Most cat owners love to have conversations with our cats. And seemingly our cats respond to us. But we wonder do these cat sounds really mean anything?
Well as it turns out, it does. In many cases, cats have learned how to communicate directly with their owners.
In today’s post, we will explain how easy it is to decipher or translate your cat’s sounds so you can better understand them. It’s time for you to learn Cat Talk.
Understanding Your Cat
Look, cats are very complex creatures, especially when it comes to their personalities, habits, and most of all, their communication.
Cats are in fact extremely expressive through body language, facial expressions and also a myriad of cat sounds like:
Some cat sounds are often misinterpreted, largely because there has just been more research done on canine behaviors. Cat owners sometimes may feel like their cat’s sounds are just gibberish and brush off the sounds as an annoyance or a simple “feed me now!”
However scientific studies show that actually many of these vocal communications are in fact a direct communication to their owners.
The Cat’s Meow
The most common form of cat sound is the cat’s meow. The simple and quick conclusion would be is that the cat’s meow is the way cats communicate with each other. Now, this is true when it comes to kittens, as they meow to get their attention of their mother or tell her they are hungry.
However, as cats grow up
“cats don’t really meow to communicate with other cats” says John Bradshaw
a University of Bristol anthrozoologist and the author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.
Bradshaw’s observation of feral cats shows that “you only get a meow about once every hundred hours. They’re very silent.” Whereas it is the opposite with domestic cats, which seem constantly chatty and sometimes keep their owners (and their neighbors) up all night.
The truth is that domestic cats have adopted the meow to get their owners attention and a way of communicating with humans.
Many cat owners can be seen to be having full conversations with their cats, a seemingly secret language they have learned to develop together. As Bradshaw writes in his book, “a secret code of meows … develops between each cat and its owner, unique to that cat alone and meaning little to outsiders.”
This was shown to be true in a 2003 study by Cornell researchers, where they recorded the meows from 12 cats in 5 everyday scenarios. They then played back those recordings to the pet owners and only the owners themselves could decipher the scenario in which the meow was recorded. This showed that the meow was a learned communicative sound with the owner specifically, rather than some universal cat language.
So when trying to decipher the cat’s meow, it’s clear that each meow for each owner is different. However, there are a few more common translations you can use to help you begin to understand cat talk:
Meow! What Your Cat Is Saying
Short meow: Generally used as a greeting, similar to “hello” perhaps when you come home or when you speak to her.
Multiple meows: Cats are very social animals and generally enjoy contact with their owners. Multiple meows may indicate that your cat might want to be stroked or played with. If left alone for long periods of time, your cat may vocalize multiple meows for attention.
Mid-pitch meow: Cats can be quite demanding when it comes to their food, and especially when it comes to mealtime. They have learned to plead, beg or even demand to be fed and is often seen when people enter the kitchen.
Long meow: Cats primary way of letting you know what they want is the long meow. This is commonly seen when she wants to go outside or inside, and long meows by the door.
Low pitch meow: Cats are creatures of habit and territories, your home is their home. So when you have done something wrong or it upsets them they will show their annoyance with a low pitch meow. This also goes for when something changes, like you move their litter box or their water bowl is empty.
High Pitch meow: The high pitch meow is reserved for extreme cases of pain or anger, like if you pick her up incorrectly or step on her tail.
But that’s not all. The meow isn’t the only way your cat talks to you.
The cat’s purr can be very calming and soothing sound for many cat owners. The soft, deep, throaty rumble is most often attributed to pleasure or joy when gently petting your cat in a relaxed state. And while that may be the case in most situations, happiness may not always be the most accurate translation of the sound’s meaning.
Instead, purring can mean something more like “don’t go anywhere”, which could mean to communicate happiness but also to communicate pain.
Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, who recently gave a presentation on the subject at a conference for cat behaviorists in Atlanta explains that
“You can have cats that are happy and content purring, but also a cat that’s injured or sick will purr,”
In fact, scientists have demonstrated that because cats purr during inhalation and exhalation with a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150hz, and those frequencies can improve bone density and tissue regeneration – essentially self-healing. And that’s not all, it’s so effective that even purr-like vibration devices have been patented for use in human therapy and some researchers have proposed using vibration plates for astronauts during space flights to retain bone density. It seems likely that in some situations your cat purrs to heal.
Of course, there are situations where you cat could purr when its not injured as well. A recent study as reported by BBC News, shows that some cats have developed a special purr to ask for food.
A cat’s purr is essentially a form of communication, as a mother cat will teach her kittens to purr when they are just a few days old, giving them the ability to locate their mother more easily when the newborn is still blind, and also as an early bonding mechanism.
Bottom line is though, while the scientific data behind the cat’s purr may prove many things, there are also some experts who will just concede that a purr is just a purr and liken the communication to a human smile; people will sometimes smile when happy, smile when nervous, and also smile when they want something.
A Trill, Chirrup, Chirr, or Chirps
A cat chip or chirrup is can sound like a cross between a meow and a purr. The zoologist Desmond Morris, in his book Catwatching: The Essential Guide to Cat Behaviour says that mother cats trills to her young to tell them to come follow her. Kittens recognize their own mother’s chirrup but do not respond to the chirps of other mothers. A Chirrup is a positive friendly response that may be used to get your attention or get you to look at something she deems important. Often when a cat chirrups they are in a good mood.
You may have heard your cat chatter when longingly staring out the window at a bird or squirrel. This faint chirping and chatter have always been dismissed as vocalization of the frustration the cat feels because she can’t reach her prey. Others atone the sounds to a rush of adrenaline or excitement when spotting potential prey. And there are also many who liken the sounds made to a mimicked bird or rodent call used to lure prey, and a new study by scientists seem to prove it.
Wild Conversation Society researcher Fabio Rohe and a team of scientists ventured into the Amazon forests of Brazil for some field work where they were able to record a wildcat making calls to a group of tamarin monkeys and was able to mimic the monkey sounds identical. Fabio suspects all cats can copy the calls of their pretty, and believes this cunning ability to manipulate their voice merits further study.
The hiss is probably the easiest cat sound to translate, and its intent is usually a menacing as it sounds. If your cat hisses it means they are threatened or afraid, and probably willing to fight or defend itself. Along with the threatening sounds can come and arched back with raised hair, flattened ears and exposed fangs prepared to strike.
Why do cats hiss?
Hissing is a clear warning to back off.
Generally, cats don’t want physical confrontations, so choose to deter threats with vocalizations and body language. Depending on your cat’s tolerance for potential threats or comfort level there are many situations that may cause them to hiss.These threats could be another cat, an unfamiliar guest in the home, being handled when uncomfortable when placed on the examination table at the vet, or simply annoyed at other pets in the home.