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Cat Vocalizations: What Do They Mean?

May 26, 2013

Meow. Miau. Niau. Miaou. Nya. Miao. Meo-meo.

No matter what language you speak, it’s universally understood that cats meow. And yet, if you pay close attention, you’ll hear that a cat’s vocabulary is far more complex than just “meows,” and in fact consists of chirps, growls, and other vocalizations.

Photo courtesy cygnus921

The variety of vocalizations is attributed to a cat’s vocal apparatus, which allows him to vocalize while exhaling and inhaling. Changing throat and oral muscle tensions as well as changing the speed of air over the vocal chords results in three general sound categories: murmuring, vowel sounds, and high-intensity, strained sounds.

Cats who live outdoors don’t need an extensive vocabulary. A great deal of their communication is conveyed through body language. When they do vocalize, it’s often directed toward offspring, sexual partners, and enemies. That said, cats who live indoors learn that meowing is one way to manipulate a pet parent.

But what exactly do all of these vocalizations mean? Here’s a quick cheat-sheet just in case you need to brush up:

Murmuring

Many murmuring sounds, which are formed with a closed mouth, are used for acknowledgment, approval, attention, calling, and greeting with humans and sometimes other cats. Purring is also included in this category.

Murmuring: Cats may make these noises, which sound like a hummed trill, when they walk into a room or want to get your attention. It’s a friendly way of letting you know they’re around. If they don’t succeed in getting your attention, their next vocalization may be a more insistent vowel sound.

Purring: Conveyed whenever a cat is happy – sometimes even while he’s eating, purrs can be magical. Kittens purr while nursing, mothers purr when they approach their kittens, and older cats may purr when they want another cat to play with them. There’s just something mysterious about the purr that makes it so comforting. However, it’s important to remember that sometimes cats purr when they are anxious or sick in order to comfort themselves. An observant pet parent will be aware of the difference and can respond accordingly.

Vowel Sounds

This category of sounds consists of meows and other vocalizations that are used in very specific contexts. You may have picked up a few of these, such as “no,” “feed me,” and “look over here,” while spending time with your own cat.

Photo courtesy goodrob13

Cats use these “vowel sounds” to train us – that is, to manipulate us as pet parents to respond in a certain way for their benefit. Consequently, cats have a wide range of meows to convey what they want. Vowel sounds are different from murmurs and strained sounds in that a cat will open and then close his mouth while making the noise.

Meows: Different meows can mean different things. While one meow may be a greeting when you walk in the door, another may convey desire or objection.

Some cats may express unhappiness with a short, high meow, while a cat who wants to be petted may meow softly. Pay attention to your cat’s meows and when they occur, and soon you’ll have a better idea of what your cat wants.

Chirps & Trills: Cats learn these sounds as kittens, when their mother uses these vocalizations to tell them that they should follow her. As pets, cats often chirp and trill to convey a desire – that they want you to follow them to their food bowl, play with their toy, or move that book off your lap so they can take its place.

Chattering, Chittering & Twittering: These are the funny noises you can hear your cat make when he sits in a window watching birds – or as he considers it, prey.

High-Intensity, Strained Sounds

Photo courtesy dawn_perry

These vocalizations are usually reserved for cat-to-cat communications and consists of sounds made with the mouth held open. High-intensity sounds include hisses, spits, growls, and more. They can convey anger and pain. When directed at a human, these sounds can mean serious business.

Growling, Hissing & Spitting: A cat who is annoyed, frightened, angry, or aggressive is likely to make one of these noises. If a cat isn’t left alone after making one of these noises, he may attack.

Yowls, Howls, Screeching & Drawn-Out Meows: These vocalizations convey distress. You may hear them if a cat is stuck in a closet, looking for you and can’t find you, or in pain. Lastly, elderly cats who suffer from dementia may cry out when they’re disoriented.

Caterwauling: Like a yowl or howl, these sounds are made when cats are in heat – specifically when two tom cats are approaching each other. It’s a threatening sound that means war.

Does your cat make certain vocalizations more than others? What do you think they mean? Please share about them in the comments!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather Anderson permalink
    August 11, 2014 5:00 pm

    With a certain toy, and almost always down in the basement, 3 of my 6 cats will sometimes become quite vocal. They use a particular meow reserved for these times. It almost sounds mournful or longing, as though they are caring for a sick/dying offspring. (at least that’s how I would perceive them to sound under those conditions)

    I often have to go check on them to make sure they’re ok because it’s such an odd sound.

    Does anyone else experience this?

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