I think one of the reasons people have a hard time understanding cats is because they’re overwhelmingly non-verbal. They rely on body language to communicate with each other, other animals, and us. But sometimes, cats do make sounds; in fact, scientists believe cats can make 100 or more sounds, whereas dogs make about ten. Let’s look at the most common sounds and what they mean.
How do cats make purr sounds? A cat’s laryngeal muscles twitch, separating the vocal chords and making a rhythmic sound when the cat breathes in and out.
Although you’ll most commonly notice a purr when your stroking or feeding your cat, showing contentment and happiness, you make also notice them purring in the car or at the vet. This is a nervous purr, and it’s the equivalent to a human smiling when they’re nervous.
Another time you could cats purring is when it’s in pain. Why would they do this? This is the most fascinating part of a cat purr: At a frequency of 25-150 vibrations a second, a cat purr is within a therapeutic range that provides pain relief; promotes muscle and wound healing; controls inflammation; and grows bone and muscle. These are most likely the reasons cats in labor purr.
Have you ever seen a cat look at the window and start vibrating its jaw, seemingly making chirping sounds at the birds? There are two theories on this one:
- Your cat is trying to sound like a bird, disarming it, making it easy prey.
- Your cat is making this noise out of frustration that he or she can’t get to the bird.
Meows are overwhelmingly a cat to human communication method than a cat to cat. Why? Because they’ve realized we respond to them! They’ve even perfected the frequency to similar to a baby crying because we’re more responsive. Reasons cats meow include:
- Ask for food, affection, or playtime
- Express loneliness, pain or discomfort
- Senility (senior cats sometimes lose their marbles a bit)
There are many different types of meows, but these are the most common:
- High-pitched meow (aka mew) – Kittens mew when calling for their mom, or you if they relate to you as their mother. They may be hungry, need to go to the bathroom, or just want to be comforted.
- Mid-tone, mid-pitched meow – Standard meow.
- Long, repeated meow – Will drive you nuts if you let it.
Mothers trill at their kittens to call them, and cats do the same to you! The trill greeting is usually followed up with a leg rub, spreading their scent on your clothes and claiming you as theirs.
Whining sounds from a cat will drive you almost as crazy as a whining human. This noise is the start of the meow but they don’t finish, so it’s more of the “emm” sound repeated over and over. Sometimes they will throw in a short meow. You’re most likely to hear this noise when they want to go behind any closed door, whether that leads to outside, a new kitty in the home, their food stash, or their favorite toy which they batted under the door.
Growls are warning sounds that expresses fear, annoyance, anger, or nervousness. Although it can mean simply, “Don’t touch me anymore,” it can escalate quickly into an attack.. The best thing to do when a cat is growling is give them space. If you are in a confined space with a growling cat, try to distract them by throwing something, to direct their attention away from you. If you rush or run to leave, they may chase because you’re acting like the prey they hunt.
Hissing sounds are most often directed at other animals or cats, and play a big role in territorial disagreements and fights over mating. They can serve as a warning before a throw down, so again, remove yourself from the situation until the cat has time to cool down.
Hissing can also mean a cat is in pain. If you notice a cat hissing and that’s outside it’s normal personality, or if a cat hisses when you touch a specific place, talk to your vet to rule out anything medical.
Unaltered male and female cats will make long moaning sounds when looking for mates. Female cats sometimes sound like a human baby crying! Another reason the males make this noise is to claim their lady and hopefully deter other males from trying to serenade her.
Purrs to Hisses
Now you know why cats vocalize and what their most common noises are. If you want to hear examples of these sounds, take a look at this article from the Affinity Foundation, which includes little audio snippets of each sound. While most of the time they’re expressing positive emotions, some noises can be both positive and negative. Remember to always check with your vet if your cat changes how frequently they are talking, and if the noises they make are outside the norm.
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Source: Italia, E. My Lovely Feline Blog, “Cat Body Language – How to Speak Cat.”
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