4 Untold Facts About Cat Communication

How do cats communicate with other cats? There’s a lot more to it than you might expect, and this article explains why!

Jun 30, 2024byAbigail Gould

untold facts about cat communication


So how does cat communication work? It turns out, cats are complicated little creatures. We know that they are independent animals and do very well as solitary beings. However, as aloof as they so often are, they are also very social and thrive on the companionship of family groups.


Learning how to read what your cats are “saying” to each other might enrich your own interactions with them!


1. Cats Greet Each Other 

two cats sniffing noses
Image credit: Unsplash


Have you ever seen two cats greet each other? No, they don’t raise their paws and wave. They’re not cartoon characters!


When two cats approach each other, first they touch noses. Then they exchange a friendly head bump followed by sniffing along each other’s side bodies.


This is a friendly ritual with body language that reflects mutual trust. It’s also a way for cats to trade scent markers. By touching noses, cats have the opportunity to smell and identify each other. When they rub heads, their facial scent glands share their fragrances (called pheromones).


In some cases, a cat may meow or trill happily when approaching a friend, but that’s quite rare and special to witness.


unfriendly encounter between two cats
Image credit: Litter-Robot


Of course, not all inter-cat communication is friendly. If your cat is threatened, you will see a clear shift in body language. The position of the ears, tail, and posture will all indicate tension. Rather than the nose bump, your cat may growl and pull back their head. There will be no opportunities for pheromone swapping in this situation!


Kitty world moves a lot quicker than our own. Cat’s eyes are adept at picking up the quickest, slightest movements. In cat language, even subtle cues that are barely noticeable to us are received and understood by other cats.


2. Cats Show Mutual Displays of Affection  

two bonded tabby cats
Image credit: Medium


There are a few tell-tale signs that let you know whether cats don’t mind (or even like) each other.


Purring often happens during affectionate exchanges between two cats. And, when Missy and Sparkles wrap their tails together, it means they trust and like each other. Cat friends will also participate in mutual grooming, a behavior reminiscent of their kittenhood and interactions with their littermates.


Did you know that kittens are born blind and deaf? In their first days of life, a kitten cannot see or hear anything around them. Touch and smell, which are fully developed by birth, are the only senses a new kitten has.


Touch communicates comfort and affection. Smell imprints the mother onto her young and helps her to identify each of them. It’s these two senses—so primitive in us humans—that work to establish the first social bonds of a kitten’s life.


mother cat nursing kittens
Image credit: Hi Raw!


When kittens begin to feed from their mother, they leave their own scent marker on her. Using smell, each kitten in the litter will be able to identify the specific nipple they suckled from, returning to the same spot each feeding time.


Since smell is a cat’s strongest sense, it’s the primary way cats communicate with one another. Cats start rubbing their faces together when they are tiny kittens, during the very first days of their lives. It continues as a way for adult cats to express fondness and friendly feelings for each other.


3. Cats Leave Behind Unique Scents  

siamese mother cat and kitten
Image credit: Unsplash


Cats have noses and olfactory systems like our own (but stronger). However, they also have a second type of scent receptor that lets them capture certain additional smells. It’s called the vomeronasal organ and it’s a structure inside the roof of cats’ mouths.


When your cat comes across the scent markings of another cat (sometimes in urine form), she will open her mouth, letting the vomeronasal organ capture the pheromones. Then a scientific thing involving molecules and neurotransmitters happens—Missy’s feline brain interprets the chemical message left behind by the other cat.


So, when you see your cat intrigued by something in the garden, sniffing intently, then pausing with her mouth slightly open in a kind of grimace, that’s when she is performing what science people call the flehmen response. And she is in effect “reading” another cat’s chemical messages.


All cats have scent glands that they use for marking. There are quite a lot of glands on their faces—especially around their mouths, on their cheeks, and foreheads. There are also scent glands near cats’ claws, by their tails, and various other body places.


friend cat licking head
Image credit: Emergency Veterinary Hospital Ann Arbor


Cats have a few methods for scent-marking their property. Some examples include rubbing their cheeks onto objects, scratching, and urine spraying.


Each cat has a unique scent signature that can tell other cats what group they belong to, where they’ve been, what they like to eat, who their humans are, and their state of health. Cats can identify gender, sexual availability, and even signs of disease—all by their pheromone markings.


Scenting is the primary way that cats make sense of their surroundings and communicate with other cats.


4. Cats “Talk” to Each Other

three littermates together
Image credit: Live Long and Pawspurr


How cats communicate involves less meowing than you might expect.


Kittens meow to seek care from their mothers but, as they mature, kittens tend to stop meowing at other cats. On the other hand, cats learn that people respond to meowing in happy ways, so they keep doing it to get attention from their human guardians.


To interpret cat language, we need to consider more than their vocalizations. We can only figure out what cats are trying to say when we take all their communication signals and combine them into one complete picture. What cats “say” by meowing, hissing, and purring is only a small part of their overall “message”.


cat mouth open


For example, if your cat hisses, their ears are likely flattened, their back will arch, and the tail will do something menacing. This usually means one cat is feeling aggressive toward another cat.


Additionally, purring is a sound cats make out of love and happiness. A happy cat might start kneading or rolling onto her back while making all the purrs.


Then again, purring can indicate distress. To understand the context of the purr you will need to look at Sparkles’ body language, including the expression in her eyes, and the position of her ears.


Yowling is how cats call out to other cats. A yowl is usually a warning that a stranger cat is unwelcome in their territory. However, it can also be something of a “come hither” call to attract mating prospects. If you find this strange, don’t worry; it’s a regular cat behavior!


If you want to see some real-life cat vocalizations, check out this video from Cole and Marmalade.


Interpreting Cat Communication Is Ongoing 

cat friendship
Image credit: Unsplash


Body language, scenting, physical contact, vocalizations—cats communicate with each other using subtle cues in intricate combinations.


A whole lot of research has been done on cats. Yet there is still so much to learn. And so much context surrounding all the funny little things they do. Believe it or not, sometimes a cat has a reason (beyond entertaining humans) for acting so weird.

Abigail Gould
byAbigail Gould

Abigail’s experience with animals comes from growing up on a farm. She has been fortunate enough to look after cats, dogs, ducks, geese, chickens, and guinea pigs. Of all the pets she’s cared for, guinea pigs have been the most entertaining, dogs the most rewarding, and cats the most essential!