Ask any preschooler what the cat says, and you’ll hear a predictablemeow.(Unless you’re in Japan, where cats saynyan.) But did you know cats rarely meow at each other? They reserve that sound for their mothers and their humans. Cats are not silent creatures, though. They purr, howl, yowl, hiss, chatter, growl, chirp, and spit.
Meowing communicates a need for attention or service, but purring signals contentment or self-soothing behavior. House cats purr by vibrating their larynxes at 25-100 Hertz. Tigers, panthers, and lions cannot purr, but snow leopards can. Apparently, how ossified the species’ hyoid bone is determines purring ability.
In contrast to purring, most feline vocalization indicates sadness, fear, or displeasure. Chattering is an exception. Cats chatter when watching prey through the window. It could signify frustration at their inability to hunt, or perhaps it mimics the fatal bite of a hunter on the neck of the hunted.
We humans use sound as our primary communication sense. Cats, however, use scent. They have scent glands on their paws, lips, chins, cheeks, heads, and butts. When your cat rubs one of these body parts against you, she’s claiming ownership by leaving her signature scent on you. It’s a memo to other cats:This human is mine.
From the outset, scent guides a cat's life. Though born blind and deaf, kittens have fully developed senses of touch and smell. Thanks to the Jacobson’s organ in the top of a cat’s mouth, the animal can eventastescents. That’s a handy skill to have when pumpkin spice pot-pourri fills the house but not so great when you’re surrounded by dirty laundry. Yet, that’s what cats choose to smell—their people.
Cats reveal a lot through body language. They can convey things like:
For a complete handbook to visual communication in cats, check out Rhett & Link’s hilarious and helpful video.
Cats, in general, maintain a stiff upper lip. So if your cat is hurting, how will she let you know?
No matter what the scientific community discovers about feline communication, we cat lovers know the most important thing our cats communicate to us—I Love You, Human.
We love you back, kitty cat. We love you back.