Cats are very expressive, communicating with a wide variety of noises, as well as the positions of their tails, ears, eyes, whiskers, and fur. Cats produce various types of vocalizations. These range from the common meow, to cat calls, to hissing etc. When cats meow several times in a row or for an extended period we humans call that talking. Different breeds "talk" more than other breeds. Most notably the Oriental breeds such as the Siamese, or mixed breeds with some Oriental heritage are known to be good vocalizers.
Cats usually vocalize because they want something like food, rubs or a good brushing. Often though what they want is for you to pay attention to them. Occasional meowing throughout the day is cute and part of many cats' normal behaviour. It does become a problem however in the middle of the night when you are sleeping. The rule of thumb is this: Any type of attention or response to a cat's meowing or talking, is a reward for the cat. Scolding, yelling, or shushing can equal reward times three. The best way to discourage the behaviour is to give no reaction when it meows and EXTRA attention and reaction when it's quiet. If the problem is in the middle of the night get a pair of earplugs but never react. If you've tried the silent treatment and the cat still over meows at inappropriate times you can try squirting it with a water bottle from under your bedroom door. This should work well as long as the cat does not know that the punishment is coming from you. The goal is for the cat to associate meowing at your door with a squirt.
There are circumstances when you should be more considerate if you cat is vocalizing more than usual. Cats can become vocal when they are in a transitional phase like a move or the death of someone in the family or another cat. Try to provide extra love and support during these times by giving the cat more attention along with a few extra cat toys or treats. Again, give this extra attention when the cat is quiet, not while it's actually doing the vocalizing.
Cats make nearly 100 different types of vocalizations, compared to just 20 for dogs. Common vocalizations are:
- Meowing – usually only used with people, can mean many things depending on the volume and intensity (a hello meow is usually quieter than a meow that requests food or to be let outside)
- Mew – used to identify and/or locate another cat
- Growling – a warning to keep your distance
- Hissing – a “keep away” defensive sound, designed to scare away an enemy by mimicking the noise a poisonous snake makes before striking
- Spitting – a short popping sound, often occurs along with hissing if the cat has been threatened or surprised
- Screeching or shrieking – a defensive, aggressive, or outraged sound, may also indicate pain
- Chirping – usually expresses a friendly greeting
- Trilling – more musical than chirping, indicates happiness
- Chattering – an excited sound made by a cat that sees a bird or other prey she can’t reach
- Yowling – often done by older cats at night, expresses fright, confusion, disorientation, or anxiousness; unspayed females who want to attract mates will make a different type of yowl
- Moaning – a drawn-out, sad noise that cats make when they’re about to vomit; elderly cats may also moan when disoriented
- Purring – signifies contentment or illness; cats often purr when sick or injured, because purring speeds the healing proces
The purr is the most common sound issued by cats—and yet one of the least understood. Kittens just a few hours old begin purring as they knead their mother’s chest and nurse. The purr sound is made both on the inhale and the exhale, with an instantaneous break between breaths. Built-up pressure created by the opening and closing of the glottis results in a sudden separation of the vocal folds, creating the purr. While purring is often heard when the cat seems content, those familiar with handling cats in pain or near death know that they also purr when under duress, the reason for which is yet unknown.
The Meaning of Meow
The second most common vocalization is the meow. Rarely heard between cats, this vocalization seems tailor-made for communication between cats and humans. Early on, cats notice that meowing brings attention, contact, food and play from their human companions. Some behaviorists suggest that certain cats seem to alter their meows to suit different purposes, and that some guardians can differentiate between, say, the “I’m Hungry!” meow” from the "Let Me Out!" meow.
The meow is the most often used of the vowel patterns—vocalizations produced with the mouth first open and then gradually closing.
- The sound cats make when highly aroused by the sight of prey is called chirping.
- When a cat is frustrated (such as when an indoor cat finds he is unable to get to the birds at the feeder), you may hear him chatter.
- When a neonate kitten is cold, isolated from his mother or trapped, he issues a distress call—also sometimes called an anger wail. As the kitten matures, the distress call is used when play is too rough or the cat finds something else to protest.
A Hiss Is Just a Hiss?
All threat vocalizations are produced with the mouth held open. These sounds mirror the cat's intense emotional state. A hiss is uttered when a cat is surprised by an enemy. A high-pitched shriek or scream is expressed when the cat is in pain or fearful and aggressive. Snarling is often heard when two toms are in the midst of a fight over territory or female attention. And a long, low-pitched growl warns of danger.
Extra tip: Cats often hide illness until they are extremely sick. This is due to the fact that in the wild, a sick cat (weakened) is an easy target for other predators. If your cat is not a regular talker and has recently started meowing excessively, this could well indicate a serious physical problem or illness and a vet visit is in order.
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