signs cat is in heat
Cat with mouth open — trilling, meowing or making another kitty sound. Photography by annadarzy/Thinkstock.

Cat Trilling: Why Do Cats Trill and What Does Cat Trilling Mean?

Let’s talk about cat trilling — from why only certain cats make this noise to how cats use it to communicate with us and each other — and more.
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It happens every day. I get home and I’m greeted with a “rrroooowe, brrring, brupppp, brupppp!” or some variation of similar noises. No, I don’t have an old-fashioned telephone or my iPhone set to some nostalgic ring. This cat sound — commonly known as cat trilling — is coming from my small calico kitty, Merritt, as she excitedly greets me and seems to chat me up about her day.

My other cat, Gabby, is excited to see me but remains silent as Merritt trills away. Maybe he’ll give me a soft purr as he cranes his head up for a head pet but that’s about it. So, why does only one of my kitties do this cat trilling noise? And why does cat trilling happen in the first place?

Why do cats trill?

Merritt, just trillin' out in her fallsy cat barn.
Merritt, just trillin’ out in her fallsy cat barn. Photography courtesy Cait Rohan Kelly.

I had a hunch that cat trilling was a positive sound. Not only does Merritt trill when I get home, she trills when she sees or hears her treat bag or food. To be sure, I confirmed with Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “Trilling is a high-pitched, chirp-like noise made by cats as a greeting to people or other cats. It is associated with a positive, welcoming vibe,” she says.

But what about other times that cats trill?

According to The Humane Society of the United States, cat trilling is how mama cats get their kittens to pay attention or follow them. Merritt is one sassy diva of a cat who loves the spotlight and being around others. How dare any guest not admire her or let her rub their leg in greeting! If I sit down and Merritt is in the general vicinity, I know I should plan on staying put for the next 20 minutes. She will be in my lap, trilling, head-butting and purring away for all of the attention!

So, it makes sense that she would trill, especially in situations where she’s telling us humans to pay attention (!!!). The treat trills I previously mentioned are great examples of the “follow me” (“Hey human, I’m right over here!”) and “pay attention” (“Do NOT feed the treat to my brother first — even though he is silently waiting like a complete angel!”) commands.

How is cat trilling different from cat meowing?

But why cat trilling and not other cat sounds? Why wouldn’t cats just meow for attention or to say hello? Gabby, my cat who is a bit quieter and doesn’t trill, meows for attention, but the sort of attention he wants is usually negative. Case in point: Gabby will sit by our closed basement door and meow until I come to him. He’s not supposed to be in our basement but he’s escaped down there a few times. And — naughty and smart as he is — he wants to go back.

“Meowing is done with the mouth open, whereas trilling noises are made with the mouth closed,” Dr. Gibbons explains. “Trilling is almost always a positive noise, whereas meowing can have positive or negative connotations.”

For those who haven’t heard it, what does cat trilling sound like?

 

If my rotary phone-esque “brrring” and the common “rrroooowe” descriptions don’t do cat trilling justice, think of cat trilling as a lot of high-pitched, rolled, Spanish-style “Rs.” For a really good demonstration of cat trilling, let’s talk to Merritt herself!*

*please excuse my cat Christmas socks in these videos. 

How do our kitties make that cat trilling sound, anyway?

As all cat lovers know, cat anatomy is a fascinating thing. So, what exactly happens when cats make that odd cat trilling sound?

“The trill is a high-pitched sound because it is made by cats pushing air through their ‘voice box’ with their mouths closed so the air is not being expelled,” Dr. Gibbons says.

Why do some cats trill and others don’t?

“The amount of trilling varies with personality,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Some cats are shy or apprehensive so they do not trill.”

This aligns perfectly with my two cats. Gabby is a quiet, older kitty who shies away from too much attention, whereas Merritt is a younger cat who loves to be the center of attention.

Am I only the one who trills back at my cat — and can she understand me?

 

I can’t be the only cat lady who has conversations “in cat” with my kitty — see the video above. Since Merritt is so chatty, I started to make similar cat trilling noises back to her. Sometimes, I’ll ask her a question and she will promptly respond in the exact tone of the answer I’d expect.

Me: “Merritt, do you like your new toy?”
Merritt: :::Happy trilling sound:::

Me: “Merritt, where’s Gabby?”
Merritt: :::Confused trilling sound that I take to mean ‘I dunno’:::

Before you think I’m nutty, here’s a doctor’s opinion confirming that she understands my imitations of cat trilling and questions — sort of! “Trilling can be used for cats to communicate with other cats or with people,” Dr. Gibbons says. “She can definitely understand your tone and that you are great pals!”

So, trill away, cat ladies and gentleman. It may be the closest thing we have to talking to our cats for now!

Tell us: Do you have a cat who trills? What does cat trilling sound like to you? When does your cat trill?

Thumbnail: Photography by annadarzy/Thinkstock. 

This piece was originally published in 2017.

About the author

Cait Rohan Kelly is a digital writer, editor and marketer with over a decade of experience working with everything from sports stars to different types of cheese. She is currently the Digital Content Marketing Manager for Catster and Dogster. Cait is a lifelong animal lover and cat lady. She lives in Connecticut with her husband (a self-professed cat dude), her son (his first word will probably be one of her cats’ names) and her two rescue cats — Gabby, an orange tabby and avid sleeper, and Merritt, a sassy calico.

Read more about weird cat sounds on Catster.com:

107 thoughts on “Cat Trilling: Why Do Cats Trill and What Does Cat Trilling Mean?”

  1. My family and I live with a roommate and her son and they have two exotic short hair (Burmese/American short hair) cats and we collectively adopted a little tuxedo kitten a few months ago. Apparently we’ve done everything “wrong” but still have 3 very happy kitties and a large 4-legged not-cat (Sadie, my coonhound mix) who is also happy and well adjusted. So, trilling is apparently (according the the interwebs) a typical Burmese trait but they have taught our little tuxedo Harley-Ann to do it too! Trust, there is NOTHING more adoreable than a tiny kitten “brrrrrr?” when she asks for something! Yes, they are ALL incredibly spoilt and get *almost* everything they request. Even the occasional french fry!

  2. I have two kitten siblings, about 4 months old, and one of them trills all the time for attention. She’ll walk up, rub my leg or sit and stare at me, and trill until I play with her or pick her up and pet her. Her brother doesn’t trill much but he likes to mew for attention or to complain that she’s bothering him. XD They’re domestic shorthairs.

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  4. Our 2-year old ragdoll mix, John Wayne, trills, “grrrs” to get your attention and as an expression of frustration when he doesn’t get what he wants and talks/meows in his sleep (I swear) all the time.

  5. Lily La Fea, a 4 year old torbie-and-white, makes all kinds of noises. She mrrs, trills, chirps, squeaks and purrs. She still has a very high pitched voice, almost like a kitten. Our other cats will occasionally mrrrrr but they don’t trill.

  6. My Maine Coon, Phantom, trills in the middle of the night when she’s “making muffins” on top of me in bed!

  7. My cat trills when he wants to eat, or when he’s playing- usually with the laser. once in a while he’ll get into a really hyper mood and trill really loudly as he jumps up and runs down the hall for no reason. haha.
    He has so many different trills, though. it’s so interesting. some of them start with his mouth closed and then he opens his mouth and it’s this weird raspy sound. Some of them are low pitched (relatively), and he does a bunch of them in a row… and he also has a more quiet, higher-pitched trill, and then when he sees a moving reflection or the laser, or when he’s in one of his weird hyper moods, he does this really loud and excited trill. It’s so cute. My other cats meow and one of them trills when I’m getting their food ready, but they don’t really trill otherwise.

  8. My male cat trills at me often and I trill right back! We talk and talk during these moments and it makes him very happy that mommy is giving him one on one attention.

  9. Funny, my Gracie just ran thru the bathroom door trilling, quite a long trill, then jumped on the tub. A few secs later, she jumped down & did a short trill, then a minute later, she comes running back thru the bathroom door, trilling again, & back up on the tub, jumps down & trills as she ran back out! And now twice more she’s come in trilling. I think she wants me to flush the toilet so she can watch the water disappear. She was only with her mom for 3 weeks, but maybe she learned it during that time. I found her crawling in a parking lot with 10+ crows squawking & pecking at her. She was feral. I jumped from my car & saved her! She also trills when she’s asleep & I pet her & wake her up & she trills sometimes when playing. I guess she does it more often than I realized.

  10. I have a black Persian named Nori who is a very shy cat due to what we think was a previously abusive home. She is 3 and she is scared of just about everyone except for my mom and I. She loves to sleep with me. When I get home from work she’s right at my door. I hop in bed and she trills while she jumps on the bed and maybe a few more times after. She trills while she’s trying to open my curtain to see outside. And she’ll trill when I surprise her when I find her hiding spots.

  11. I have a tabby who is about a year and a half now. Ever since I got her as a kitten, she never really mowed, she just trills. She consistantly trills when shes kneading, rolling around on the floor, etc. She also likes to lick me and then bite me. Shes definately the cutest!

  12. We got two six month old sister kittens recently. Our 1.5 year old male has started trilling at them when he wants to play. They come to him when he does it, very cute. He is very gentle with them,but they are enjoying their romps. I had never heard him make this sound prior to the sisters’ arrival.

  13. Annie Belle is not quite 4 months old yet. She trills for all occasions, its by her tone that you know what it’s for! Her trill sounds like a space car from The Jetsons cartoon. (Yes we have to go waaaay back for that one kids) When she’s mad you can hear the temper come through, the tone is lower. When she is looking for something she has a questioning tone to it. The cutest of her trills by far is when she takes off running, it’s like her turbo booster just kicked in.

  14. My 9 week old gray kitten Artemis trills more than she meows. For some reason when she meows she always sounds upset even when I can tell that’s not true. I had never heard a cat trill before her. She enjoyed watching the videos of Merritt she trilled back and licked the screen.

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  16. We’ve recently been adopted by a sweet grey cat who, I believe, lived in the house we just bought. If he’s not napping, he’s trilling and purring and head butting as he accepts our chin scratches.

  17. Omigosh. thank you so much for educating me about the term “trilling”. The first time I heard my young “Mr. Bojangles” trill his way through morning conversation I thought I would die from the hilarity. “Map-mowww (this means Mom’s up, repeated over and over until my feet hit the floor. Then it’s “Rowwwrrrr, ROWWWRRR” as he intertwines himself around my feet and through my steps as I struggle to reach up for his food. He hurriedly prances and trills ALL the way to the food bowl. But, it doesn’t stop there, once he’s had a mouthful (or two). I get “maowpp,maowpp”, which, of course. means thank you. He tri8lls his way through every conversation, and believe me, we talk ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. wouldn’t have it any other way!

  18. Both our cats trill, and talk in other ways. Kai says ‘hello’ to my daughter, they play silly games, she hiding round the door and peeping at him, he says ‘hello’ every time. The trilling is ‘feed me’ to her, for me I get that at teatime and breakfast, and if he wants more, I get a tongue flicking in and out… the other cat asks and asks through trilling until the bowl hits the floor. He’s on it as if starved, you would never believe he’s been fed at all for days!! It is cute, it means so much, they aren’t just silent creatures in the house but talkative, contrary, demanding and intensely loving cats.

  19. I have 3 trillers!???? When I was looking at the video…they all started checking out my tab. Max, my super triller, started trilling back at high pitched speed.???? Love your magazine and thanks for all the great info!????
    Many blessings!????
    Andrea,????
    P.s. all my little singers trill “Hi!????”.

  20. I have 3 trillers!???? When I was looking at the video…they all started checking out my tab. Max, my super triller, started trilling back at high pitched speed.???? Love your magazine and thanks for all the great info!????
    Many blessings!????
    Andrea,????
    P.s. all my little singers trill “Hi!????”.

  21. I have two cats, one is about seven and chirps at birds out the window all the way to chirping when I touch him when he isn’t expecting it. I also have a kitten, at first did not chirp at all whatsoever. After two days of being with Oliver (older cat) he learned the act of chirping or learned that it’s okay to do. Now Jerry (kitten) chirps at Oliver and he responds. It’s quite honestly one of the coolest things I have ever witnessed. And of course they both chirp at me all the damn time

  22. My black male trills constantly. I love it! It sounds like he is “talking” in the cutest way possible! He makes all kinds of little chirps in different lengths and tones. I’ve had a lot of cats over my 55 years and he’s the only one I’ve known to do this. It’s so cool!

  23. Mary-Lou Mayfield

    I used to call it a “purr-meow” (prrrow) until I heard the expression, “trilling.” My husband, who uses a hearing aid, calls it a “blurt.” One person described it as a “prrt” .
    Both my black and white Tuxedo cat and my brown tabby “sing” for their supper . I recorded it and put it on my Facebook page.

  24. Abdul ghufoor Ullah

    so the animal is under no kind of distress when its trilling and running round like a blue house fly destroying furniture sometimes i think like there is always a doubt her welfare has always been paramount please tell me my worries were in vain

  25. For the constant triller -(you said was annoying), if not spayed – is probably in heat. I wouldn’t wait to get our adopted gal spayed once that constant vocalization started :)

  26. My roommate’s cat, Sailli never stops vocalizing, usual in trills unless she is asleep. As cute and pleasant as it once might have been, now it is agonizingly annoying, between that and her constantly scratching on doors, even to rooms with no one inside so she can’t be asking for attention.

    1. Maybe your fur baby is talking to someone or something only she can hear and/or see. Cats are very psychic and are able to see spirits.

      1. 2 yrs ago. My sister’s cat trilled at me. A sound I’ve never heard from any cat. It had a low tone and it scared me. My sister was laughing because she was amazed. She had never heard that sound from a cat either. Since i knew animals sensed things. I thought I had a demon the cat was growling at. But it wasn’t exactly a growl. Two yrs later,watching a movie , an animal that sensed something made me think of the cat. I googled when a cat growls at you, and came across trilling . To my surprise i was glad and thrilled to know that cats do this. And maybe the cat was just trying to lift my spirits because I was always friendly to her, and that day i did have a bad attitude but was hiding it. Reading all the stories I finally settled on it was a happy experience. Just as I was about to let it go I saw your post. And was relieved. I knew that cat sensed something! All is well . And i appreciated every story, it’s just that yours was more relatable. And I say that because that sound didn’t seem happy to me.

    2. Cats hate closed doors, not sure why but although mine live to sit in the sun on my closed-in front porch, they do not want me to close the front door. One of my cats trills, not constantly but several times throughout the day probably more than 10x a day. The other 2 never do, & looking back at all the cats I’ve had, I think she’s the only one I’ve ever had that trills. Didn’t know exactly why she does it, but I could tell it was a happy sound.

  27. My new baby trills always all the time in response to everything he does. I can tell the “I’m bored play with me” trills to the “I’m hungry” trill which is followed with a meow at the end. He trills a lot when he’s playful and lonely. (He’s always playful!) It sounds so irritated I feel bad! Lol. I have conversations with him where he answers me back with trills. It’s the cutest thing.

  28. Our new addition Samhain is a reallly vocal kitten :) Our older Boy finn is very quiet, so this was a bit of a surprise to us! SHe has different kinds of trilling too, I can usualy tell if its ‘i wanna play where is everyone?!’ or ‘ Im about to jump up onto your lap, prepare the hugs.’…actualy..its when shes completely silent I KNOW shes up to something shes not sposed to be!

  29. Any time I enter where my cat Bella is, she trills. It is like she is saying ‘hi’ or just to acknowledge my presence. She also does it when she wants me to follow her or when she wants to thank me. She also does it when our other cat, Paco, approaches her. Sometimes I can’t see her in the dark, because she is black, but I will hear her trill when I approach her because she sees me, like she says ‘I am right here’. So cute!

  30. My ptsd therapy kitten Gypsy talks unceasingly. She trills the most when she sees me after more than an hour apart and those have a happy note to them. (Mommy, you’re HOME!) However, she plays fetch with crafting pom poms and as I pick them up to throw her trolls get deeper with squeaky meows of worry. (You Are going to throw it, right?) She then trots back and displays her ‘prey’ with a victory trill.
    Cats are amazing. I never knew I could understand a creature so thoroughly!

  31. My Siamese Tabby would give you a split second trill notice when she would jump up to the bed or wherever you are hanging out. She liked trilling more than meowing, but she did meow for attention. She was my spoiled brat devil cat… She loved me and tolerated my husband when she was trying to make me jealous by letting him pet and head bonk her.

  32. My ragdoll trills, makes a cooing sound, and he some times goes ” woo woo”. It is so funny. He reminds me of my friends husky.

  33. My cat snowball, a ragdoll mix, trills at me everytime I go to the bathroom. Everytime, no exception, she comes in trilling. It’s weird. And, I also trill back at her. It’s a cute sound.

    1. Funny, my Gracie just ran thru the bathroom door trilling, quite a long trill, then jumped on the tub. A few secs later, she jumped down & did a short trill, then a minute later, she comes running back thru the bathroom door, trilling again, & back up on the tub, jumps down & trills as she ran back out! And now twice more she’s come in trilling. I think she wants me to flush the toilet so she can watch the water disappear. She was only with her mom for 3 weeks, but maybe she learned it during that time. I found her crawling in a parking lot with 10+ crows squawking & pecking at her. She was feral. I jumped from my car & saved her! She also trills when she’s asleep & I pet her & wake her up & she trills sometimes when playing. I guess she does it more often than I realized.

  34. My 1 yr old Iving has trilled constantly since he arrived as a kitten. To us, to himself.It’s a constant monologue.Even to his brother (by birth) who does trill, but not nearly as much or as loud.The trill will sometimes morph to a meow.He is a little hyper, total contrast to his bro Winston.

    1. a few tortoiseshells ive known have trilled, but indica my birman almost exclusively trills! i never heard a single “w” out of this cat until she was 4

    2. My kitty is a 10 month old tabby and she trills constantly, whether it’s while stretching after waking up from her millionth nap of the day, in protest when I’m not paying enough attention to her, when I pet her, or just to greet me when I come through the door.

      Yes, tabby cats can also be very chatty indeed :p It fits well with the personality type described here though, she’s the type that wants to be the center of attention, even with strangers, and can’t bear being away from the hub of activity.

      1. Also, even though I’m not sure if we understand each other just yet (only been a few months since I’ve had her), but she almost always replies back when I trill at her (usually just me imitating her voice), and it totally sounds like we’re having a back-and-forth conversation :D

    3. I have 11 months old Sphynx who trills as well and it’s really funny and hilarious at the same time. He does it always after I take shower and as well when he is playing with his younger sister. She doesn’t trill at all though.

    4. Apparently that is not the case, but I have had three Calico cats, all have trilled –so in my experience not all cats that trill are Calicos, but all Calicos trill. To me it is a magical expression of affection – always happy and playful.

  35. My little cat is a major triller. She’s such a little thing….full grown. She will run through and all around the house just trilling away. It’s adorable and such a happy sound. When I first got her as a kitten, she was terrified of everything. I used a lot of loving patience with her and now we are very connected. She’s amazing how she can communicate with me. If she accidentally makes a mess (rarely he cause she is so light on her feet) I always know for sure if it was her because she will sit right there until I finish straightening her mess. She owns her mistakes easily. She knows she’s done wrong, and I haven’t ever raised my voice or gotten upset. No need to. She will even come and get me to show me what happened. She’s amazing! I hope she never stops the trilling.

  36. My cat Molly very rarely meows – only when hungry – the rest of the time she trills/chirrups. She does it quietly as she jumps up to say hello, or louder and higher pitched when she is wandering around with her toys at night. When she lands on her feet from somewhere up high she makes a little involuntary squeak like a toy! She is a sweetheart.
    Her brother Spud is very vocal – he tries to sound kitten-like when he wants to cuddle up to us, and he cries loudly with his ‘prey’ at night (always a toy mouse). He likes a traditional cat ‘miaow’ when he greets us at the door!

  37. Neither of my older cats trilled very often until the arrival of Chloe the kitten – trilling has now become common place!! Such a beautiful happy sound

  38. My cat is constantly doing this…Especially early in the morning when I still want to sleep, or other times when he just wants me to pay attention to him. He’s a high maintenance type of cat!

  39. My cat Pekoe trills constantly. It’s actually his equivalent of whining. He will do it to himself or to me, but never to my other cat, Billy (who doesn’t trill at all).

  40. One of my cats always trills. It’s my favorite sound. His brother does it sometimes as well, but not nearly as often.

  41. My Himalayan LA LUNA BELLA trills a lot. Mainly 2 3 or 4am when she gets her toys out of hidden stashes and carries them around trilling loudly. Usually brings them to me in bed and sometimes walks on me to wake me to acknowledge the gift. I listen to opera a lot. She sings with MARIA CALLAS usually. I think she’s trying to hit high C and audition for the Met!

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