Mae Bachur  Animal Shelter

"Protecting those who can't protect themselves"







How Your Cat Talks with You

Here are three common messages and the noises that transmit them.


When a cat is afraid, its normal reaction is to run away silently or to hide. There is no point in making a lot of noise at such a moment. But if a cat is cornered and cannot run away, even though it wishes fervently to do so, it may make a sound that transmits the message: "I fear you, but do not push me too far, or I will turn on you despite my fear." A cat in such a situation may emit a strange, throaty yowling noise. This indicates that although it is very scared, it has not entirely lost its aggression. Pressed further, it will lash out. More commonly, it will perform the spit and hiss display, especially if its tormentor is a large dog or an aggressive human being. Viewed objectively, these are strange sounds to offer an attacker. They are not very loud and, in terms of the volume of sound produced, they are not particularly impressive. And yet they do seem to work remarkably well, putting even the largest dog into a suddenly more respectful mood.


For cat owners, this is the most familiar sound to emanate from their feline friends. The meow says many things in many contexts, but it always has the same basic message, namely "I require your immediate attention." It originates as a mewing sound in tiny kittens, letting their mother know that they need some kind of help or that they are in some sort of trouble. In wild cats, mewing more or less disappears as they become adult, but domestic cats remain mentally kitten-like even when they are fully grown and continue to "talk" to their human owners as kittens communicate with their mother. And they do more. They start to refine their meows in a way that wild cats never seem to do. They take the infantile mewing and they modify it to each situation in which they wish to express a need for something. There are begging meows and demanding meows, complaining meows, and anxious meows. There are soft, flat meows to be let out of the house and pitiful, drawn-out meows to be let in again when it starts raining. There are expectant meows when can opener noises are detected and irritated meows when some fixed routine has been disregarded. An alert owner will know each of these variants on the "I want attention" signal and may become quite fluent in "cat-ese" after a few years.


When a mother cat wants her kittens to come near her or to follow her, she gives a soft little chirruping noise. She may also use it as a greeting when she has been away from the kittens for a while. Adult domestic cats employ this same signal which has been accurately described as a "rising trill," when they are greeting their human owners. At such moments, they are reversing the usual relationship and treating the humans as their kittens rather than as their mothers. Significantly, the greeting trill is normally done when they are on the move, usually when they come in from the outside and are about to move off toward the place where they expect food to be waiting So, although it sounds like a greeting, it probably still has some of the "come along, follow me" meaning in it.

Consistency Counts

Want your cats to understand what you're saying? Use the same sentence consistently and often. If you have a special way of announcing food or a supervised walk, your cat won't so much recognize the words as get accustomed to the length and sound and tone of the sentence. Listen to yourself when you talk about routine events, then try the same words in the same tone and feeling, but in a different place and without other signals. If you can evoke the right response - say, your cat jumps up to speed into the kitchen, although you've said, "Let's see what's for dinner" in the den and without touching the can opener - you're on the right track. Develop one, then two, then more key communicative sentences and see how it goes.


The answer seems obvious enough. A purring cat is a contented cat. This surely must be true. But it is not. Repeated observation has revealed that cats in great pain, injured, in labor, and even dying often purr loud and long. These can hardly be called contented cats.

It is true, of course, that contented cats do also purr, but contentment is by no means the sole condition for purring. A more precise explanation, which fits all cases, is that purring signals a friendly social mood, and it can be given as a signal to a vet from an injured cat indicating the need for friendship, or as a signal to an owner, saying thank-you for friendship given. Purring first occurs when kittens are only a week old and its primary use is when they are being suckled by their mother. It acts then as a signal to her that all is well and that the milk supply is successfully reaching its destination. She can lie there, listening to the grateful purrs, and know without looking up that nothing has gone amiss. She in turn purrs to her kittens as they feed, telling them that she too is in a relaxed, cooperative mood.

The use of purring among adult cats (and between adult cats and humans) is almost certainly secondary and is derived from this primal parent-offspring context. The exhalation-inhalation rhythm of domestic feline purring can be performed with the mouth firmly shut (or full of nipple), and may be continued effortlessly for hours on end if the conditions are right.



Partly to make friendly physical contact with you, but there is more to it than that. The cat usually starts by pressing against you with the top of its head or the side of its face, then rubs all along its flank and finally may slightly twine its tail around you. After this, it looks up and then repeats the process, sometimes several times. If you reach down and stroke the animal, it increases its rubbing, often pushing the side of its mouth against your hand, or nudging upward with the top of its head. Then eventually it wanders off, its greeting ritual complete, sits down, and washes its flank fur.

All of these elements have special meanings. Essentially what the cat is doing is implementing a scent exchange between you and it. There are special scent glands on the temples and at the gape of the mouth. Another is situated at the root of the tail. Without you realizing it, your cat has marked you with its scent from these glands. The feline fragrances are too delicate for our crude noses, but it is important that friendly members of the cat's family should be sharing scents in this way. This makes the cat feel more at home with its human companions. And it is important, too, for the cat to read our scent signals. This is achieved by the flank-rubbing element of the greeting followed by the cat sitting down and "tasting" us with its tongue-through the simple process of licking the fur it has just rubbed so carefully against us.



All cat owners have experienced the moment when their cat jumps up and with cautious movements settles itself down on their lap. After a short pause it starts to press down, first with one front paw and then with the other, alternating them in a rhythmic tramping or kneading action. The rhythm is slow and deliberate as if the animal is marking time in slow motion. As the action becomes more intense, the prick of claws can be felt, and at this point the owner usually becomes irritated and shoos the cat away or gently picks it up and places it on the floor-. The cat is clearly upset by this rebuff and the owners are similarly put out when, brushing away a few cat hairs, they discover that the animal has been dribbling while trampling. What does all this mean?

To find the answer it is necessary to watch kittens feeding at the nipple. There the same actions can be observed, with the kittens' tiny paws kneading away at their mother's belly. These are the movements that stimulate the flow of milk to the nipples and the dribbling is part of the mouth-watering anticipation of delicious nourishment to come. This "milk-treading," as it is called, is done at a very slow pace of approximately one stroke every 2 seconds, and it is always accompanied by loud purring. What happens when the adult pet tramples on the lap of its human owner must therefore be interpreted as a piece of infantile behavior. It would seem that when the owner sits down in a relaxed manner, signals are given off saying to the cat, "I am your mother lying down ready to feed you at the breast." The adult cat then proceeds to revert to kitten-hood and squats there, purring contentedly and going through the motions of simulating a milk supply.

From the cat's point of view, this is a warm loving moment and its bodily removal by a claw-pricked owner must be quite inexplicable. No good cat mother would behave in such a negative way. People react rather differently. To the cat they are clearly maternal figures, because they do supply milk (in a saucer) and other nourishment, and they do sit down showing their underside in an inviting manner, but once the juvenile reaction of milk-treading is given, they suddenly and mystifyingly become upset and thrust the pseudo-infant from them. This is a classic example of the way in which interactions between humans and cats can lead to misunderstandings. Many blunders can be avoided by recognizing the fact that an adult domestic cat remains a kitten in its behavior toward its pseudo-parental owner.


Some cats are completely docile and allow as much petting and stroking as their human companions wish to lavish upon them. Others, if they have had enough attention, will simply start to struggle and then leap down or move away. But there is another type of cat-more common than most people suppose-that has a more violent reaction to being over petted. Described by one author as the Jekyll-and-Hyde cat, this animal suddenly lashes out and attacks its friendly owner's hand. The assault is so unexpected and apparently unjustified that it leaves the owner not only bleeding but also deeply perplexed.

Before explaining the cause of this reaction, it helps to observe precisely what happens. First, the owner starts to stroke the cat, tickle its ear, or gently rub its head. The cat responds lovingly, totally relaxed, and probably purring. Then, after a while, it stiffens imperceptibly and, often unnoticed by the stroker, its ears start to rotate so that their backs face forward. This is the key danger signal. At the same moment, the pupils may dilate. Then, so fast that the movements are almost impossible to analyze, the cal lashes out-with its claws extended, raking the skin of the hand in front of it. At the same time it may make a sudden, savage bile with its canines. Then, in a flash, it dashes away as if fleeing in panic. Essentially this is the behavior of a cat that feels itself severely threatened and strikes out to protect itself. Having done this and expecting immediate reprisals, it then runs for cover. But why does it suddenly feel threatened by the contact of its peaceful owner?

There appear to be two possible explanations. The first has to do with the individual animal's past history. It often happens that a particular cat finds itself betrayed by a friendly human hand. The fingers move gently in and start to tickle it or rub its face and then, without warning, grab it and pick it up. This is the strategy employed by strangers who are fearful of the cat's claws and have to find some way of picking it up without being attacked. A vet who wishes to examine a cat may approach it in this way for instance, before holding it down to give it an injection. Cats have long memories, especially where a nasty shock is concerned, and may remember a bad experience of this kind for years afterward. This creates a conflict for them because, although they want to be stroked and petted like any other domestic cat, they are deeply suspicious of the hand that does the petting, fearing that at any moment it may grab them and hold them down. At the start of the contact, the need to be stroked is so strong that it suppresses their fear. As the seconds tick by, however, and this need becomes increasingly satisfied, the fear of being grabbed starts to well up inside them. Suddenly it takes over; uncontrollably they lash out and then flee in panic, their long memory switching them from Jekyll to Hyde.

For cats without this unpleasant memory, there is less chance that they will bite the hand that strokes them, but it can still happen occasionally. To understand this, it is necessary to consider the meaning of the stroking and petting not from our point of view, but from the cat's.

Adult cats occasionally groom one another, but the most common form of social grooming is the licking of kittens by their mother. Kittens tolerate a certain amount of this attention before deciding that enough is enough. To the adult pet cat living with human companions, its owner's hand is a symbolic "mother's tongue" tugging at or smoothing its fur. When it has had enough "cleaning," its mood changes and the hand ceases to fill the role of a maternal tongue. Without changing its movements, it now becomes the "giant paw" of a huge cat; in this new role it is suddenly threatening, and the animal responds appropriately with a defensive reaction.