Cats Really Do Communicate With People (as if You Didn’t Know)

New studies discuss the body language of cats, the ear-pinning, the tail-twitching and all the other movements cat people have deciphered for decades.


Researchers are finally figuring out something that we cat lovers have known all along: cats are expressive, emotional creatures that have special ways of communicating with the humans closest to them. It probably took them a while because they were trying to compare cat language to dog language, which is impossible. Dogs are simple, straightforward, and pretty basic. Cats are complex and nuanced – and they adapt their language to the people around them. You train a dog to understand you. Cats train us humans to understand them.

I have never had a problem understanding my cats. I’m not sure if that means I’m a natural when it comes to cat language, or if I’m just easily teachable. Early on, I understood the annoyance of “airplane ears,” the one-ear cocked skepticism – and the beauty of sharing quiet time together, the cat purring and content with eyes closed in bliss. I dunno, it all seemed pretty obvious to me.


I’ve known for a long time that only housecats use meows as regular communication, and that feral cats are rarely vocal. But I was a little surprised to read Cornell researchers discovered that each cat creates his own meow language with his human family. When it comes to meowing, there is no universal vocabulary except for the screech of pain or anger. Cats figure out which meows we humans respond to and use them to chat with us – and get us to do their bidding. And once I found this out, I realized that my cats also change their meows depending on who they are “talking” to.


My soul cat of many years ago, Harlot, was very talkative, and would ask for breakfast in long, drawn out meows that took a lot of lung power. A few times, a friend from New York and his brother came to visit and they would crash in my living room. The brother took a liking to Harlot and was impressed by her long meows … so she went out of her way to make them even longer! I never saw her do this with anyone else.

Binga is one of the most vocal cats I’ve ever had, which I attribute to her overload of tortitude. Binga wants what she wants <i>now</i>. Unfortunately, she rarely gets whatever she wants right on time (according to her schedule), and her logic is to keep meowing until we get her what she wants A lot of meows … but pretty one dimensional. She also uses what I refer to as “extreme purring” – loud, almost vocal purring, a feline technique indicating she really, really wants something. That tends to be more effective than her “squeaky wheel” meowing.

Boodie has the strangest meows I’ve ever heard – all beeps and chirps, plus the irresistible Silent Meow. She communicates this way, I figure, because she was nearly feral when I brought her home to socialize her. Her funny noises indicate she’s happy – she only lets out regular meows when she get put in her carrier for vet checkups, and that means she’s distressed.

Summer’s sweet, small meows are characteristic of the Somali breed. But aside from dinnertime and travel, she doesn’t often use them to communicate with me. It’s all facial expressions. Summer knows just how to use that expressive face of hers. She can melt the hardest human heart with a cocked head and questioning stare, or inspire a play session with a mischievous glint. When we’re out and about, she greets strangers with a headbutt and expects everyone to love her. She does all that without needing to resort to vocal communication.

Anyone who thinks cats aren’t expressive hasn’t spent much quality time with them.

What about you? How do you and your cat communicate?

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