Cats do not use words and vocabulary like we do, but they still communicate with one another. Imagine a society without words, where you can determine someone’s mood by just looking at them. Where you can have an entire conversation with someone and not say a word. How do cats do it? How do two unfamiliar cats greet one another? Do cats have social hierarchies like dogs do?
Cats have very subtle ways of speaking with one another and use various means to communicate, including vocal and body language. Any cat owner can tell you that their cat makes many different sounds.
When speaking with us, cats will often meow and display different body postures. Each meow may differ in meaning by the tone, volume, pitch, rhythm, and pronunciation.
However, when feral cats meet, do they greet one another with a meow? The familiar loud ‘miaow’ that our cat uses to speak with us is often not used to communicate with other cats. Body language is very important in the cat world. Most cats do not need to make a sound when communicating with one another. Posture, tail movement, eye contact, and even scents send signals to other cats. A cat can communicate with another cat from across a field without even having to say a word.
This is best illustrated in an example. A cat that I know named Hanoko, is accustomed to roaming the neighbourhood and is particularly fond of her yard. The new neighbours next door have bought a new cat, named Cassie. Cassie decides to explore the neighbourhood and finds herself in Hanoko’s yard. Cassie is walking around with her tail up, ears forward and relaxed body posture. When Hanoko spots Cassie, she realizes that this new cat is trespassing onto her property. Hanoko’s pupils dilate and her ears turn backwards and begin to flatten. Dilated pupils and flattened ears are an indication of fear, aggression, and/or excitement. Cassie sees Hanoko and she freezes for a moment to observe Hanoko’s body language. Seeing her dilated pupils and flattened ears, Cassie realizes that Hanoko is saying, “I do not like your presence!” Cassie’s tail drops and her pupils dilate in excitement. However, she remains adventurous and continues to inch forward with a lower, submissive body position in hopes that this strange cat will warm up to her. Her ears and whiskers are pointed forward, indicating that she is curious. Cassie is saying, “I am just being curious.” As Cassie inches closer, Hanoko gets more and more agitated, and her hair begins to stand on end. She maintains eye contact with Cassie while a growl begins at the back of her throat. Direct eye contact indicates assertiveness or threat. With her hair standing on end, Hanoko is trying to make herself look larger and more threatening. Hanoko is saying, “Back off! Do not come any closer!” Cassie stops in her tracks and flattens her ears back in fear. Her whiskers flatten down against her face as well, making her face look smaller. Her body position shrinks to the ground and her tail is between her legs, indicating submissiveness. Cassie is saying, “Okay, okay. I can see you are angry, I don’t want to start a fight.” Cassie understands the signals that Hanoko is sending her, and she backs away slowly and scurries off. This entire feline conversation happened without a single meow.
Cats therefore use the same signals to communicate with one another as they use to communicate with us. However, cats are far better at observing and responding to those signals. They use body language to do most of the communicating, and less verbal noises (such as meows) are needed to gain another cat’s attention.
In dogs, hierarchy would be determined by means similar to the example with Cassie and Hanoko. It is based on the outcomes of social interactions between the animals. The communication that occurs is often non-vocal. Aggressiveness, submissiveness, reproductive status, sex, and environment are all factors that determine hierarchy. However, hierarchy in cats is a bit more complicated. When compared to dog colonies, hierarchy amongst a group of cats is often difficult for humans to decipher. Dogs display more obvious stereotypic dominance behaviours, such as a constant stare, growl or subtle body check. However, felines are non-obligatory social creatures and they do not live in packs. The tom cat, for example, lives without any long-lasting social relationships with other cats. Hierarchy may be present in a group of cats that live together, but dominance signals may not be obviously present. Hierarchy issues may be more prominent when a new animal is introduced into the family. The hierarchy will be upset because the newcomer’s place is unclear.
Cats are territorial creatures. Their territory may contain areas that they share with other cats and areas that they want exclusively for themselves. They mark their territory by rubbing up against an object, by scratching a tree and/or urinating. These signs act like posted signs, telling other cats whose property they are trespassing. Other cats can not only see the marks, but they can detect the pheromones left from the rubbing or in the urine. Therefore, besides body language, a cat’s sense of smell is also very important for communication.
Another example where smell is important is when cats groom one another. When two cats live together, they will sniff and groom one another. Grooming is done not only to keep clean, but to provide comfort, remove parasites and relief social tension. This is also known as social grooming. A queen (mother cat) will be able to recognize the familiar smell of her own offspring. Queens will groom her kittens regularly to keep them clean, to stimulate bowel movements, and to provide comfort.
When observing feline behaviour, one may notice that cats seem to have a dual personality. They can be friendly and inviting one minute, and then unexpectedly strike you the next. This is due to the cat’s unique place in the food chain – they are both predator and prey. So they can be stealthy rodent hunters at the same time as being aware of their surroundings for potential dangers, like large dogs or other carnivores. Therefore, cats have a wide range of behaviours that enable them to adapt quickly to different situations. Owners often get upset when their cat suddenly turns and bites them after petting the cat a minute earlier. This dual personality behaviour is important when trying to understand feline behaviour and communication.
Not all cat communication is understood, even by those who have owned and observed many cats. Humans cannot detect pheromones or read every subtle movement of their feline companions. Sometimes we observe our cat staring out the window at the stray cat outside. Are they having silent conversations with one another? What factors determine social hierarchies? Many questions are yet to be answered, but at least humans are capable of understanding some basic words in the complex feline language.
By Amy Cheung – Pets.ca writer