The other day, three friends posted the same video to my social media page. It was the cutest darn thing I’d seen a while, and it consisted of nothing more than two cats having what appeared to be a full-on conversation. There was plenty of subtle body language being passed between these two, but what really struck my fancy (and apparently 60 million other people’s fancy) was their vocalizations. Full of trills, purrs and squeaks, these cats were “getting it said,” and I wanted to know what they were saying. Let’s take a look at 5 common cat sounds, and what they mean.
Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of a cat’s purr. Snuggling your cat and listening to him purr is said to have therapeutic qualities; it elevates your mood while lowering your blood pressure. That’s a pretty potent combination! Purrs also help newborn kittens to survive. When a mother cat gives birth, she purrs during the process to help comfort herself and reassure her babies. And since the kittens are born deaf and blind, they cannot see or hear their mother – but they can feel the vibrations of her purr. These vibrations direct the kittens to their mother’s warmth and food. Read More »
I remember seeing a funny cartoon where a woman is babbling at length to her cat. The last frame says “What Fluffy hears: blah-blah-blah-Fluffy-blah-blah-blah.” This is, I am sure, how many people perceive human-to-cat communication. These same people also think cats have only one sound: meow. As a lifelong cat lover, I’m positive they’re wrong on both counts. I’ve seen proof that my cats understand many different words I use. I’ve also identified about twelve different vocalizations for each cat.
I know, for instance, that a long, demanding “Mee-O-O-O-O-O-W” means someone is really hungry (or thinks they are). I can tell when they’re begging for a treat, when they’re asking for some attention, and when they’re just saying hello. Chirping and chattering noises mean they’ve spied a bird outside the window. Much to my chagrin, I also recognize the vocalization that means, “Look Ma, I’ve brought you a present, and it’s still alive!!” All of these sounds are quite distinct and easy to recognize. However, scientists have identified about 100 different vocalizations in cats, so I still have a long way to go to master cat communication. I’ve only scratched the surface of “cat speak,” but it’s a start.
If you want to know what your cat is saying to you, there are two simple things you can do: 1) Pay attention to the meow
If you’re not really listening to the vocalizations your cat makes, you might think every meow sounds the same. Pay closer attention, and you’ll quickly see how different they are. Pitch, intensity, frequency and volume all come into play, and reflect different emotional states and physical needs. Nicholas Nicastro, a graduate student at Cornell University, documented hundreds of different feline vocalizations in house cats and their wild cousins.
Nicastro’s study found a clear negative relationship between pleasantness and urgency. “The sounds rated as more urgent (or less pleasant) were longer,” Nicastro said, “with more energy in the lower frequencies. Whereas, the sounds rated as more pleasant (or less demanding) tended to be shorter, with the energy spread evenly through the high and low frequencies.”
In order to differentiate what each meow or vocalization means, it helps to notice the circumstances surrounding them. For instance, if your cat is making urgent-sounding, loud noises in your ear when you are trying to sleep in, they are likely saying “Feed me NOW!” If they come into the room and give you several short meows in a row, they might be saying hello. Each cat is an individual and will have its own vocal variations, but if you watch what they’re doing when they meow, you can eventually learn what they’re saying by the sound alone.
2) Pay attention to body language
Just like humans, cats can say a lot without making a sound. Cats use their tails, ears, whiskers, eyes, face, fur, entire body and more to communicate and to show various emotions. Learning to read the body language of your cat can be a tremendous help in understanding their different vocalizations. When a cat’s tail is standing straight up, it means they’re happy to see you, they feel safe, and all is well in their world. A puffed up tail indicates a fearful, defensive and emotionally charged cat. Head-butting is a sign of friendliness and affection. To learn more about this silent form of feline communication, read The Body Language of Cats.
Once you begin to understand “Felinese,” you may also want to explore ways to teach your cat what you are saying to them. My cats know simple words and phrases like snack, dinner, crunchies, shower, go out, good night and get down. I’ve taught them these words using repetition, consistency, complementary actions and tone of voice. It also helps not to view cats as just “dumb animals” but as intelligent creatures who can understand more than most people give them credit for. I speak in full sentences to my cats, and their actions tell me they understand. For example, I will say to Mickey, “Do you want to go out now?” and he will run over to the door. Rocky likes to sit on the ledge of my tub while I shower, so I will say to him, “Rock, I’m going to take a shower now.” Most of the time, he beats me to the bathroom.
Learning to communicate with your cat and being able to understand what they’re saying can help you develop a deeper bond with them, and it can simplify things too. I realize I am the “Crazy Cat Lady” personified, but honestly, I don’t think it’s all that hard to understand what a few different meows mean. Try it – you might be surprised to learn that Felinese is your second language!
The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.
The personal opinions and/or use of trade, firm, corporation or brand names, in this blog is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an official endorsement or approval by CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable. All opinions in this blog are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company.