September 22, 2019
Did your cat just let out an exasperated sigh? Does it sound like your kitty’s scolding you for missing food time by five minutes? Or did your feline friend grace your arrival home with a happy little trill and meow?
Cats are constantly communicating with us — as well as the world around them. But what exactly are they saying?
From chirping and purring to night howls and yowls, cats make an array of sounds. Some of them might be specific to your cat. Yet, in general, animal behavior experts believe they have decoded the feline language enough for us to “hear” what they’re trying to tell us.
“I do think cats communicate uniquely with us,” says Kristin Wilson, DMV, a veterinarian and owner of Arbor Hills Animal Clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Eye contact, rubbing their faces on things, meowing, even biting. And vocalizations can be especially puzzling to figure out.”
Some cats are talkers and may just be vocalizing excitement over a toy, or may be lonely at night when everyone else is asleep, says Dr. Wilson. “But it can also indicate a medical problem, so any new vocalizing should be checked out.” According to research presented in the VIHAR 2017 Proceedings, there are eight common sounds that cats make:
Whether it’s a meow, mew, me-yoww, maio, or nyan (the Japanese version of “meow”), the meow is a classic cat sound with probably the most nuance and variation. According to the Humane Society of the United States, the meow is an all-purpose statement for cats and covers a lot of territory. The meow can include a mew, squeak, moan and combination of sounds.
It can mean anything from friendly greeting to an angry demand to sorrow to a polite request — and everything in between. There is even a silent meow. Reading a cat’s body language can help determine the context.
We all love to hear cats purr, but in reality, that low-pitched rumble can indicate several things.
Cats purr in the presence of their mothers, in the presence of humans, and in the presence other cats. Once thought only to be a show of comfort, purring is more nuanced than previously believed. According to research published in November 2016 in the Journal of Voice, common reasons cats purr include:
• Comfort: A cat may purr for its human to show it likes the petting it’s receiving. • Asking for something: Cats will ask for food, comfort or attention using purrs that are more like baby cries. • Distress or anxiety: Purring can indicate a state of distress as well. Some cats purr to self-soothe when sick or in an anxious situation.
The trill is a pleasant and welcoming greeting. Some cats may start with a trill and lead into a meow. It can sound like the rolling of the tongue, and include high-pitched and low-pitched versions, including grunts.
The trill is usually used to show friendliness, curiosity, or playfulness. Cats may also combine the trill with a meow or a purr. Mother cats will sometimes use a trill with kittens to get their attention or say, “follow me.”
When your cat lets out a yowl — a long, drawn-out, and somewhat distressed or mournful version of a meow — you (and everyone in your household) will know it.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says a yowl can mean one of several things. If your yowling female cat is not spayed, she may be in heat and letting potential mates know. Likewise, an un-neutered yowling male cat may be signaling his availability.
If the yowl seems pointed, it could be that your cat is complaining about one of its basic needs. Is the food bowl less than halfway full, or does the litter box needs tending?
However, a long series of yowls, particularly at night, might indicate a health issue or cognitive distress — such as that of an older person who becomes confused with where they are. Wilson says you should pay attention to yowls, especially if they develop out of a nowhere, as they can indicate physical or cognitive issues with your cat.
Is growling the house cat’s roar? Possibly. A growl can often start with an “mmmm” sound then turn low, long, and guttural. While growling, a cat will curl its lips and expose teeth, much like a dog would.
Growling is a very clear warning to step back, used in relation to humans as well as other animals. When facing off for a potential battle, cats may growl at each other while seemingly locked in a standoff. Growling may be the last step before attacking. A growl is an extreme communication and typically in response to a high-stress situation. Growling can also be an indication of pain.
While some referring to hissing as spitting, it’s typically the same thing: an intense breathing out with a hard stop. It’s often used as a defensive aggressive response. The cat’s mouth is usually wide open and the teeth are shown.
A cat hisses as a warning when feeling threatened. It may also hiss when surprised or annoyed — for example, by the use of a vacuum.
The snarl or scream is an open-mouthed sound of panic or pain. Anyone who has ever stepped on a cat’s paw or tail by accident has probably witnessed this one.
This sound lets you know something bad is happening right now — either a fight with another animal or pain of some sort. It’s also referred to as the “pain shriek.”
The “chit, chit, chit” or croaking sound your cat may make when watching birds or squirrels outside the window can be somewhat surprising the first time you experience it. Researchers have identified several types of chirps and chatter, including twitter and tweedle.
Regardless of the actual chirp intonation, if your cat is making this sound, it’s likely that they are mimicking potential prey, or even simulating the bites it would inflict upon said prey.
Research published in December 2015 in the journal Anthrozoos found that cat owners are decent at understanding the meaning behind their own cat’s communication — but not so much with other cats.
As you grow with your feline friend, you are more likely to sympathize and hear the nuance of the conversation. Whatever your cat is trying to say, the important thing is that you’re listening.