Cats are great communicators, relying not only on complex body language but also a wide variety of vocalisations. In fact, cats are second only to birds in having the widest range of vocalisations in domestic animals. Cats are capable of making more than 100 different sounds while dogs only make about 10.
Some feline vocalisations reflect contentment while others express anxiety, fear, or distress. All, though are indicative of your cat’s emotional state of mind.
The meow, the most commonly heard cat sound, is used by adult cats almost exclusively to communicate with humans and not other cats. Kittens use the meow to call for their mothers when in need. Most domestic cats, once weaned, no longer use the meow to communicate with other cats, probably because the mother cat stops responding.
Adult domestic cats have learned to use the meow to communicate with humans because people are not very adept at the subtitles of feline body language. Generally, a meowing cat wants something-attention, food, or access to something.
A longer, more plaintive ‘ meowww’ or ‘yowl’ can indicate frustration, sexual receptiveness, worry, annoyance, or objection to something. This version of the meow will often have a throatier quality to it and sound more insistent. Some cats will yowl and pace when experiencing boredom. Nighttime yowling, in particular, may indicate cognitive dysfunction in older cats. If your cat suddenly begins to incessantly yowl, check for signs of illness; a trip to your veterinarian might be in order. If he or she has not yet been neutered, see to it as soon as possible, especially if you let your cat outdoors.
The purr is a deep, soft rumbling sound made most frequently when a cat is relaxed and happy. A cats purr fluctuates between 20-140 Hz, a frequency range that has been proven to be medically therapeutic. Purring helps lower stress and blood pressure and cuts down the effects of dyspepsia in both humans and cats. This could be why purring can often be heard in very ill or dying cats.
Chirps, trills, and coos are birdlike sounds learned in kitten hood. These sounds are used by a mother cat to tell her kittens to pay attention and follow her. Pet cats may use these sounds to get people to pay attention to them or to check out something he deems important. These are happy, playful and excited sounds.
The ‘chatter’ is a similar sound usually made when a cat has been watching birds or other prey species. The chatter is believed to be an indicator of a cat’s predatory excitement and of her stress at not being able to get to the prey.
Hissing and spitting mimic the sounds of serpents and are warning signals to back off and stay away. Hissing may be accompanied by a low growling. Cats will frequently hiss when first encountering a strange cat or dog. Hissing depends very much upon the individual cat’s perception and level of comfort. Some friendly, easy going felines might hardly ever hiss, while a more shy, reserved cat will resort to it whenever unsure of a situation. Highly anxious, stray or feral cats are much more likely to go into ‘hissing mode’ than is a well-adjusted, sociable pet.
The feline scream is a sound that once heard is seldom forgotten. It is a high pitched, piercing sound usually indicating extreme fear, anger, or territorial threat. Cats in the midst of a fight will almost always scream. These primeval shrieks often come after a long, ominous yowl, and usually end with a striking out of claws and or teeth.
Some cats are by nature or breeding more talkative than others. As a general rule, short haired cats tend to be more talkative and outgoing than long haired felines. If you are interested in an instinctively chatty kitty, consider certain breeds of Asian origin. These include: Siamese, Burmese, Oriental Short hair, and Tonkinese.
If you’d prefer a less vocal cat, consider a Persian, Russian Blue, Chartreux, Norwegian Forest Cat, or Maine Coon. These breeds tend to be on the quieter side. But breed-specific guidelines are not fail safe; you could end up with a chatty Persian or a silent Siamese!
These are just a few of the over 100 sounds cats can make. Usually by paring the sound, with the body language and context of the behaviour, most cat owners can detect what it is their cat wants.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with 30 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.