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How Cats Communicate

By: Karen Commings

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Although cats have a reputation for being solitary animals, they have developed an elaborate system for communicating with each other. Scent, body language, touch, and sound help one cat learn about another. Your cat will use the same tools to communicate with you.

Following Their Noses

Odors are one of the most important ways your cat learns about his environment and other cats that live in it. If your cat lived outside, he would use urine to scent-mark his territory, backing up to an object, squirting urine on it, and leaving a pungent odor for any feline passers-by to smell. While not having the effect of keeping other cats away, urine marks alert other cats to the presence of the marking cat.

If you've had your cat neutered before he began spraying, he should not urine mark inside your home, but he may use his sense of smell in other ways to identify his space. Depositing facial pheromones by rubbing his cheeks on objects increases your cat's comfort level and helps him navigate around his environment. If you have more than one cat, you will notice them butting heads and rubbing their cheeks on the other. Only cats comfortable with each other will engage in this mutual rubbing. Once they have determined that it is safe, cats will approach each other and raise their tails, each allowing the other cat to sniff their rear end – a sign of mutual acceptance.

Body Language

About 70 percent of human communication is nonverbal, resulting from changes we detect in the way a person sits, walks, or changes expression. Your cat also uses body movements and facial expressions to let you and other cats know what's on his mind. To determine what your cat is thinking, observe his body language as a whole rather than simply one aspect of it. For example, if your cat's pupils are dilated, it may mean that your cat is becoming aggressive and wants to fight, it may mean he's fearful, or it may mean his eyes are accommodating to low light.

A relaxed, contented cat points his ears forward, half closes his eyes, and purrs. When he becomes more alert, his eyes open widely and his whiskers stand straight out. If your cat is afraid, he draws his ears back and begins to fold them flat on his head. His pupils dilate. An agitated and aggressive cat has completely dilated pupils, flattened ears, taut facial muscles, forward sweeping whiskers, and may open his mouth to bare his teeth. He is ready to either scare off an intruder or to fight with one.

To a cat, staring is intimidating behavior, and your cat will stare at another cat he wishes to challenge or threaten. To prevent your cat from feeling menaced when you gaze at him, slowly blink your eyes to indicate that the look is benign rather than belligerent.

A defensive cat will be poised for action. He may arch his back and puff up his hair to appear larger. If your cat feels totally relaxed with another cat or with you, he will roll over and bare his belly – a sign of total submission. Be careful, though. Just because he shows you his belly doesn't mean he wants it rubbed. Some cats enjoy belly rubs while others don't and forcing the issue may make your cat aggressive. He may claw your hands.

Moving his tail is another way your cat sends non-verbal signals. A tail held high above a cat's back is a sign of dignity and self-respect. A cat holding his tail in a lowered state says that he is relaxed and content. A rapidly flicking tail indicates annoyance and ambiguity.

Cat Talk

Your cat will tell you what he needs through vocalization as well as body language. In the wild, cats have two sets of language – one to communicate between mother and offspring and another to communicate with other adults within their territory. The pitch, intensity, frequency, rapidity, and volume of the meowing reflect your cat's different emotional states and physical needs. The more rapid, intense, and loud are the vocalizations, the more panicked, scared, and anxious your cat may feel. Conversely, the slower and less intense the vocalizations are, the more confident or potentially assertive your cat is being.

Your cat's vocal patterns will fall into three categories. The first is murmur patterns, including purring, that indicates a calm, friendly state. Vowel patterns indicate a need for food or other needs and desires. Loud, strained, intense sounds, including hissing, growling, and screaming, are associated with mating or aggression toward a human or other animal.

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