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Cat communication explained: Five important things your feline is trying to tell to you

cat communication
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Cat communication isn’t always the most straightforward thing to decipher – if you’re the proud pet parent of a feline furkid, you’ve likely figured this out. Unlike dogs, cats aren’t the easiest furkids to understand, and they can communicate in curious ways, leaving us humans scratching our heads as to what exactly they’re after.

Why do cats meow? What’s with all that licking? And why on earth won’t they stop scratching the sofa? We give you the rundown on cat communication so you can figure out exactly what your kitty is trying to tell you.

1. I’m not always happy when I purr

Bengal cat being stroked by a woman's hand

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If you’ve ever been in an uncomfortable social setting, but still found yourself smiling your way through it, chances are what you were feeling was more akin to anxiety than happiness. It turns out, our little feline friends adopt the same approach.

While cats usually purr when they’re feeling relaxed and content, occasionally a cat may also purr when they’re feeling nervous or agitated. Just like a child can use thumb sucking as a way to soothe themselves, your cat may use their purr as a comfort mechanism. 

So how do you know if your cat is purring because they’re happy or stressed? The key lies in the body language. The hallmark sign of a worry-purr is a tense body with the ears back, and as purring can also increase with illness, keep an eye out for any unusual behavior, such as mobility issues and changes in food intake and energy levels.

2. I lick you because I love you

Cat licking female owner on nose

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Believe it or not, your cat doesn’t see you as a human. It turns out that your furkid views you as a very large version of themselves and will treat you the same as it would treat any other cat.

According to anthrozoologist Dr. John Bradshaw, author of the book 'Cat Sense', unlike dogs, who know humans are different and adapt their social behavior to match, cats show no such differentiation.

“Cats behave towards us in a way that’s indistinguishable from how they would act towards other cats,” says Bradshaw, “Putting their tails up in the air, rubbing around our legs, and sitting beside us and grooming us are exactly what cats do to each other.”

Next time your kitty drops a dead mouse at your feet or wants to lick you all over, take it as a compliment. While they may not be as expressive as dogs, Bradshaw’s research has shown that cats love their owners just as much.

3. If I meow, I want your attention

Ragdoll cat meowing

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Did you know that the meow of an adult cat is almost exclusively used to get the attention of humans? It’s true! While kittens meow to communicate with their mothers, adult cats rarely meow at other cats.

When your cat meows, it wants to communicate with you, and these are some of the more common reasons why:

  • To greet you – cat’s love to say hello and to respond when you speak to them.
  • As a way of getting attention – when they want to play or be stroked, a cat will meow to get noticed.
  • To ask for food – cats are masters at using the meow to get you to feed them their favorite wet or dry cat food, even when they’re not hungry.
  • Because they want to be let in or out. 
  • If they have a cognitive impairment – elderly cats are prone to meowing a lot if they’re suffering from the feline version of Alzheimer’s Disease, which causes mental confusion.

Whatever the reason, while meowing can sometimes be irritating, don’t ignore it unless you know for sure that your cat is being a diva and trying to get you to do something they want. In most cases, excessive meowing is your cat's way of trying to alert you to the fact they need the toilet, have an empty water or food bowl, or have been accidentally locked in a closet. 

4. My tail will tell you a lot

Cat hiding under a rug with tail sticking out

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Your cat's tail is a great indicator of what kind of mood they’re in, so observing their tail talk can help you to understand them better.

According to Bradshaw, “An upright tail is a greeting sign between cats and is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us”. If your cat's tail is high in the air, that’s a good sign they’re feeling confident and content, while a tail curved like a question mark is an indicator your cat’s in a playful mood and ready to have some fun. A swishing tail is a common sight when they’re playing with cat toys and shows intense concentration.

And what if your cat’s tail is hanging low? That’s usually a sign of aggression, and you’ll often see this when your cat encounters another cat in its territory. If after sussing the cat out they puff up their tail, that’s an attempt to make themselves look bigger to ward off danger. 

While the tales your cat's tail tells are generally similar for most cats, it’s worth noting that some breeds, like Persians and Scottish Folds, naturally carry their tails low regardless of what mood they’re in.

5. I’m not trying to ruin your stuff, I just need to scratch

Tabby cat scratching sofa

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While it may feel like your cat is deliberately setting out to ruin your new sofa, rest assured their motivation isn’t to upset you. Cat’s have a primal, instinctual urge to scratch, and while you can train them to scratch in a certain spot, you can’t train them to stop scratching.

“Cat’s scratch for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Jennifer Conrad founder and director of the Paw Project “it relieves anxiety; it’s a form of exercise; it hones their nails; it strengthens and stretches their muscles, and it marks territory.” As for why they go for your sofa, Conrad believes cats like to scratch the places where their pet parent sits to let other cats know this territory is theirs.

The best way to get your cat to stop scratching your furniture is to invest in one of the best cat scratching posts. Choose a scratcher made of a similar material to what your kitty likes to scratch and sprinkle it with catnip to lure them in.

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.