How to Talk to Your Cat
Communicating with your cat is not simply a parlor trick you can perform to amuse your dinner guests. It's an important part of training your cat and reinforcing your bond with her.
Teaching your cat simple commands like "DOWN" and "NO!" will make her a better pet, while words like "Treats!" and "Dinner!" will help her associate you with something pleasurable.
Cats rarely vocalize with other cats (other than to hiss and growl at trespassers); they reserve verbal interaction for humans.
Feline language is a complex mix of facial expression, tail position, ear position and other forms of body language in addition to scent and sound. Cats learn to make demands of us by observing which of their sounds cause which human responses.
Understanding Your Cat
Some cats (like the Oriental breeds) are vocal and have extensive vocabularies. Other cats scarcely "speak" at all, or have a one-size-fits-all yowl that covers all the bases.
Whether your cat is vocal or not, she will be fluent in body language, a key component of her interactions with you and other animals. By tuning in to both her body and her voice, you can learn to differentiate between "Feed me" and "HELP! Timmy's in the well!"
The following vocalizations are fairly common to most cats:
- Short meow: "Hey, how ya doin'?"
- Multiple meows: "I'm so happy to see you! Where've you been? I missed you!"
- Mid-pitch meow: A plea for something, usually dinner, treats, or to be let outside.
- Drawn-out mrrraaaaaoooow: "Did you forget to feed me, you idiot? I want dinner NOW!" or similar demand.
- Low pitched mraaooww: "You are so lame. The service around here sucks," or similar complaint.
- High-pitch RRRROWW!: "OUCH!!! YOU STEPPED ON MY TAIL YOU IMBECILE!"
- Purr: Most often a sign of contentedness, but can also be used when in pain or afraid -- an instinctual response to hide weakness from predators.
- Hiss: "Steer clear. I'm angry and I'm not afraid to draw blood."
- Clicking sounds: Cats who are tracking prey will make a distinctive clicking sound.
Most Cats Use the Following Gestures to Communicate:
- Tail straight up or straight up with a curl at the end: Happy.
- Tail twitching: Excited or anxious.
- Tail vibrating: Very excited to see you.
- Tail fur sticks straight up while the tail curls in the shape of an N: Extreme aggression.
- Tail fur sticks straight up but the tail is held low: Aggression or frightened.
- Tail held low and tucked under the rear: Frightened.
- Dilated pupils: Very playful or excited. It can also indicate aggression.
- Slowly blinking eyes: Affection, the equivalent of blowing a kiss.
- Ears pinned back: Fear, anxiety, aggression
- Tongue flicking: Worry, apprehension
- Rubbing head, flank and tail against a person or animal: Greeting ritual, ownership claim
- Head-butting: Friendliness, affection
- Face sniffing: Confirming identity
- Wet nose kiss: Affection
- Licking: The penultimate sign of affection. Or an indication that you need to clean up after a sardine snack.
Helping Your Cat Understand You
As you communicate with your cat, the words you use are less important than how you say them and the body language that accompanies them. If you say "DOWN!" or "NO!" in the same tone you use for, "Good Kitty! Here's a treat," you'll confuse your cat and she'll misinterpret what you're saying. Consistency is the key to successful communication with your cat.
To correct behavior, use a loud, firm, authoritative voice, and use this same tone consistently in conjunction with body language. For example, when ordering your cat "down," make a stern face, and use one of your hands to point down.
For praise, or when calling your cat to dinner or offering treats, use a higher-pitched "happy" voice, smile, and beckon with your hand.
If your cat is begging for attention when you are trying to work or accomplish some other task, you will need to say "NO!" firmly, and gently push the cat away without showing affection. Cats don't have much respect for the human's personal space and will try repeatedly to invade it, so you may need to repeat the NO-push combination several times before Fluffy gives up and leaves you alone. If you say "no" and pet your cat instead of pushing her away, she will interpret your actions as a welcome signal.
Most cats will also respond to a sharp hissing or spitting sound as a "no" command when they are doing something seriously wrong and need to be stopped.
If you consistently use the same voice, facial expressions and hand gestures, most cats will have no trouble understanding what you say. The more you communicate with your cat, the better the two of you will become at understanding each other.