Five Common Sounds Your Cat Makes and What Each Means
Do you speak cat? If you share your life with feline friends, they're certainly communicating with you. They just may not be as easy to understand as dogs. That should come as no surprise though, says, Georgia Mason, Ph.D., a behavioral biologist at Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, who has studied peoples' ability to read cats' expressions. After all, dogs have been domesticated for twice as long as cats, Dr. Mason says. "And then we complain we can't read cats!" Unlike dogs, researchers have yet to bring cats into a lab. "There's far less we know about cats than we do dogs," says Dr. Mason, which is one of the reasons for her feline research. "There's masses of work on dog cognition, hardly anything on cat welfare and communication."
That said, we do know a few things about how cats communicate with their people. Cats have different personalities, which are linked to their genetics, experiences, and behavior learned from both mother and siblings as well as human owners. Some breeds, such as Siamese cats, are naturally more vocal than others so it's also important to understand those differences. Listening to your cat is the key piece of advice—observing the cat's body language so you have a better understanding of what is normal and what is not, to know what your pet is telling you. Here, some of the common sounds your cat makes and how to determine what each of them means, according to Dr. Mason.
It turns out if our cats are meowing for us, it's actually for us. "What's interesting is they seem to develop idiosyncratic meows that work for its owner," Dr. Mason says. "It's not natural for an adult cat to meow [but] they seem to keep up this kitten-y way of communicating with us." How they're meowing might depend on what they're trying to communicate "Research has shown cats that are isolated, want food, or are being brushed give different meows or squeaks that anyone familiar with cats can tell apart even if they don't know cats," she says. "Each cat then, beyond that, invents its own personal repertoire" with more nuanced differences that "only the owner could identify." In fact, one study showed that people had a better chance of correctly identifying the context of a meow when the cat lived with them.
Oftentimes, meowing can be a form of greeting, attention seeking, demanding or even protesting behaviors. Dr. Mason herself has learned her cat's five distinct meows for requests including, "please open the door," "I want cuddles," and "feed me now!"
Purring "is an obvious one that all small cat relatives do," says Dr. Mason. But her hunch is there are at least several types of this low rumble. Beyond just purring to show contentment, "they also have a purr that you can't hear, and can only feel." She suspects this is for mother cats to communicate silently with their kittens. "Other people say—this is heartbreaking—that cats purr when they're really sick or injured," she further explains, in which case, it is done to self-soothe, "so are they soliciting help."
Growl, Howl, or Hiss
These sounds are used by cats in an aggressive or threatening situation, says Dr. Mason. The Humane Society of the United States notes that cats may be annoyed, frightened, angry, or aggressive and wisely suggests leaving a hissing cat alone.
The Humane Society suggests that a cat yowling (with a loud, drawn-out meow) is experiencing distress. If you hear your cat yowling, find them, as they recommend. Dr. Mason interprets her cat's yowl as "where is everyone?" but it could also indicate pain, being disoriented, or stuck somewhere such as in a closet.
Chirp and Trill
According to the Humane Society, chirping and trilling is a way for mother cats to order kittens to follow them. So, if your cat talks to you like this, consider that a "follow me."