskers are held slightly to the side. As the cat becomes more interested in something around it, the whiskers perk forwards, ultimately coming forward in front of the muzzle. The cheek pads also seem to swell out as the muscles pull the whiskers into position. If the cat is fearful,she'll pull her whiskers back alongside her cheeks to signal that she is non-threatening. This also makes her face look smaller and narrower.

Better to Hear You With My Pretty!

We would be remiss if we did not cover what non-verbal message is sent by way of the cat’s ears.  Essentially, when a cat is content and relaxed, she sits with her ears facing forward but tilted slightly back. Even if the cat’s eyes are closed, she is demonstrating that she is alert and ready for action. If the cat's attention is caught by a noise or a movement, she will prick her ears more upright, maybe swiveling one or both to track the source of the noise.

If the cat grows anxious or slightly threatened, her ears will move slightly back and flatten down. You can always tell when a cat is fearful or threatened when the ears start to go down. The more anxious or fearful the cat is the flatter the ears become until they are lying straight backwards, flat to the skull. If the cat is fearful but is ready for action, her ears will flatten sideways - a combination of the forward pointing "alert and ready" ears and the flattened/lowered "fearful" ears.

If one ear is flattened and the other isn't, the signal is ambiguous as she isn't yet sure how to react to what is going on around her. Generally she will withdraw a short distance in order to contemplate her situation. While considering, the ears shift and change as they processes stimuli and possible responses to the new situation or threat. A similar highly mobile state occurs when the ears are panning round to catch noises, but the cat's entire demeanor will be one of alertness or interest, probably with a slightly twitching tail. 

Okay, time for a pop quiz.  Based on what you have learned thus far about cat communication, can you determine what the cats are trying to convey to us?

Aasha and Smuggler




In Memory of Grumpy



You now know the basics of cat communication.  Experts have been studying cat behavior for years and have barely “scratched” the surface of this most complex type of animal communication.  Next time you visit In-Sync Exotics, we hope this tutorial will help you understand our cats’ reaction to you and their environment around them.  Remember, never issue a challenge to a big cat by prolonged stares, but rather blink or wink often to them!  That way, you too, will be recognized as a friend to our big and small cats!

For tour information, please click here.  And I would be neglectful if I failed to mention we have a special Razoo project going on right now that you can be a part of – please click here for more information!

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