News Item | PAWS Chicago

Decoding the Mysterious Cat

by Dr. Barbara Royal, DVM | May 01, 2013

Secretive, purring, clever, playful, lazy, swift, nocturnal, soft, furry, gentle, sharp, silent, agile, and nine lives each.

What is it about cats that is so mysterious and alluring? Everything. Do cats have a secret language we don’t understand? Yes they do. 

It’s useful to have a decoder ring and some insight into their motivation. Of course, every species has its own unique way to communicate to others of its kind. Cats are no exception, they are just super subtle. If you want to understand cats you have to pay attention to even the slightest movement including the dilation of the pupils and a tiny bit of a tail flick. 

When a dog wags his tail, he is often (but not always) displaying happiness. When a cat wags or even flicks her tail, she could be swearing like a sailor. 

Signs of annoyance can include a whipping tail or tail flip (even just the tip), flat ears (I call it the Chinese hat of irritation), tense neck, raised fur, raised spine, growling, hissing, dilated pupils, slit-like eyes. 

Much of the conversation between cats is designed to shore up relationships, keep personal space and to define territory. If you have multiple cats, a cat-cat conversation could be a series of ear twitches, a tail flick and a shoulder shift. Decoded, those tiny moves might be a conversation like this: 

“Why are you trying to walk by me?” 

“I have to go to the litter box.”

“If you do, I’ll attack you.” 

“But I really have to go.” 

“Too bad, I’ll let you move when I feel like it. And don’t try to get to the water bowl either.” 

Or even something more colorful than that. This is one reason I recommended that every multi-cat household have the number of cats plus one litter boxes. That way they all can’t be guarded, which is important if you want all of your cats to think inside the box. Many common urinary and fecal issues are stress-related. Stress can come from many places, but inter-cat stress is high on the list.

If you have cats that regularly fight, you may not know that the one doing the pouncing is not always the one who is in charge. An “in-charge” cat may not need to pounce. The underdog cat (“undercat”) may need to pounce to try to gain some respect. I recommend owners re-examine the logistics and flow of their household to even the playing field between unequal cats. By providing good territory options, cat hierarchical dramas are minimized. 

Give them different heights to retreat to when needed. Cats like a variety of levels, and use them to increase their own comfort zone, even in small rooms. High cat trees, window seats, ledges, couches etc., can allow more relaxed interactions. Like air-traffic, working out a comfortable flight plan can include altitude as well as direction.

It can be tricky to introduce a new cat to a cat household if you aren’t aware of these subtle interactions. I usually recommend super slo-mo introductions. If you’re not sure of the health of a new cat, get a veterinary exam, and even then, make sure to keep the new cat separate from the resident cats for at least a week. Any underlying health issues will probably show up by then. Keep them in separate rooms, meeting under the doorway first. Once they meet in person, it’s important to make sure there is always a good retreat place for every cat. And of course make sure to have enough litter boxes, feeding stations and water bowls. 

Cats are very sensitive to medications. Vaccine associated sarcomas (cancers at the site of vaccines) and reactions to other medications are more common than we would like to see. Veterinarians are typically very careful with medications in cats for this reason. Surprisingly, cats are also very resilient.

Cats may really have nine lives. With the proper diet and support, I have found that cats have an uncanny ability to recover from even the most serious illnesses. The best way I know to keep a cat healthy is to feed a diet rich in protein and moisture and low in carbs, just like what they would get in the wild. Where possible, I recommend canned or even a raw food over any kibbled dry foods (if the cat will eat it…). Cats are very close to their evolutionary ancestry and their dietary requirements are very similar to what wild cats eat. It is also important that we don’t hamper their immune system with too many unneeded vaccines and medications.


Some people believe that purring is one of their secret weapons. Cats purr while inhaling and exhaling. Their vocal cords oscillate when the brain sends a repetitive signal to the laryngeal muscles. The lovely rumbly sound is produced when they breathe in and out through adjoined vocal cords. The frequency of the purr may be a healing frequency (24-140 vibrations per minute). There is evidence to support this. These frequencies are often used to in therapies that encourage bone healing. Purring is said to release endorphins which help with pain. Often critically ill or very old patients will purr constantly – something that has been called “maniacal purring,” “paradoxical purring” or as I like to call it, a furry Purr-cure. It really does seem to be comforting to them – and to us. 

The sound of a purr can be healing to people as well. Studies find that owning a cat may decrease stress, and blood pressure. There is a 40 percent lower risk of heart attack in cat owners. A good reason to keep a medicinal cat around.

Clearly they purr when they are happy, but females purr when giving birth (bonding to kittens? pain relief? self-comforting?), kittens while nursing (bonding and happy), and some just purr for purr’s sake. 

It’s not only domestic cats that purr. The bobcat, lynx, cheetah and puma all have great rumbling purrs. The cats that roar have a sort of purr, but it is only with exhalation. They can’t truly purr because their larynxes are configured to make a larger noise. But having hand-raised a Sumatran tiger, the sort of fhufff-fhufff purr-like noises from a cuddly tiger cub are every bit as enchanting as a cat’s purr. 

As Robert Byrne says, “To Err is Human, to Purr is Feline.” 

There is a study out of England that theorizes that cats developed their specific purr frequency to trigger a nurturing response from humans. I agree, as it is nearly impossible to deny anything to my cat when he rubs around my ankles or curls up on my lap purring wildly.

We even have a rule in my house, that if you have a cat on your lap, you are not required to get up for anything. One shouldn’t disturb a comfortable cat. So, the doorbell rings, and even though I’m working in the basement, I hear from the living room (where the front door is) “Mom, can you get it? I have a cat…” And once again, I race upstairs.