List of Cat Gestures and Vocalizations

Cats express contentment in voice and gesture.
i Martin Poole/Photodisc/Getty Images

Your kitty can change from purring pussycat to tiny tiger framed in “fearful symmetry” in the flick of a tail or blink of an eye -- it’s all part of the feline mystique. If you learn to read them, your pal's voice and body signals are keys to her communications.

Happy Talk

Some kitties are quiet souls, while others are little chatterboxes who will amaze you with their extensive vocabularies. The pitch and intensity of your cat’s voice can help you identify her moods and emotions: Like people, your kitty speaks in soothing tones when she is happy. The less high-pitched and long-lasting the vocalization, the more upbeat she is. Cornell University studies show cats know how to use their voices to get what they want from people. Those hoping to be adopted from shelters tend to greet potential owners with a sweet, smooth meow. Your kitty’s purr is low and laid back, and it indicates a calm, relaxed state. That mellow meow that greets you when you arrive home from work means Buttons is happy you're back.

Cross Kitties

Your kitty may blast out a high-pitched caterwaul to inform you she's hungry or wants attention. Sudden, sharp screaming for no obvious reason can signal pain or anxiety, while hissing and growling at people or other animals signals fear or aggression.

Affectionate Gestures

Headbutting, kneading, play-biting and, of course, curling up on your lap are affectionate gestures that mean your pet loves and trusts you. When your cat rubs her head or face on your body, she is bestowing her unique scent, which in feline language means you belong to her. Play-biting is the equivalent of a kiss, while kneading, a gesture kittens make instinctively to elicit milk from their mother’s breast, means contentment and security in an adult cat.

Whisker Signals

Your kitty's whiskers are a frequently overlooked part of her communications. Although the whiskers near your kitty’s chin are the most clearly visible, she also has whiskers on her cheeks and muzzle, and above her eyes. While her whiskers are sensitively tuned instruments for gauging distances when she wants to squeeze into a comfy nook, they also can signal her state of mind. If Buttons flattens her whiskers against the sides of her cheeks when she meets another cat, it means she feels threatened; forward-facing whiskers, accompanied by a directed stare and constricted pupils, can signal pure warfare. Of course, your sweet little buddy would never look at you like that, but even gentle kitties can turn into terrors if they don’t like the looks of a neighborhood cat.

Tail Talk

Tail gestures are a barometer of your pet’s mood, and are well worth studying. Your kitty's tail tells no lies; it can signal that she wants some one-on-one communication or that she wants to spend some quality time alone. An upright tail signals a friendly, confident pet, but Buttons may be on the warpath if her tail is arched and in the down position, a sign of aggression. When she turns sideways and puffs out the hairs along her tail and back, this defensive posture means she feels threatened, perhaps by the sight of a feline intruder. If she lashes her tail from side to side, she is very angry indeed.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.

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