You’ve probably noticed that cats spend a lot of time and energy communicating with other cats in their lives, but that very little of that communication is in the form of meows. If they talked as much as they gestured (including marking their territory and their humans), the odds are good that you’d wish they’d just shut up. Of course, because most humans aren’t nearly as good as observing body language and understanding the feline communication of subtle ear movements and tail twitches, they often “use their words” to help us understand what they’re feeling and what they want.
Cats’ vocabulary is just as rich and subtle as their body language (including ways they express affection). Here are some of my favorite feline sounds and what they mean. Let’s start with the basics.
Kittens are much more likely to meow than adults. Because kittens are born unable to hear and see, they make this noise to alert their mother that they need attention. Adult cats rarely meow at each other, but they may meow at us for the same reasons. (Humans sometimes meow at each other, but it’s usually for laughs.) Check out this kitten crying for its mother.
Cats purr when they’re content, but they also purr as a way to comfort themselves when they’re sick or injured. The auditory frequency of the purr, around 25 cycles per second, is thought to have healing properties, and it almost certainly acts as an internal massage. (Read more about the purr here from behaviorist Marilyn Krieger.)
Cats use a trill, a sound somewhere between a meow and purr, as a friendly greeting. This cutie is meowing and trilling to beat the band!
The growl is clearly a warning sound. Cats growl at one another to say “Back off before I have to use my claws rather than my voice!”
If your cat sits in the window staring at squirrels outside, ears erect and eyes focused, but he can’t get outside to chase them, he may make a chattering noise. This communicates either excitement or frustration.
Cats hiss when they’re afraid or angry. The hiss is the next stage of warning after the growl.
Female cats in heat make this desperate cry, hoping to attract tomcats to ease their pangs of kitten-making desire. The scream, a variant of the yowl, is the final vocal warning before a serious fight begins.
My cats make an array of other noises that communicate very specific things.
When my cat Thomas wants to get in my lap, he’ll often sit on the floor staring up at me and make a quick “bip” or “eck” sound. I interpret this as “Ahem ÔÇª excuse me.”
This noise is a hybrid between a purr, a meow and a growl. The burble has no negative meaning even though it incorporates a growl. It’s Siouxsie’s attention-getting noise and, like the word “Aloha,” it has more than one meaning. She also burbles when she’s grateful for my attention. You can hear some of Siouxsie’s burbles in this video, along with an assortment of other noises she likes to make. (I’ve come to the conclusion that “burble-myak!” means “Look at me, I’m outside! Yay!” not “Holy crap, I’m outside and freezing my butt off!” because she loves to make those noises any time she’s out walking around.)
I feed my Bella in the bathroom with the door closed, because if I don’t do that, she wolfs down her food and then steals Siouxsie and Thomas’s meals as well. Usually she finishes before the other cats and then starts in with her heart-rending cries of “Pleeeease, let me out!” “Just a minute, Bella,” I reply. Of course, I do let her out once the other cats are finished eating.
What are your cat’s favorite vocal expressions? Please share them in the comments.
Read more science-y selections by JaneA Kelley:
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, professional cat sitter, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.