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What’s a meow mean? Cracking the kitty code

Paying close attention to their meows, purrs and body language — ear position, tail position, overall posture — can be the equivalent to a Berlitz course in kitty lingo.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Lots of us barely listen to our cats, let alone study their every move, but if we did, we’d be fluent in Felinese.

Paying close attention to their meows, purrs and body language — ear position, tail position, overall posture — can be the equivalent to a Berlitz course in kitty lingo. Vocalizations almost always match up with a change in body language, says veterinarian Marty Becker, author with Gina Spadafori of "The Ultimate Cat Lover."

“If you really want to crack the code of feline communication, listen for the sound, look for the body language and then look for an overarching event that’s happening,” he says.

Want to know what your cat is thinking? Here are some clues.

  • Watch the tail. If it’s flicking back and forth, your cat is agitated. Tail tucked beneath or wrapped around the body? The cat is nervous. Lying stretched out with the tail away from the body? Relaxed.
  • A cat whose ears are laid back is fearful or aggressive. And, if you look closely enough, the eyes tell all. A fearful cat’s pupils dilate, while the pupils of a highly agitated cat shrink to the size of a pinpoint.
  • A purr can have many different meanings, from the solicitation purr for food to contentment to an indication of fear or pain.
  • And the vocalizing by Siamese? Well, some cats just have a lot to say.

It’s important to realize that not every vocalization or gesture by a cat is a command. Sometimes, it’s the only way they have to tell us that something’s wrong. Becker, who practices in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, recently had a client bring her cat in, saying "He’s mewing differently at night."

Becker did a complete physical, ran bloodwork and took radiographs. Nothing. He called in his colleagues so all three of them could examine the cat. This time, Becker took a hemostat and began tapping each of the cat’s teeth.

“I came to this one tooth and the cat jumped into the air with an extreme yowl,” he says. “It was an infected tooth.”

Once the tooth was removed, the pain was gone and the cat was “like a kitten again,” the owner reported.

“The cat had been living with that pain and the only way it was detectable was through a change in vocalization,” Becker says. “The owner knew enough to know it was different.”