Some cats are quite chatty while others scarcely make a sound. Some of that’s genetic but there is also the individual personality. Along with vocalization cats use a combination of scent and body language to communicate.
In a cat world without people, adult cats primarily use scent and body language. Cat-to-cat communication is a symphony of subtle symbols and they may also use a variety of vocalizations, but they seldom meow at each other. Meows are pretty much reserved for that special relationship between a mother and her kittens.
Well in a cat-to-people world scent obviously doesn’t work, nor are humans particularly adept at body language. Cats quickly learn that their particular humans simply don’t “get it” and that the only way to get direct communication is through conversation.
In her book “Cat Wrangling Made Easy,” Dusty Rainbold says that one researcher, Nicholas Nicastro, believes that cat vocalizations aren’t even a true language. Cats have simply learned that sounds manage our emotions and they become extremely skilled at using their vocalizations to manipulate us. So cats talk to communicate with us, and that’s why we listen.
How does your cat talk?
In conversations with your cat you’ll hear a wide range of chatters, murmurs, chirps, trills, and kitten-like squeaks. On occasion you may hear growls, spits, and caterwauls as well. But of course our favorites are the purrs and meows.
Cats can make all sorts of sounds, with a lot of variations of the simple meow. Rainbold says that a 2002 Cornell University study documented hundreds of different cat vocalizations, ranging from soft purrs to tomcat battle yowls. Yet what all those sounds mean is a mystery to us.
The sounds domestic cats will make can be grouped into four distant types:
- There are the vowel sounds that are variations of a “meow.” There’s also that sweet, open-mouthed “silent meow” which is so high pitched the human ear can’t hear it.
- Chirps and chattering are types of articulated patterns that express frustration.
- There are the softer sounds of murmurs and purring.
- Then there are strained intense sounds such as hisses, growls, and screams.
You’ll want to get familiar with your cat’s usual vocal patterns, and then pay attention to any changes. If a silent cat suddenly starts talking up a storm, or a pleasantly chatty cat changes to yowling, it could be trying to tell you something. My Siamese cat is often quite talkative, but when she really wants to be fed, her meow gets loud. If she doesn’t get fed right away, it becomes even louder and sometimes starts to get a little reverberation going.
What’s your cat saying?
You are listening to your cat, so now let’s figure out what your cat may be trying to say. Each type of sound is your cat’s way of communicating its particular need or mood.
The meow is very versatile and can have a surprisingly wide range of variations. Meows are mostly your cat asking for something. They can range from kittenish, coy, and shy to forcefully demanding your attention.
The “silent meow” is basically an ordinary meow. It does make a sound but is pitched above your hearing. Cats can detect sounds up to 50-65 kilohertz, while our hearing is limited to approximately 18-20 kilohertz. We find this meow so adorable that cats quickly learn that it’s highly effective for getting what they want.
Chattering is an odd sound your cat will make while watching birds outside a window. It is a rapid click-click sound they make with their teeth. Although there are mixed ideas of what this means, it’s generally thought to be an expression of excitement or a frustration at not being able to pounce on a prey. It is almost always in response to birds, while watching rodents cats will be silent.
A soft trill or Chirping sound is used to greet other cats or humans. It is a sweet, friendly vocalization that falls between a meow and a purr.
The purr is everybody’s favorite cat sound. The purr is often attributed to a contented cat, and cats do purr when they are happy. But it is actually an overflow of any emotion. Cats may purr when content, happy, frightened, furious, or even in pain. In the more distressed situations purring is thought to be a self-soothing and self-healing mechanism. Research has shown that the frequency of the purr aligns with the same frequency that aids in pain relief, wound healing, fracture healing, and bone growth.
Growling and Yowling
These are some of the loudest and most intense sounds a cat can make. Growls, wails, howls, and snarls are warning sounds. These are dramatic and often effective ways to ward of potential combatants or competitors. Cats will growl at each other or at humans as a warning to back off.
The hiss is a sound of annoyance, and depending on the situation, is mixed with fear or a lot of bluster. It can also indicate pain or stress, but in all cases it means “back off.” If you’re petting your cat, stop and give him a chance to calm down, and then try to determine the cause. If he hisses every time you touch him in a certain spot, he could be injured or ill.
Cats are wonderfully diverse in their ability to communicate with us. When they talk, people listen. It does makes you wonder, who’s domesticated whom! Visit our World of Pet Cats to learn more about these fascinating animals, or to find your special breed!
Clarice Brough is a team member at Animal-World and has contributed many articles and write-ups.
Featured Image Credit: Paul Hanaoka, Unsplash