Cat Sounds are the unique vocalizations used by cats as a method of communication. Housecats in particular can develop quite an extensive vocabulary in order to communicate with their people.
When living with a house full of cats, it is important to become familiar with cat sounds and the nuances of each cat’s vocabulary – to be able to tell the difference between a cry for help and a cry for play; or a cry that says ‘Where’s my dinner?’ and the one that says “Feed me now or I’ll break something!”.
The following list describes some of the more common cat sounds and their general meaning:
- MEW – Most commonly used by kittens to attract attention. Gets louder with fear or distress. Used by some adult cats as a variation on ‘meow’. Louie uses this regularly as a greeting – he never ‘meows’.
- MEOW – General purpose attention-seeking sound of greeting used by most adult cats. Very few of our cats actually seem to ‘meow’. They all do some variation instead.
- PURR – A vibrating, motor-like sound made during times of contentment but sometimes used to self-comfort during times of anxiety or pain. Many vets have noted that some cats will purr when experiencing a great deal of pain. It is believed that purring acts to soothe a cat during times of stress. A mother cat purrs to her kittens to provide comfort and security. The vibrations also help the kittens to locate her in the nest when, as newborns that can not see or hear – they feel her vibrations.
- CHIRP – A short, high-pitched sound often used in anticipation of something good – like a meal or a treat. Chloe ‘chirps’ for attention, especially when she’s in our lap, and stop petting her. We think it’s her way of telling us to keep petting!
- CHIRRUP – Also known as a TRILL, this is sort of a cross between a meow and a purr. It is a happy sound. Frankie does this as a greeting.
- GROWL – This is an unmistakable, low-pitched rumbling sound usually meant as a warning before violence erupts. Freddie growls whenever he catches a bug and brings it into the house. We think he’s telling everyone ‘My bug! My bug!’
- HISS – A snake-like sound lasting a few seconds. Meant as a warning to stay away. Can be quiet or very loud. Tabby is a small female that was always picked on by the bigger boys until she started hissing at them. Now they are all nice to her!
- SPIT – A short, popping sound made when a cat is startled, especially if startled by another cat. Often precedes or follows a hiss. We have noticed that a spit usually precedes running away! Sophie is a timid little female that is easily startled. When she spits, she runs!
- MURMUR – A soft, trill-like sound made with the mouth closed. Mother’s often murmured to their kittens. Little Girl always murmurs her greeting to us – usually accompanied by rubbing, then purring!
- SQUEAK – A raspy, high-pitched sound made in anticipation of something good like a meal. Also sometimes heard during play. Herbie squeaks like crazy when waiting for his food to be dished up!
- SHRIEK – A harsh, high-pitched sound made when in pain or during aggressive cat encounters. Most often heard during a catfight. We recently heard this scary sound when 2 unfamiliar cats had a huge fight on our front lawn. They both ran off when we came out. We set up traps but haven’t seen either one since.
- CHATTER – This is funny, ‘ack-ack’ sound usually heard when a cat sees a bird through a window. It is believed to be the sound of frustration. We have heard all of our cats chatter at a bird at one time or another.
- CATERWAUL – This is the dreadful, annoying sound of cats mating – usually heard in the middle of the night! We never hear this sound because all of the cats are de-sexed before they join the group! Another good reason to spay and neuter!
- MOAN – This is a sad, low, mournful sound some cats will make prior to vomiting or coughing up a hairball. Some elderly cats with dementia will make this sound at night if they get lost in the house or are confused. We have 2 senior citizens that will moan at night on occasion. Kelsey is usually hacking up a hairball but Missy seems confused. Regardless of the reason, moaning always brings someone running to provide comfort and security.
- SILENT MEOW – When the mouth makes the meow motion but no sound comes out! It is said that the sound is probably pitched too high for us to hear. It is easily one of the most endearing things a cat does. When Marty first arrived he was very shy and timid. He never made a sound. They one day he looked right at us, opened his mouth, and nothing came out but a silent meow! Sooooooo cute! From that day forward, he had everyone wrapped around his little paw!
As stated before, these are just a generalization. Some cat sounds can have different meanings depending on the personality of the individual cat. And some cat sounds are unmistakable in their meaning.
A kitten mew is always a friendly cat sound whereas a growl or hiss is a cat sound that is warnings and should never be taken lightly. They are decidedly unfriendly cat sounds!
The tone and vocal patterns of cat sounds can indicate friendly, urgent, or unfriendly intent. Friendly cat sounds will be made in a higher tone and will move from high to low notes. Friendly cat sounds are also of shorter duration.
An urgent cat sound will be of longer duration and moves from lower to higher notes.
An unfriendly cat sound will have a low tone. It will vary in duration and will move to a louder cat sound depending on the cat’s level of displeasure.
Cats with outgoing personalities will often be more vocal with their people. Calle is a friendly little female who loves to talk. She will string various sounds together, pausing in between, as though speaking in sentences. And she expects us to talk back! She will get quite upset if no one speaks to her when she talks. She seems to enjoy carrying on conversations with us. We have no idea what she is saying and she doesn’t seem to care what we say, only that we speak. It’s really quite fun talking with her this way!
Murry is just the opposite. He never speaks. He is very friendly and easily makes his feelings known but only uses Cat Body Language and Scent Communication behaviors. We’ve gotten so good at reading him that we can practically have a conversation with him without using any words. We can’t help but talk to him though. He likes hearing our voice, he just doesn’t vocalize himself. The only time anyone ever hears him talk is to indicate his unhappiness when traveling to the vet!
Cat siblings will develop different vocabularies as well, even if they live together for life. Louie, Barney, and Marty are brothers. Louie is quite talkative and will make a point to say ‘Hi’ whenever he comes into a room where one of us happens to be. Barney prefers to ‘rub’ his greeting. When he comes into the room, he makes a beeline toward the nearest person and rubs on them. Marty will only silently meow and only if spoken to first.
Cats vocalize primarily as kittens. As they age, they tend to use body language and scent to communicate and rarely vocalize to each other.
Cats learn to vocalize with their people because we lack the necessary parts for other forms of cat communication, ie: tails, whiskers, etc. And we lack the ability to communicate via scent as well – which is probably a good thing!
The more cats are spoken to the more they will speak back. And if you don’t respond when your cats talk to you, they will eventually lose the urge to communicate with you at all!
It is important to talk to your cats. Cats get a sense of security from the sound of their voices. When we talk to our cats, we instinctively use a type of language known as ‘motherese’. Motherese is a term used to describe the cadence and tone of voice used by mothers when talking to their infants. It is universal. The tone and rhythm of the words are the same regardless of the actual language spoken.
The tone tends to be higher pitched and the cadence rises and falls. The notes move from high to low, similar to a cat making friendly cat sounds. Motherese tends to offer our cats a certain level of comfort and reassurance.
It is likely due to the fact that cats are small, vulnerable, and completely dependent on us for their care, that speaking motherese seems to be instinctive when we talk to them. And our cats seem to bring out the mother in all of us. That cats are powerful creatures is never so evident than when you witness a grown man instinctively use motherese while comforting a frightened little kitten!
We talk to our cats all the time. We speak their names frequently. Sometimes we whisper to them. We even sing to them! They will sometimes look at us like we’re crazy but that doesn’t stop us from singing them a silly song – off-key and badly sometimes but we still call it singing! And they still seem to like it!
We talk to our cats during meal preparation, while doing chores, when playing, and grooming them. If there’s a cat in the room (that’s awake of course! We don’t wake them up to talk to them!) we are talking to him. Talking helps bring a shy or fearful cat out of her shell and makes the entire cat household feel more at ease. Talking to the cats decreases tension.
Marty, our silent meow-er, was so fearful when he first arrived that if we talked to him he ran from the room like his tail was on fire. We made a point not to look directly at him (more on this in Cat Body Language ) but still spoke his name and talked to the other cats like normal. It took a few months but he was finally able to overcome his fear and now enjoys it when we talk to him.
An important point to make here is that you should never, ever yell or scream at your cats – no matter how badly they are misbehaving. Yelling only serves to frighten and confuse them. Their instinct will be to run away from you.
To a cat, a loud, angry voice is a pre-cursor to a fight. If you scream at a cat in anger, he will think that you are challenging him to a fight and since you are bigger than he is, he will run off having no idea why you are angry.
If you need to verbally admonish a cat, use a short, sharp, staccato sound. ‘No’, ‘stop’, or ‘Ack’, similar to a cat ‘spit’ sound, will usually do the trick. Then talk to them in a low, calm tone, and hopefully, they will pay attention and behave. We have found this technique to work well for most situations.
Talking to your cats should be fun and enjoyable for both you and the cats. Chat with them about anything. They don’t seem to care what the topic is as long as it sounds pleasant. Repeat keywords and phrases. ‘Treat’, ‘dinner’, ‘breakfast’, all bring them running for food. ‘You coming’, gets them to follow, and ‘bedtime’ gets them all settled for the night. Newcomers will watch the actions of the resident cats and learn the various words and phrases surprisingly quickly.
When singing silly songs, we substitute their names for names in the songs. ‘Santa Baby’ is a favorite. For example, instead of ‘Santa baby, I’ve really been an awfully good girl’, we sing ‘Calle baby, you really are a very pretty girl’. (Cats like being complimented!)
The ‘lollipop Song’ is another common song we sing. Instead of ‘lollipop oh lolly lollipop’, we sing ‘Barney boy Barney boy oh Barney Barney boy’. (Barney rolls on his back for a belly rub when we sign this to him!)
Sounds silly, we know, but the cats seem to really enjoy the attention. The point is, verbalize to your cats – even the ones who don’t vocalize to you. They will all feel calm and more secure and the bonds of trust and friendship will grow strong. And who knows, one day, they may actually say something unexpected! (We are afraid they’ll one day suddenly say – ‘Boy you sing terribly!’)
Learn to interpret the Cat Sounds your cats make. Talk, chat, and sing to them. But above all, enjoy the conversations between you and your cats!