Translating What Your Cat is Trying to Tell You

Hannah Keyser
Hannah Keyser / Hannah Keyser

I have two cats, which means that when I’m home, I spend an inordinate amount of time making up dialogue for them. And if you have cats of your own, I’m willing to bet you do, too. And while I’m certainly guilty of anthropomorphizing to an extent, scientists—at least those who study cat-human communication—now agree that your cat really is capable of communicating a wide range of emotions to you, and a lot of times, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

There isn’t necessarily a cheat-sheet for understanding your cat, and you’ve probably already picked up certain expressions just from being around them that the researchers couldn’t possibly predict, but the Science of Us asked experts on animal behavior to break down the things plenty of pet owners get wrong.

Be careful, because this first one might break your heart: Sure, cats purr when they’re happy, but they also purr when they just don’t want you to leave them. “They haven’t got a good way of asking for help—it’s not in their language—so they do the next best thing, they do the purring thing,” said John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and the author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your PetIn that sense, a sick or injured cat might purr to persuade you to stay home and take care of him.

If that doesn’t make you want to run home and give your cat all the treats, this will: If, when you get home, your cat starts circling your legs and wrapping his tail around them, it really is because he’s excited to see you again. Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia who gives talks on cat behavior, said that "what your cat is doing is taking a friendly greeting behavior that normally functions within their species and moves it to relating with the human species.”

Hannah Keyser

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of cat-language that Science of Us dug up is that their meows are often only for our benefit. Cats (both feral and domestic) don’t meow at each other much, but domestic cats have learned that meowing at their people is a great way to get someone to pay attention to them.

Cats develop their own meows specific to each household, and you probably recognize them better than you realize. A 2003 study done by researchers at Cornell found that owners were remarkably good at identifying not just which meow was from their cat but the situation during which it was recorded. 

See? You probably can understand what your cat is trying to say better than you realize. Now we just have to teach our cats how to understand us when we say "Please stop knocking over the trash can!"

Check out the video below for a run-through of these rough translations:

[h/t Science of Us]