Cats are often perceived as being aloof and distant, rarely expressing anything and living mostly passive lives. They’re stereotyped as loners who would rather sleep than socialize and whose tolerance for other animals of any species is low or even nonexistent. These snap judgments may seem reasonable at first – cats do enjoy their alone time and are very private creatures – but there’s so much more to them that initially meets the eye.
With richly varied communication styles, finely tuned senses and expansive memories, cats are far more complex than people give them credit for. They maintain intricate social hierarchies and develop intense bonds with others. In the house and in the wild they display friendship, share knowledge and show affection, just not in the same ways we do.
So how do cats communicate with each other? How do they form and maintain relationships with one another, and why do some cats seem totally disinterested in or even actively antagonistic towards others? Let’s learn more about how, when and why cats interact with each other – you may be surprised at how social they can be!
Showing (and Telling) the Ropes: How Cats Learn to Communicate
When kittens are first born, they are blind and deaf; their eyes and ears won’t open for at least a week, sometimes two or more. Unable to see or hear, their ability to communicate is very limited. Their mother uses touch as her main form of communication – licking her kittens not only keeps them clean, it encourages them to nurse and lets them know that she’s there to care for them.
Though they can’t hear, very young kittens still make noises: tiny mews, soft and high-pitched sounds that are intended to grab their mother’s attention. Mews are often cries for help, issued when a kitten thinks it’s alone. Usually it isn’t, but since it can’t see or hear, a lack of contact with its mother or siblings leads it to believe that it’s lost.
Mews are also issued by hungry kittens; the act of making noise to get food seems to be instinctual from birth. Once the kittens can hear and see, they continue to mew, but they stop after they reach four weeks of age unless they’re separated from the rest of the litter. At this age, the kittens have all their senses and begin to explore – and communication gets kicked up a notch.
Kittens begin to purr at around three weeks old, and around this time their mother begins vocalizing more as well. She communicates with her kittens using chirrups and trills, usually to round up anyone who’s wandered off or fallen behind. Each mother has her own unique chirrups that her babies learn to recognize as her voice; kittens won’t respond to chirrups made by a different cat.
Soon the kittens discover that sounds are fun to make, and they begin mimicking their mother’s trills as well as trying out their own feeble meows. By the time they’re five weeks old, the kittens start to learn how to read and display body language. It’s a tricky concept but fun makes it easier to pick up; thankfully, kittens love to play.
Play is vital for development in many ways: it allows the kittens to expend some of their youthful energy, it hones their balance and motor skills, it strengthens the bond they share with their siblings and it teaches the basics of body language. The kittens learn to read each other in order to find out who else wants to play, and during the play session they learn about how to use posture and movement to signal needs and boundaries. If the roughhousing goes too far, they get to practice some new vocalizations like hissing, growling and yelping.
Mother cats are often observed headbutting their kittens, and the kittens in turn begin headbutting each other. This interesting behavior is actually a display of affection and trust known as bunting, and it’s not just touch that’s involved – scent is a big part of bunting as well.
Cats have glands on their foreheads that produce pheromones. Pheromones are special scented hormones that are unique to each individual cat, and though many have specific purposes such as signaling readiness to mate or territory marking, some are used more freely. Forehead pheromones are often used to mark familiar or favored objects, and in the case of a mother cat, they’re used on her kittens.
By leaving her unique scent on the kittens, the mother cat is able to keep track of her litter and sniff out any runaways. The kittens find her scent familiar and comforting, so they also benefit from having it on them. And because they learn by mimicking their mom, soon they start exchanging scents with one another as well.
Bunting is an important skill to master during kittenhood. Adult cats create and read scent markings every day as part of their communication, so the sooner the kittens learn, the better equipped they’ll be to interact with other cats once they head off into the world.
Meows, Yowls and Growls: All About Cat Vocalizations
The meow is the cat’s signature vocalization; ask someone what sound a cat makes and the response will almost always be “Meow!” However, cats almost never meow to each other. Humans are the sole recipients of these noises, which are usually intended to garner attention or food.
Perhaps cats meow at us as a more grown-up version of the mews they used as kittens when they wanted to nurse. Or maybe they’ve figured out that a loud, prolonged meow is impossible for us to tune out. Either way, “meow” appears to be cat-speak for “Hey, human, I need something!”
The low, soothing drone of a cat purr is universally understood to be an indication of contentment and happiness. Indeed, cats often purr to indicate that they’re relaxed and comfortable. They may begin purring as part of a greeting towards other friendly cats, letting them know that their presence is welcome.
However, sometimes cats purr when they’re not happy. In a tense situation, such as a standoff before a fight or an introduction of two strange cats, purring may occur. It’s unknown why cats also purr during these times; perhaps it’s an involuntary reaction to stress, similar to how humans sometimes laugh when they’re nervous.
Trills and Chirrups
Kittens and mother cats exchange trills and chirrups, but adult cats use these sounds with each other as well. These are friendly noises that sound like rolled “r”s, used as greetings and as calls to attention. Bonded cats may trill at each other when they cross paths, or one may trill to the other when it sees something interesting or wants to play.
Hisses and Spits
Cats hiss at each other when they feel angry or afraid; sometimes this comes out as a shorter, louder noise called a spit. If a cat feels that its personal space is being invaded, or if it’s startled, it will often react by hissing and assuming a threatening stance. The hiss is intended to be a warning to either back off or prepare to fight.
Growls are low noises that often accompany hisses. Sometimes they can sound like purrs at first, but they can get quite loud and aggressive. Cats will growl if an unfamiliar or unfriendly cat approaches them; if the newcomer doesn’t heed the warning, a fight may ensue.
Yowls and Screeches
Yowls are loud, prolonged cries issued when a cat is in pain or extremely upset. Screeches are similar but are higher in pitch. Fighting cats will yowl and screech due to physical exertion, but the sounds also serve to notify other cats of the fight and potentially scare one party into submission.
This noise is usually only made by female cats in heat and serves as a signal to male cats that it’s time to mate. Rhythmic and extremely loud, the caterwaul is sometimes used by fighting males as well, in a manner similar to the use of yowls.
Good Posture: Cat Body Language
The way a cat holds its body communicates a great deal about its mood and openness to socialization. Calm, happy cats will stand up straight and tall, keeping their spines level. If a cat is particularly comfortable, it may roll onto its side or back, revealing its belly in a display of vulnerability and trust.
Uncomfortable cats will make themselves small, crouching low to the ground to signal caution and distrust. Extremely unwelcome attention is met with an arched back, fluffed up fur, and hyperextended rear legs – the cat makes itself look as large as possible in order to threaten the intruder and scare it into backing off.
Cats express a lot through their tails. A tail held high indicates confidence and friendliness. The tip may curl slightly to show curiosity and playfulness; two friendly cats may rub tails to exchange scents.
Fear is indicated by holding the tail close to the side of the body or in between the legs, a protective move. Angry cats will hold their tails up in the air, but unlike happy cats, they’ll fluff up the fur so the tail looks like a bottle brush, flicking it back and forth wildly. Sometimes a cat in an extremely playful mood will also fluff and flick its tail, so other body language needs to be accounted for.
Head and Face
Cats use their big eyes to convey their moods and desires to one another. Partially closed eyes and slow blinks indicate comfort and trust, while fully open eyes can mean anything from openness to caution depending on the amount of eye contact and the rest of the cat’s body language. Glowing eyes mean agitation: either the cat is feeling extremely playful or it wants to be left alone and may attack if approached.
Ear position plays an important role in cat communication as well. Fearful or angry cats will push their ears back, holding them almost flat against their heads. This is a move designed to protect the sensitive ears from injury and indicates that the cat is ready to fight if necessary.
Cats usually keep their mouths closed, but if angry or threatened, they may bare their teeth or let their mouths hang slightly open while panting. Playtime may involve open mouths as well, since a big part of roughhousing is gently biting one another.
Friendly cats will groom each other in a display of affection and trust. Often they will target the areas that are difficult to reach on their own, such as the base of the tail and the back of the head. This behavior begins in kittenhood: mothers lick their babies, and the babies lick each other once they’re coordinated enough to do so.
Co-grooming signals a preexisting bond and strengthens it as well. It’s often accompanied by intense purring, happily closed eyes and bunting. Cats only allow their most trusted friends to groom them, so it’s a surefire indicator of a close bond and a deep friendship.
Smell You Later: Communicating Through Scent
Pheromone glands are found all over a cat’s body, from the head and mouth to the paws and tail. When they’re rubbed on something, they release a scent that’s unique to the cat and conveys information about its age, health, sex and ability to mate. Humans can’t smell cat pheromones, but to other felines they’re like business cards, containing all the basic information about the cat who made the marking.
Most of the time, cats leave markings on things they are familiar with and enjoy. They’re calmed and comforted by the scent of themselves, so they surround themselves with it and take special care to reapply it when it fades. Bonded cats will mark each other through bunting, mingling their scents in a display of camaraderie.
Sometimes, however, pheromone markings are more territorial in nature. Feral cats in particular will mark their territories with stronger pheromones, which not only signal a particular cat’s belongings but also include a warning for other cats to back off or face consequences. Unneutered males will spray urine to mark their territories – this is one feline pheromone that humans can smell, and if it’s unpleasant to us, imagine how it smells to a cat with a nose that’s 40 times more sensitive than a human’s!
Unfixed female cats also release special pheromones when they’re in heat and ready to mate. These powerful scents can be picked up from miles away and are absolutely irresistible to intact males. They’ll do whatever it takes to find the source of the scent, even if that means traveling all night and intruding on another male’s territory.
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"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett