Your cat has a lot to say. How she “talks” to other cats though is not through meows, like you might think. Cat language with each other includes some meows and other vocalizations, but body language, chemical cues, and scents make up most of feline communication. Learn more about cats’ conversations.
When you talk with your cat, you usually expect to hear her “talk” back through meows or purrs. When she wants to be fed, your cat might come to you and meow with a certain tone. Domestic cats have learned certain vocalizations activate their human guardians to give them what they want. This cat-to-human interaction, though, is not the same as cat-to-cat communication. Feral cats tend to be silent, with the occasional hiss or perhaps a purr. When domestic cats vocalize to each other, their sounds can include a range of meowing, murmurs (or purring), and higher intensity growls and howls. Loud meowing or hissing expresses anxiety or fear. Less intense meowing happens when your cat is confident and content. Low growling should be taken as a warning, especially after hissing.
Inter-feline body language is another important communication tool.
Cats can convey affection toward other cats through physical contact. For example, they might touch noses or rub against each other in greeting. Or, one might lick the top of the other cat’s head. Why? According to Jess Trimble, DVM, of Fuzzy Petin the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a throwback to when their mother would groom and comfort them as kittens. “Some part of cats’ psyche recalls their time as kittens when their mother would lick them clean as they fed. When grown, cats will mimic this affection with cats they’re friendly with.”
Sometimes a cat will roll onto its back when engaging with another cat. You might think your cat’s exposed belly means “come hither.” While this belly-showing move could indicate trust between the two cats and a willingness to be vulnerable, the belly up position could mean something entirely different. Feral cats expose their stomachs as a defensive posture. “Cats roll onto their backs when fighting off predators,” explains Dr. Trimble. “From that position, the cat has full access to its teeth and claws, its weapons.”
Cats have highly-developed olfactory senses, and they use these extensively in communicating with other cats. In fact, chemical conversation cues are the main ways your cat communicates with others.
When you think of “cat scent” you might wrinkle your nose at the memory of cat urine. And yes, urination or spraying is one of the more obviously noticeable methods of communication. What is it communicating to other cats? “Spraying marks territory and shows dominance,” Dr. Trimble says.
Cats have much less pungent forms of scent talk. A key form of feline communication is through pheromones. Your cat has scent glands on her paws, cheeks, lips, forehead, tail, flanks, and around her rectum. How and where cats deposit the pheromones and oils from these scent glands signal different meanings. According to cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett, cats use scent “to identify members of the same colony, define territory, create familiarity, announce reproductive status, learn more about unfamiliar cats in the environment, self-soothe, bond with another, or as a form of covert aggression.” For example:
Communication between cats can be rather nuanced, and experts have not mapped out the entire dictionary of feline language. Still, if you pay attention to your cat’s interactions with other cats, keeping in mind the translations shared above, you’ll probably be able to “hear” what your cat is saying.