“If cats could talk, they wouldn’t.” –Nan Porter
Though this quote is funny, and humorously alludes to cats’ stoical side, cats actually talk quite a bit—and mostly to us.
In a typical household with cats, the feline residents, once past the kitten stage, communicate among themselves mostly through non-vocal means. However, probably because they sense our limitations on interpreting body language and discover that we respond better to vocal cues and commands, cats modify their communication styles to work with humans’ strengths and weaknesses. In addition, since our cats see us partly as surrogate mothers, throughout adulthood they continue with many of the vocal techniques they utilized as kittens to let their mothers know how they were doing and what they wanted.
Types of Cat Talk and What They Mean
Cats have quite an extensive “vocabmewlary.” Below are the main categories of sounds that cats use to communicate with us, and in some circumstances with each other.
Squeaks, trills, and chirps. These closed-mouth sounds usually express happiness and greetings. Your cat may grace you with some appreciative trilling or chirrups of delight as you pet or brush her. Some cats announce their presence with one of these short vocalizations. This repertoire of pleasant vocalizations may also be used for gentle requests, the way you might lightly tap on your horn if the otherwise exemplary driver in front of you has not noticed that the light has turned green. For example, a cat may emit brief squeaks that convey a mixture of excitement and “hurry up” as you’re preparing her dinner. Often, these sing-song “meeps,” chirps, and warbles become part of the musical rhythm of a home.
Meows, rrrows, and yeows. This is a broad category, filled with variations and nuances. Sounds in the meow family are made with an open mouth. A casual meow may be used as a greeting or non-urgent request (“As long as you’re going to the kitchen, I’d like a refill in my food bowl…”). More wide-mouthed and long-voweled utterances generally indicate at least a moderate level of urgency or determination. Kittens rely on open-mouthed cries as distress calls to their mothers when they’re hungry, lost, or feeling threatened. Adult cats may use this same technique to summon their humans. The meow is a very versatile tool.
Mews. These are brief, sweet meows. A polite request via a mew may escalate to a more demanding meow if the humans aren’t getting the message.
Silent meows. These meows are not silent, just too high-pitched for our ears to hear. But since so many humans find this form of communication, which we can only detect by sight, irresistibly endearing, it is quite possible that cats pick up on our “aww” response and employ the silent meow to get attention and favors.
A rumbling growl is the sound of an irritated cat. It typically is used to signal an angry "back away" command, whether the cat is confidently on the offensive or is posturing in an effort to psyche out a perceived threat.
The loudest and/or most prolonged sounds. When two cats face off, they each may emit rather loud and pronounced vocalizations with very long vowel sounds as a way of intimidating the other cat. A female cat in heat may wail for quite a long time—one more reason for spaying. Some elderly cats develop a form of dementia which causes them to become disoriented and yowl. Then there is the awful sound that kitty makes when we accidentally step on her paw. We instantly, if not profoundly, recognize her loud shriek or wail as a reaction to sudden pain. Hopefully, kitty forgives us and we can solicit some make-up purrs with kind attention and sincere apologies.
Interpret Cat Talk Holistically
To best interpret what your cat is saying, listen to the intonation, duration, volume, and frequency of her vocalizations, but also notice her body language and consider the context. To some extent, as your relationship with your cat develops, you’ll do this automatically, and in many cases you’ll know exactly what your cat is talking about without even having to think about it.
Talking as a Feline Pastime
Cats are resourceful and creative, and if a particular type of meow produces a desired result, kitty may use that meow again and again—and perhaps try some new ones, just to see what happens. Cats can also be quite generous and social, and they may enjoy talking to us (in varying degrees, depending on their personality) and having us talk back to them because they enjoy the company and friendship.
The Humane Society of the United States Complete Guide to Cat Care reminds us that if a usually quiet cat suddenly turns very vocal, that could indicate one or more of the following conditions:
- Illness or pain
- Boredom; a cry for attention
- Imminent danger—cats have saved families from fires and other catastrophes through intense yowling and meowing
- Grief for a lost companion
- A reaction to a recent upheaval, such as moving into a new home or the addition of a new human or nonhuman family member
Each of these conveyances is worthy of a response.
The more we know about cat talk, the better we can understand what our cats are telling us, and the more responsive we can be to their needs. Paying attention to the vocal messages our cats send us can have significant positive impacts on our feline friends’ health and well-being. In addition, it’s fun to listen to and interact with our cats’ creative and nuanced mews, meows and other forms of vocal communications.