Sherry is a bird nerd who enjoys studying behaviour of birds and native animals.
As cat carers, it can greatly affect the quality of our relationship with our pets if we can understand how they speak to each other and send potential messages to their human companions.
Cats communicate by sending signals that are often pretty clear to other animals as well as people. Their communication skills are limited to expressing emotional state, immediate intentions, needs, wants, and sexual status.
Have you ever wondered why your cat starts meowing randomly? Cat’s language although simple, is often confusing. You do not always understand why your cat is meowing at the door or why your two cats keep meowing at each other for no reason at all.
Communication in cats comprises visual signals and odours besides vocalisation. First, let us catch up on all the types of sounds cats generally make. Later we will get to the part where we learn the body language of cats.
Three types of sounds cats make:
- Sounds made with the mouth shut
- Sounds made with the mouth initially open and then gradually closed
- Sounds made with the mouth held open in the same position
Sounds With Mouth Closed
Purr is a very low pitched, relatively quiet, breathy vibrating, monotone sound made by cats in a wide variety of forms and situations. It is usually either a friendly greeting or a care-soliciting call. The mouth is always closed while the nose allows for most of the airflow. A purr seems to be more than a communicating voice because it also occurs when there are no other individuals, cats or humans around. Cats also trill or meow while purring.
- Both mothers and kittens purr during nursing. Kittens start purring within a few days of birth.
- Mothers and their young often communicate with purring.
- The mother cat purrs whilst grooming her kittens.
- Some mothers purr continuously whilst they are with their kittens.
- When the cat appears to be relaxed and content, alone or in social contact.
- When anticipating or soliciting food or attention.
- In extreme pain for self-calming.
- While allorubbing and allogrooming.
- Even when dying
It is assumed that the low-frequency vibrations caused by purring have a healing effect. Other suggestions point out that purring is a form of care or comfort soliciting or even a form of self-reassurance. But, there is no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.
It is a relatively short and soft sound, almost like a rolled ‘r’ made upon contact with a known and liked, cat or person. What sounds like mrrrh, mmmrrrt or brrh is a greeting call.
Trill can be a weaker coo voice or a brighter chirr where the sound is high pitched and tone rises. In other situations, it can be a murmur with a darker voice where the tone falls slowly. In either situation, the mouth stays closed unless the trill is followed by a meow where the mouth opens for a “meow” before closing.
- Queen makes the sound “chirrup” when close to or approaching her kittens.
- Also used by adult cats during friendly approach and greeting
- During playing
- As an acknowledgement, for example, to say thank you!
Studies show that kittens can recognize their own mother’s voice and respond more often to it compared to other nursing queens’.
Sounds With Mouth Open and Then Closing
Meow is a general communication voice. It is perhaps the most widely varied call, with many different forms. Since humans are very responsive to the meow of a cat, the variation is mostly a result of the interaction of cats with people. “Meow” is a signal that a cat uses to indicate that it wants to be fed, petted, let out of the house, or some other care-giving action of a human. Human directed meow starts usually during or soon after weaning.
Types of Meows:
A very high-pitched meow, often with the vowels [i], [I] and [e], sometimes followed by [u]. The mouth is kept very slightly open.
Example: [me], [wi] or [mIu].
- Kittens use this sound when they need their mother’s attention or help. Kittens are often found mewing when they are cold, hungry or lost.
- Adult cats may mew to get their human’s attention or help.
A high pitched, hoarse, more nasal and often short-lasting mew made with an opening mouth, often with vowels [e] or [æ]. Note that squeaks often end with an open mouth.
Example: [wæ], [me] or [eu]
- Friendly requests for attention.
Deep meow with a falling tone, often with the vowels [o] or [u]:
Example: [mou] or [wuæu]
- Used in anxiety, stress or to demand something.
The typical meow sound with the characteristic [iau] sequence. It is used for a wide range of reasons, some of which include:
- Seeking attention: “I want this”
- To make a declaration: “my bowl is empty”
- Friendly greeting: “I see you there. I like you”
The cat opens and closes its mouth, in the same manner, it would when producing a meow sound, except no sound is produced, at least not one that we can hear. This type of silent meow has been noted to be a part of cat-to-cat communication between feral and domestic cats. There may be sound at a frequency that humans cannot hear or it could also be a part of visual signally that we still do not understand.
4. Yowl, Howl, Anger Wail, Moan
Yowl is produced by a long and often repeated sequence of extended vowel sounds, such as [I], [ɨ], [j] or [aʊ], [ɛʊ], [ɑʊ], [ɔI] or [ɑɔ]. During yowling, the mouth is first opened gradually and closed back slowly. It is often combined with growling in long sequences with slowly varying melody and loudness.
Example: [awɔIɛʊ:] or [I:aʊaʊaʊaʊaʊaʊawawawaw]
- Used as a warning signal in aggressive and defensive situations.
- Sometimes used as a mating call.
5. Long Meow (the female mating call) and Mowl (the male mating call)
This is how a cat sounds in heat- a long sequence of meow-like sounds, trills followed by meow and/or howls produced with an opening and then closing mouth by both entire male and female cats. The sound often resembles a human child crying and weeping.
Sounds Made With An Open Mouth
A very low pitched, deep, harsh, regularly pulse-modulated sound of long duration produced with mouth slightly open during a slow, steady exhalation. It is formed by vowels like trilling r: [gR:], [R:], or a creaky [ɹ̠:]. Growling is used to signal that the cat is threatening or actively attacking, to warn or scare off an enemy. It is often combined with howling and hissing.
7. Hiss and Spit
These are the more intense, short length variants of growl, made as a result of defensive aggression. Hiss is produced with an open mouth, visible teeth and arched tongue, with a forced exhalation “noise” and expulsion of air. Defensive hiss starts usually during or soon after weaning. Spit is an intense form of hiss, where air (rarely, saliva) is expelled through a scarcely opened mouth. Hiss and spit often occur together and in similar situations.
- Kittens hiss during the first few weeks when cold, hungry, isolated or trapped.
- Hiss and spit can be heard when a cat is surprised by an apparent enemy.
- When aggressive or angry.
- Mother cats may hiss when she tries to stop her kittens from doing something or when she warns them of danger.
8. Snarl (cry, scream, pain shriek)
This is the most painful sound you will hear from cats. It is very loud, short, harsh, and often high-pitched produced with an open and tense mouth just before or during active fighting. The sound often includes [a], [æ], [aʊ] or [ɛʊ] vowel qualities.
Sick or injured cats cry and snarl when in great pain.
Used as a final warning for the opponent.
Ever had your cat meow a lot suddenly? Shriek is a sudden loud sound often used to startle the opponent and escape in the meantime.
Made when the cat in sudden acute pain.
Chattering, chirping or chittering sound is made when stalking prey or, more often, when potential prey can be seen but is unattainable. The cat produces this sound in attempts to imitate the calls of the prey. The Chatter can be of many variants, the two common ones are:
- A crackling “k” produced by voiceless, rapid, stuttering or clicking sequence of sounds produced with the jaws juddering
- A voiced, monotonous, repeated short calls, mimicking the chirp of a bird or rodent.
Cat chatters when
- A prey is being viewed through a window.
- Other situations are still unclear.
Sometimes what sounds like a cat’s mere meow might really needs your attention. As time passes most cat carers learn what their cat’s language means. In the meantime it will be amazing to try to observe, learn and comprehend the beautiful language of your little fur buddy.
For in-depth knowledge about the vocalisation of cats, I would recommend this fascinating book, The Secret Language of Cats by Susanne Schotz. Schotz has described all the sounds and their variations and combinations that will help any cat lover to understand the cat language like it is nothing.
- Cat vocalisation types
Learn in depth about the cat sounds used in this article and more.
- IPA pulmonic consonant chart with audio - Wikipedia
To help you with the ponetics of consonants I used in the article.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Sherry Haynes
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2021:
Thank you for sharing all the information. I’m going to be more attentive to the sounds that my cats make now that I’ve read your article.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on May 18, 2021:
I did not know that cats had so many different ways of communicating. This was so interesting to read and I learned a lot from it.