Kittens are engaging to watch as they jump and play with one another or a toy mouse. If you watch kittens interact with one another, you'll begin to see patterns emerge that will teach you how to read a cat's body language. Pay attention -- kittens have a lot to say.
In order to fully understand how and why kittens communicate, it's important to have a little understanding of their anatomy and physiology, because their body language is so much a part of their communication techniques. Kittens have scent glands on their foreheads, cheeks and in their paws. They use these scent glands in many different ways to communicate with each other. Head butting, for example, is a way a kitten will communicate that he likes you. He is marking you with his scent even though you don't see or smell it. It is odorless to humans, but other cats will recognize it. Kneading with their paws or scratching with their claws are also ways kittens lay down that scent. They are mostly communicating with other cats when they do this, but they are conveying to their person "you are mine and don't forget it!" A cat that is "making biscuits," as kneading is called in the world of ailurophiles, is a very happy cat indeed.
Very much like "aloha," "meow" is not just a great example of onomatopoeia, it's a sound used for "hello," "good-bye" and "I love you." It could also mean "I brought you a dead lizard, you can thank me later" or "look, but don't touch." In many households, a kitten meowing means, "get up out of bed and feed me, feed me." Kittens meow to get their mother's attention. But in the absence of a feline mom, any human will do. Kittens learn very quickly their meow gets them a lot of attention. Some breeds of kittens, such as Siamese, meow more than others. A kitten that meows constantly may be telling you something hurts as well, so check him out if a normally quiet kitten begins to meow too much. Purring, another form of vocalization, has long been thought to be a sign of contentment. However, kittens purr when they are upset or in pain as well. So purring is considered to be a calming act, much like a child who sucks on a pacifier.
Tail Held High, Tail Held Low
The tail of a kitten is just about his best communication tool. A tail held high in the air means your kitten is content. If it is twitching while being held straight and tall, it means your kitten is really happy and, if he's not neutered, may be getting ready to spray. A tail that is slowly swooshing side to side could mean your kitten is trying to figure something out, or is feeling a little hostile. If the fur on the kitten's tail puffs out, he is telling you to back off. Kittens will arch their backs, puff out their fur on their body and tail, and try to get you to believe they are a lot bigger than they actually are. Kittens who do this are scared or nervous. A kitten who holds his tail low to the ground or tucked is telling you she is anxious or frightened.
More Kitten Chatter
Kittens are adorable to watch, but if you watch closely with an eye towards discerning what they are thinking, you can easily pick up clues in their body language and vocalization. As you spend more and more time with your kitten, and as your kitten grows into adulthood, you will learn to recognize what each of your particular kitten's sounds and body language means. You will recognize the "I'm hungry" meow from the "pet me" meow. Some kittens meow and howl when they are bored, or think they are alone. Since cats are primarily pack animals, their forebears being lions and tigers who hunt and eat together, they like to be part of a group.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.