How to ‘speak cat’

Researchers have turned up some interesting stuff about how to ‘speak cat‘. Meows, purrs and even facial expressions are all part of a very successful way they’ve adopted to communicate with humans to get our attention.

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 anthrozoologist John Bradshaw.

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.


“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.”

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“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 which in itself is a pretty surprising little cat-fact. In observations of feral cats “you get a meow about once every hundred hours. They’re very silent.” Bradshaw said. 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.”