The cat's meow
Sarah Oliver - 1 May 2015
Following the last article about the language of dogs in our pet communication series, we now turn our attention to cats and the sounds they make. Like dogs, cats’ main form of communication is through scent, while body language – for example, a twitch of an ear or a flick of a tail – also plays a large part.
Vocalisations between cats are much less common and usually occur between a mother and her kittens, potential mates or enemies … if you’ve heard a stand-off between two cats, you’ll know what I mean! It’s because we humans are so inept at understanding cats’ non-verbal communication, that domestic cats have learned how to ‘talk’ to us over the millennia they have shared their homes with us.
Often as unique as the cat herself, cats meow at us for the same reasons as they meowed at their mother as a kitten – to alert us that they require our attention. Many cat owners will agree that their cat has different meows depending on what it is they want – from the “meee-owww!” when you’re late home from work, to the “me-oooow!” demands for food and the multiple meows of “I’m so happy to see you”, to the meow of “Look! I’ve brought a mouse for you!”
However, sometimes a meow can indicate loneliness or illness, and older cats may meow more frequently as their senses decline or dementia sets in.
We all recognise the purr as a sign of contentment, but this rhythmic vibration is also used by cats as a way to comfort themselves or their young – think how relaxing and hypnotic a cat’s purr can be.
Since kittens are born deaf and blind, the soft vibrations of their mother’s purr help guide them to warmth and safety, as well as their meals! Kittens will initially respond back to their mother through purrs, until they learn to meow. So purring is an instinctual link connecting the cat to warmth, safety and food, and is why cats will purr when they feel contented, when they are petted and sometimes even when they are eating (Elliot certainly does when I give him ham!)
But purring doesn’t always signify contentment – cats may purr to comfort themselves when they are ill, injured or upset, and research suggests that purring releases endorphins – the feel-good hormones that can reduce pain and promote healing. A cat’s body language will tell you if this is the case – if your cat’s body is tense and her ears are back, a purr may mean that she’s concerned about something.
Sounding something between a meow and a purr, the trill is used as a friendly greeting – a “Yay! You’re back home!”
Nursing cats will trill to tell her kittens to pay attention, and your cat may make this sound for the same reason – to demand attention, alert you to something exciting she’s seen or simply to tell you she is happy.
If you have more than one cat, you may hear them trill to each other.
The chirrup or chatter
You may hear this strange noise when your cat is watching birds or a squirrel or such through the window. A distinctive chattering sound, this signals excitement at what they see or frustration that they can’t get to it!
A clear warning sound given by a cat to say “Leave me alone and back away!” Like dogs, cats will growl out of fear, anger or a territorial threat. This sound will often be accompanied by hissing or snarling, and can start or end with a yowl (see below).
Body language will show a growling cat in a defensive stance – arched back, twitching tail, ears back and puffed-up fur.
Often accompanying a growl, the hiss is another warning sound of fear or anger. With body posture the same as a growl, the cat will also show her fangs in a display of threatening aggression, and a clear sign to leave her well alone.
Hissing depends largely on the cat’s sense of comfort and perception of threat – a friendly, easy-going cat may rarely hiss, while a more nervous cat may hiss if she feels uncertain about her situation. Stray or feral cats tend to hiss more frequently than domestic cats.
The yowl sounds like a long, loud and drawn-out meow that tells you your cat is upset about something – whether she’s feeling unwell, trapped in a cupboard, threatened by a new cat in her territory or simply bored. Older cats may yowl as their senses decline or dementia sets in.
Unneutered cats will yowl when they are searching for a mate (see also Caterwaul). If your neutered cat begins to yowl and you’ve ruled out any illness or injury, check whether there are any new cats in the neighbourhood or that your cat has enough stimulation and attention throughout the day.
This distinctive version of the yowl is the cry of a female cat in heat, searching for a mate. A caterwauling cat will do anything to get outside (and you’ll probably have a yowling, fighting bunch of toms trying to get in) and will often assume a mating position of bottom in the air and tail erect and to one side; they will often rub their hind quarters against you and your furnishings, and will sometimes spray urine too.
An awful sound that is like a scream from a human, a cat’s scream is the final vocal warning before the fight begins. Cats may also scream while fighting, and these shrieks often punctuate a swipe of a clawed paw or a bite.
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Ask the Cat Doctor, Cat Sounds: What is your cat telling you?
ASPCA, Cat vocalisations
The Humane Society, Cat chat: Understanding feline language
Modern Cat, 12 sounds cats make and what they mean
Mother Nature Network, Cat sounds and what they mean
Paw Nation, 10 sounds cats make
Pet Centric, The meanings behind the meow