Like humans, cats have a vast vocabulary. Up to 21 different feline vocalizations have been described in scientific research, but their vocal repertoire probably contains even more. Cats can use these vocalizations to create complex phrases—sort of like sentences created by people—and there are many reasons for why they speak up.
And while not all cat breeds are chatty (Maine Coons tend to be much quieter than talkative Siamese cats), knowing about cat sounds (along with reading a cat’s body language) allows pet parents to better understand their kitty’s needs, moods, and intentions. Here are some common cat noises and what they mean.
Meowing is synonymous with cats and is a distinctive and common high-pitched call. Kittens meow to attract their mothers, but in adult cats, the meow is almost exclusively used to communicate with humans.
So what do cat meows mean? Felines make this sound for many reasons, including when:
Expressing excitement or frustration
Asking for something, such as attention, food, or access to a particular space (such as to come inside or to be let into a room)
But sometimes a cat meow can indicate anxiety, boredom, frustration, or even illness, particularly if it’s lower-pitched and more drawn out compared to the short, high-pitched meow that often signifies a greeting or a want. If your cat is meowing more than usual or if their meows start to sound different, call your veterinarian.
A purr is a low, continuous, rhythmic tone produced during breathing. While most people recognize purring as a sign of contentment and pleasure, purrs can also mean that a cat is scared, sick, or in pain.
Like all feline communication, purring must be evaluated in context with the cat’s body language. If the cat’s ears are back, their pupils are dilated, they’re tense or hunched up, or they’re acting differently than normal, then purring may indicate that the cat is uncomfortable or unhappy.
A chirp is a short, high-pitched call that sounds similar to a bird (hence the name). A sequence of chirps is called chirrups. A chirp is initially uttered by the mother cat as a contact call to her kittens, but adult cats may chirp to get attention and inform other cats or people of their location.
One of the most common reasons a cat chirps is when they see potential prey they cannot access, such as while watching squirrels or birds outside the window. In this context, a chirp can indicate excitement—mixed with a little frustration.
A trill is produced with a soft voice and sounds like a purr but with a higher pitch. Cats may trill to greet and thank their human family members for something, such as a snack or a pet. It is one of the most common amicable sounds a cat makes.
5. Chattering and Twittering
Chattering, also called twittering, is a low smacking sound produced by a rhythmic clashing of the jaws. It is usually voiceless (produced without using the vocal cords). Along with chirping, chattering may occur when a cat spots prey that’s out of their reach.
6. Growling and Hissing
A growl is a low, rumbling sound used to warn or scare off a threat. It can be directed toward humans or other cats or animals. Growling is an indication that a cat feels threatened, frightened, or is about to become aggressive. This sound often increases as the cat’s fear grows.
A hiss is a low, drawn-out sound produced by rapid exhalation of air from the mouth. A hissing cat will have their mouth open and teeth exposed. It’s often an involuntary reaction that occurs when a cat is surprised by a perceived threat or enemy. Like growling, hissing is used as a warning. Both are often accompanied by fear-related body language, including an arched back, flattened ears, twitching tail, and puffed-up hair—the classic Halloween cat posture.
When a cat growls or hisses, they are saying they do not give consent to whatever action is happening, like if a person is trying to pet them. They’re essentially telling you, “hey, back off. I don’t like this.” If a cat growls or hisses at you, move away from them. If you see your cat hiss at something else, like another animal or an object, then remove the perceived threat.
Family members should not attempt to pet or pick up a growling or hissing cat, as the kitty can become so scared that they may resort to aggression.
A spit is a sudden, short, explosive burst of noise, often accompanied by a quick, lashing-out movement. The spit is basically a more intense variation of a hiss and, like hissing, it’s an involuntary reaction in response to a perceived threat or enemy.
8. Yowling and Howling
Often described as a louder, longer meow, a yowl is a drawn-out sound cats can make. A howl is similar to a yowl, but typically shorter in duration.
Yowling and howling are signs that a cat is in distress. This may be physical distress from pain or illness, or emotional distress from worry, frustration, boredom, or confinement. Elderly cats may yowl if they suffer cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or dementia. If a cat yowls when the family is away from home, they may have separation anxiety.
Cats may also howl or yowl as a warning so other cats don’t intrude on their territory. Unneutered cats may make these sounds as part of mating behavior.
A caterwaul is a loud, long whine made by unspayed females to attract prospective mates while in heat. When directed toward human family members, it is used to express pain, discomfort, fear, or a desire for attention. Like yowling, it can also be a sign of cognitive decline in older cats.
While different types of cat vocalizations have different meanings, a general rule of thumb is that any change in a cat’s vocalization—the frequency, intensity, duration, or pitch—warrants a visit to the veterinarian to evaluate for pain, illness, or anxiety. For some cats, medications to reduce anxiety or pain may be necessary to address the root cause of the vocalization.
Featured Image: iStock/Petra Richli
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