Scientists have discovered that cats have developed an elaborate communication system with hundreds of vocalizations to tell humans what they want or need. They know that we are their providers, so it makes sense for the cat to learn to communicate vocally, and to make sure that we understand what they are saying. Cats can also learn to understand what we want them to do by our repetition of words or actions made in a consistent manner. In this way, we are able to communicate with cats in a dialogue that takes time and effort to develop, but is very rewarding for both.
Listen to your cat. If you watch what your cat is doing when it meows, you may learn to distinguish which meows are associated with which requests (or protests) and eventually know the difference between a "let me out" demand and a "give me food" demand by sound alone. Each cat is different and may have its own variations, but some common meows can include:
Short meow: standard greeting.
Multiple meows: excited greetings.
Mid-pitch meow: plea for something.
Drawn-out mrrroooow: a demand for something.
Low pitch MRRRooooowww" a complaint or displeasure.
High-pitch RRRROWW!: anger, pain or being fearful.
Chirrup (a cross between a meow and a purr with rising inflection): friendly greeting sound, often used by a mother cat to call to her kittens.
Purr: Invites close contact or attention.
Hiss: A serious sign of aggression.
Watch your cat. Since cats are more "fluent" in body language, certain gestures will accompany vocalizations to reinforce their message.
Tail straight up or straight up with a curl at the end: Happy.
Tail twitching: Excited or anxious.
Tail vibrating: Very excited to see you.
Tail fur sticks straight up while the tail curls in the shape of an N: Extreme aggression.
Tail fur sticks straight up but the tail is held low: Aggression or frightened.
Tail held low and tucked under the rear: Frightened.
Dilated pupils: Very playful or excited. It can also mean aggression
Slowly blinking eyes: Affection, indicating the cat is comfortable with whomever might be around them.
Lifting the nose and tilting the head back slightly: "I acknowledge you." Cats sitting in windows may greet you in this manner as you walk by.
Rubbing against you means they are marking you as their own.
Wet nose "kiss": An affectionate gesture when the cat taps its wet nose to you.
Ears back: Fear, anxiety, or in a very playful mood, also used when sniffing something they want to know more about.
Tongue flicks out slightly and licks lower lip: Worried, apprehensive.
Rubbing head, flank and tail against a person or animal: Greeting ritual.
Head-butting: Friendliness, affection.
Face sniffing: Confirming identity.
Licks you: The ultimate sign of trust. Your cat may consider you to be a part of his/her family, like a mother cleaning her kittens, or you just might have something tasty in your hand!
Talk back. As mentioned earlier, cats are always learning how to communicate with us; the more we communicate with them, the faster they will learn.
Use a slightly raised tone of voice to indicate friendliness and a lowered tone of voice to indicate displeasure or aggression.
Repeat the same word, sleep or bed, each time you go to bed, and eventually your cat will begin to associate the repetitive word sound with your actions, and may even get to the bedroom before you. Use the word shower consistently each time you are ready to take one, and eventually your cat may beat you to the bathroom and might even curl up in the sink to wait for you. (See picture at right).
If you blink slowly when making eye contact with your cat, they will usually respond by coming over to be petted, as it is a very non-threatening gesture.
Be consistent. For example, a cat often "asks" before invading someone’s space, and a common blunder many pet owners make is to say "no", and pet the cat at the same time. This is very confusing to the cat. Instead, a very firm "Later" combined with gentle but firm push, without showing affection, will let the cat know that their presence is not desired at this time. Most cats will try 2-3 times to invade a person's space, often from different directions. When saying "Later", be patient.
You can also develop a "command tone" to use with your cat when they are doing something seriously wrong. Use a voice that comes naturally to you, that you can replicate easily, but that is also distinct from your everyday talking voice. If you use this voice sparingly, but seriously, then your cat will learn to associate the voice with the idea that they are being naughty.
Another easy "no" command that cats all understand is a quick, sharp, hiss or "spit" sound as is made by their own kind when they themselves say "no."
Kittens that get a lot of tender love and care can grow up to be very affectionate cats. Too much rough play can result in rowdy cat or a hostile cat. Not enough play or enough love can result in a cat becoming either hostile or very shy.
Treat your cat with love and respect and they will become a very happy and loving companion and friend. Talk to them softly and watch how they listen. They might respond with a purr or other pleased reaction.
Siamese and other Oriental cats have been observed to be especially "talkative", while long-haired cats tend to be quieter. But of course, there are always exceptions!
Never yell at or physically discipline a cat. This only frightens and angers them, and is counterproductive.
Resist the urge to angrily say the cat's name when disciplining it. Say 'No' if you mean 'No', and leave it at that.
Urinating, spraying, and maddening (depositing feces in a prominent spot) are often a cat's attempt to mark territory that it feels is being threatened. It may also be an indication of urinary tract or bladder infection, or other serious health issues. If this is a problem, the cat may need to be treated, neutered or spayed, or separated from other cats. Consult your veterinarian.
Try not call kitty too much - otherwise this will have the effect of the 'boy who cried wolf.' Eventually when you really want or need your cat to come to you, he won't; he'll have stopped paying attention to you when you've been calling him too much.
This is not, by any means, a complete list of cat gestures and vocalizations. The cat communication system is surprisingly complex and extends beyond the scope of this article. Consult the sources below for more details, and always pay attention to your cat- each one is different.