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What’s your cat’s mother tongue?

Communication fascinates me incredibly! From an early age I have found it a challenge to make contact with people and animals, to understand their language and behaviour and to explore their emotional world. Did you know that in addition to an MSc in animal behaviour, I also got an MSc degree in Communication Science from the University of Antwerp? This is how I ended up in the world of cats, with a thesis about communication in cats.

Communication in cats?

Whereas people mainly communicate with each other in a vocal way, with cats it’s mainly about smells. Cats are originally solitary hunters, so if are you are hunting on your own, miaowing will have no effect. In contrast, leaving smells behind works both for themselves and for conspecifics, because it allows cats to communicate in time and space. Our cats’ communication system has evolved over thousands of years and that has its consequences if we place this hunting specimen in our home environment.

How do cats use this instinctive communication in our home and how can we better understand it?


Cats have scent glands that release pheromones all over their bodies. These are located at the corners of the mouth, in front and in between the ears, on their paw pads, around the nipples and under their tail. The odour characteristics they emit act as red or green flags. The green flags are placed in spots and objects where she feels good, she will leave a scent mark here so that next time she knows that she can relax here and that this object has been approved. Danger flags are drawn up in places where the cat is stressed, irritated or anxious. With this they mainly warn themselves, so that next time your cat passes that place, she will be on her guard.


Just like horses and big cats, our domestic cats can also show a flehmen response. Cats have an extra organ for this purpose, the Jacobson organ in their palate, the so-called vomeronasal organ with which cats can ‘taste smell’ by absorbing odours in their saliva. They show a funny face, by pulling up their lip and leaving their mouth half open. They mainly take in smells of a social nature and new smells.


Spraying is a very clear form of communication with pheromones. These are the so-called ‘red flags’ that cats put out to indicate that they experience stress in that particular place. So they will spray all over their territory, and not ‘mark’ it on the outside, as we do see with other species. Cats that spray in the house do not do so out of jealousy, revenge or anger, but purely to indicate how they feel about themselves. It makes no sense to punish the cat because this only increases the initial reason, namely that the cat does not feel safe.

Head rubbing

Cats put out head rubs and put out green flags saying ‘Here I feel good, here I am relaxed and next time I come here, I can be at ease! Cats can rub onto their environment, other cats and us as an owner, with the corner of their mouth, rubbing along across their ears and can also bump into things with their forehead. That’s how they give off pheromones. The well-known Feliway (F3) and Felifriend (F4) are chemical substitutes for these pheromones. So Feliway tells the cats that they have put out a green flag at that place before. This only works when there has not been an initial negative experience, which unfortunately was the case most of the time.


Besides taking care of their claws, scratching is also a sort of flag, an orange one in this case, that cats can use. They have scent glands in their paw pads with which they set a signal against the wall or the ground. When the cat uses an object to stretch and take care of their claws, moving this object is often not a problem and this behaviour can be ‘channelled’ by providing multiple scratching possibilities. On the other hand, scratching can also be very location-specific, and then it is difficult to move a chosen (but undesirable) scratch location because that is the specific location your cat needs to scratch in combination with that object in that specific spot.

So what we can do, in the case of inappropriate scratching, is to provide multiple possibilities (reed, sisal cord, carpet, coconut mat, etc.) throughout the house, resulting in multiple scratching stations. These don’t have to be large and expensive scratching poles! In case of inappropriate locations, we can protect and adapt our home environment by, for example, hanging scratching posts or scratching mats in those coveted places and storing/removing your valuable objects/furniture so your cat is not able to damage them. Scratching areas should be firm and should come or hang high enough for the cats to fully extend.

General precautions in the house

Since cats talk so much with smells, it is important for them that their familiar sleeping and hiding places retain their own scent and the scent of their social group. So we will never just wash cat beds and towels ‘because it’s time’, this can cause a lot of stress in a cat family. This should only be done when there is a hygienic emergency (e.g. risk of flea eggs and contagious diseases) or if this place is really dirty. Otherwise, all you have to do is remove the hair and leave the familiar towel (that is in the cat bed). If this really has to be put into the laundry, first put another towel for 2 days there so that it carries the scent and then you can wash the other dirty towel without problems.
In addition, we are going to reinforce happy behaviours such as head rubbing and will ignore unhappy behaviours such as spraying. The cat is telling us how she feels at that moment so by giving (or taking away) our attention in the right way, we have an influence on this.

Love, Anneleen ♡

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