By Teresa Traverse
From purring to hissing, cats communicate with their pet owners, in part, by making many different sounds. Sounds are a key part of how cats communicate. But it can be tough for pet owners to interpret just what those sounds mean
“Cats live in the moment. They’re assessing. ‘Am I thirsty? and number one: am I safe,” says Lana Rich, a Dallas-based cat behaviorist. “But we often attribute some of our own emotions. We often project onto the cat based on what’s going on in our lives. That gets in the way when people are trying to read their cats.”
If you’ve ever wondered just what your feline friend is trying to say, this guide is here to help.
Believe it or not, researchers and veterinarians actually don’t know exactly why or even how cats purr, according to the Library of Congress. But they can speculate. What they know for sure: purring involves the larynx, the diaphragm, and other structures involved in respiration and vocalization.
“Most people think [cats purr] as a sign of happiness. And that certainly seems to be the case for domestic cats. We also have it in kittens, when they’re suckling. And queens when they’re nursing,” says Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, a professor at the University of Georgia and a board certified veterinary behaviorist. “Cats that are happy and healthy tend to purr a lot.” If you put your hand on your cat’s body, you should be able to feel your cat purring.
A purr can also be a care solicitation or your cat’s way of saying, “keep scratching me” or “take care of me.”
But paradoxically enough, cats who are sick or are dying may also purr.
“An increase or change in purring in combination with other signs that the cat’s not feeling well, it’s definitely an indication to see your vet,” says Crowell-Davis.
We’ve all heard the sound of a cat meowing, and usually, it’s a sign from the cat indicating she wants something.
“Directed toward humans, it’s often a solicitation of ‘pet me,’ ‘feed me,’” says Crowell-Davis. “Directed to another cat, it can just be a greeting. Just kind of, ‘hi.’”
Rich also says that meowing is usually a cat trying to tell you what she needs. “Whether it’s attention or food or maybe they want to get access to a room,” she explains.
Rich tell us senior cats may have louder meows as many older cats suffer from hearing loss.
Pet owners should take note of how often their cats meow and the tone of the meow.
“The frequency of the meow is also an indicator of the frame of mind,” Rich says. “A longer meow may indicate worry or they’re annoyed or objecting to something.”
If your cat doesn’t stop meowing, she may need help. A cat owner Rich worked with told her that his cat was meowing more frequently than usual. It turned out the cat had a tooth problem.
Rich says that a soft, deep meow can mean your cat is in a good mood.
Yowling is an intense scream that sounds like a human scream, says Crowell-Davis.
“Yowling you may hear just preceding a cat fight,” says Crowell-Davis. “If it’s a situation where things are escalating, they escalate from hissing and growling to yowling.”
But cats don’t only yowl before a fight. Rich explains that yowling could be a sign of discomfort, pain, or concern over territory.
Cats in heat might yowl when they’re ready to mate, says Rich.
Yes, cats can chirp.
“Cats are particularly prone to chirp when they’re sitting at a windowsill looking at birds, says Crowell-Davis. Why does this happen? “We don’t know,” she admits. “But we guess maybe it’s an evolutionary thing as part of bird hunting. They kind of sound like birds.”
Don’t think you’ll only hear this sound when your cat is looking out the window though.
“Some cats just chirp when they’re excited,” says Crowell-Davis.
When cats hiss—a sound that is similar to the hiss of a snake—you should probably back off. The sound is produced by a short burst of air, and is usually accompanied by other warning body language such as pinned back ears and an arched back. Hissing is a signal that aggression will likely to follow if the situation doesn’t deescalate quickly.
“It’s a signal of stay away. I’m frightened or upset,” says Crowell-Davis. “Cats may hiss at dogs, cats, or humans.”
“Cats growl and really it’s kind of like a hiss, but it is more intense,” says Crowell-Davis. She says growling is normally an indicator to stay away from the cat’s food or leave the cat alone. It also can mean the cat is feeling tender or in pain.
If your cat routinely growls when you touch a certain area, it can be a sign you need to head to the vet, she says.
Some cats cry. And it sounds almost like when a dog whines, says Crowell-Davis. But when compared to a dog cry, “a cat cry is all over the place in terms of frequency.”
Crowell-Davis, who owns 15 cats, tell us crying might mean the cat is in distress.
“Whenever I hear one of my cats make a cry, I go check out what it is. Usually, it’s a minor spat,” she says. “Sometimes their curiosity or their desire to explore gets them into trouble, and they’ll start crying.”
Caterwauling is a shortened, shrill yelling sound cats make during reproductive activities.
“The queen who’s coming into estrus [heat] will caterwaul, and the males gathering around an estrus queen will caterwaul,” says Crowell-Davis.
The best way to prevent your cat from caterwauling is to make sure he or she is spayed or neutered.