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 cats meowing. If they talked as much as they gestured (case in point: when cats rub against you), the odds are good that you’d wish they’d just shut up. Of course, because most humans aren’t nearly as good at observing body language and understanding cat communication like subtle cat ear movements and cat tail twitches, they often “use their words” to help us understand these cat noises.
A cats’ vocabulary is just as rich and subtle as cat body language (including the ways cat express affection), but here are some of my favorite cat noises and what they mean. Let’s start with the basic cat noises:
Kittens are much more likely to meow than adult cats. Because kittens are born unable to hear and see, they meow to alert their mother that they need attention. So, why is your adult cat meowing? 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 her 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.
Cats use a trill, a cat noise somewhere between a meow and purr, as a friendly greeting. This cutie is meowing and trilling to beat the band!
Cat growling is among the cat noises that give off a warning. 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 cat chattering or cat chirping noise. These cat noises communicate either excitement or frustration.
Cat hissing happens is among the cat noises you may hear when your cat is angry or scared. 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. And cat screaming, a variant of cat yowling, is the final warning sound before a serious cat fight begins.
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 — excuse me.”
This cat 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’ 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.
Tell us: What are your favorite cat noises? Did we miss any cat noises that you would like to know more about? Please share your favorite cat noises in the comments!
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.
Thumbnail: Photography ©graphixchon | Thinkstock.
This piece was originally published in 2017.