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Decoding cat communication

Q: My daughter, Jayne, was charmed by the book “Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat” by HJ Frederick. Jayne adopted a shelter cat that looks like Timber Howligan, named him Timber, and now thinks he may be a secret agent because he makes so many unusual sounds. She wants to learn cat language so she can join the animal spy business. What do I tell her?

A: I agree with Jayne’s favorable assessment of “Timber Howligan” and applaud her desire to learn cat language. I’ll help by reviewing feline vocalizations, body language, scent communication, visual signals and tactile communication.

Vocalizations range from the trill or chirp cats use to greet feline and human friends to purring. In addition, cats meow in dozens of ways, and each meow has a distinct meaning. Hissing and spitting usually indicate that a cat feels threatened or defensive, while growling and snarling signal the start of an attack.

Body language, the most important method of communicating for cats, uses the face, eyes, ears, tail and body posture. When a cat greets a friend, the body relaxes, the hair lies flat against the skin, and the tail stands up and often quivers.

When a cat wants to look large enough to scare away an enemy, the hair on the body and tail stands out, the tail becomes erect and the back arches. By contrast, when a cat is fearful and wants to look inconspicuous, he crouches and drops his tail. When a cat is content and relaxed, the tail sways gently, but when a cat is annoyed, the tail twitches.

Cats’ ears also communicate feelings. Erect ears show the cat is alert, whereas ears flattened back against the head signal fear or aggression.

Cats also leave scents produced by glands at the corners of the mouth, on the cheeks and sides of the forehead, on the foot pads and along the tail. Head butting is a common way of leaving a scent signal. When cats scratch a vertical surface, they’re leaving a scent and a visual sign. Tactile communication occurs when cats rub against or groom other group members, including their humans.

Jayne will enjoy becoming adept at cat language, and someday, she may even join the animal spy fraternity, perhaps as a veterinarian.

Editor’s Note: Is your cat exhibiting bad behaviors? A Certified Feline Behavior Consultant, like Marci Koski, PhD., can help cats and their people live better lives together.

Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine. Contact her at

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