A feline's vocal apparatus differs from our own and is not designed
with actual speech in mind. However cats still need to communicate, both
with other cats and animals and with their human companions too. Cats "speak" to
each other through body language, communicating feelings and intentions
through posture and facial expression as well as sound. Humans do this
too, but are able to rely more on on verbal expression because of their
ability to talk.
Scent is also an important component of cat communication.
In addition, Cats have a vocabulary of sounds ranging from caterwauls to
mewing sounds, from hisses to the "silent
meow" which is probably a sound pitched too high for human ears to hear.
Cats make a variety of different sounds which some people might call "words." While these are not "words," in a grammatical sense, they do comprise a cat's language. Below are some interpretations of the various noises and vocalizations cats use:
- Mew (high pitched and thin) - a polite plea for help
- MEW! (loud and frantic) - an urgent plea for help
- mew - plea for attention
- mew (soundless) - a very polite plea for attention which is often a
sound pitched too high for human ears and barely heard
- meow - emphatic plea for attention
- MEOW! - a command!
- mee-o-ow (with falling cadence) - protest or whine
- MEE-o-ow (shrill whine) - stronger protest
- MYUP! (short, sharp, single note) - righteous indignation
- MEOW! Meow! (repeated) - panicky call for help
- mier-r-r-ow (chirrup with lifting cadence) - friendly
- RR-YOWWW-EEOW-RR-YOW-OR - caterwaul
- merrow - challenge to another male
- meriow - courting call to female
- MEE-OW - come and get it!
- meOW - follow me!
- ME R-R-R-ROW - take cover!
- mer ROW! - No! or Stop It!
- mreeeep (burbled) - hello greeting to kittens and disarming greeting to
adult cats (also used between adult cats and humans)
There is more to felinese than the simple miaow though. In
1944, Mildred Moelk made a detailed study of cat vocabulary and found sixteen
meaningful sounds, which included consonants and vowels. She divided cat-sounds
into three groups:
- murmurs made with the mouth closed
- vowel sounds made with the mouth closing as in "iao"
- sounds made with the mouth held open.
Although these may not be used in grammatical
sentences, one definition of language is "any means, vocal or other,
of expressing or communicating feeling or thought" (Webster's Dictionary). Observant
owners will notice the following sounds which cats make to communicate
their state of mind. This list is not exhaustive, since cats have individual
personalities and will improvise:
- Caterwaul - cat wants sex!
- Chatter - excitement, frustration e.g. when prey is out of reach or escapes
(involves rapid teeth-chattering jaw movements). Another suggestion for
teeth chattering, in outdoor cats at least, is to make their prey curious
enough to overcome caution.
- Chirrup - friendly greeting sound, a cross between a meow and a purr!
(friendly greeting sound with rising inflection; familiar to most cat owners)
- Cough-bark - alarm signal (rare in pet
cats); like us, cats can cough both voluntarily and involuntarily)
- Growl - threat, challenge, warns others to go away
Hiss (with or without spit) - threat, fear, warns others to back off
- Meow - general purpose attention seeking
sound used by adult cats to communicate with owners or with kittens
- Mew (of kittens) - distress, hunger, cold (to attract mother's attention)
- Purr - contentment, relaxation, also
to comfort itself if in pain (cats in great physical distress, even near
death may purr); a loud purr invites close contact or attention
- Scream - fear, pain, anger, distress
- Squawk - surprise, shock (somewhat strangled sound)
- Yowl - a threat, offensive or defensive, but also used in a modified form
by some cats seeking attention when owner is out of sight
- Idiosyncratic sounds - a sound which a particular cat uses in a particular
- Squabble - a series of short and long meows and
grunts made in a complaining tone that occur when a cat is moved or made
to do something it would rather not do
The exact meanings of all of these sounds may be modified
or emphasized by facial expression, tone/volume, frequency and body language
depending on the current situation. Some cats may use some of these cat-sounds
in different ways when communicating with humans and only our familiarity
with our own pets tells us for instance that a certain type of growl is
a playful noise and not warning of imminent attack.
One feature common to both cats and people is the use
of a slightly raised tone of voice to indicate friendliness and a lowered
tone of voice to indicate displeasure, aggression etc. Friendly chirrup
and food-seeking miaow are usually uttered in a raised tone of voice while
the low-pitched growl of a cross cat is undeniably unfriendly.
Volume is sometimes used for added emphasis (e.g. a strident
miaow for urgency, a gentle "burp" for contentment). Cats which
simply feel compelled to add their personal point-of-view to a conversation
often do so in a neutral tone of voice to indicate that they are not being
particularly hostile, nor unduly friendly, and that there is no great
urgency about the subject matter.
Are some breeds more talkative than others?
Siamese cats are well known for being quite vocal, but
are often simply dismissed as noisy, yowling cats. Siamese vocabulary
very long mew of medium pitch" which is often emitted soon after the cat
is let into a room. This is possibly purely conversational, serving to
inform those in the room that it has arrived and is passing the time of
day. A far more plaintive sound is made when cats wish to be let in or
out, or to attract attention to themselves if they feel they have been
Burmese are also a very vocal breed,
but as a result of having a slightly narrower range of pitch than the
Siamese, they rely more on variations in length and volume of their mews
to provide a large number of different ‘remarks’. In contrast,
British Short hairs tend to show the reserve traditionally attributed to
their human counterparts; they vocalize a lot less than the Oriental breeds,
and their mews, when uttered, are usually quite brief. However; though
brief, a range of pitches can still be detected. Sharp sounds generally
signify distress or impatience, while those of medium pitch are used for
less urgent situations such as polite request for food. A mew emitted whilst
purring usually means the animal is contented.
Long-haired breeds, on the
whole, have rather high-pitched voices, and unless they are extremely upset
the volume of their mews is fairly low. In their attempts to communicate
with us on our own level, some cats put together full "sentences" of
noises and pauses. They might simply be inviting us to talk back to them
as most cats really enjoy this sort of attention and interaction from
What does a cat's purr mean?
Purring is caused by vibration of structures
in the throat. Although not strictly a vocalization, the purr is an important
means of communication, and depending upon the cat's situation, it can
convey contentment, pleasure or be placatory behavior (i.e. "I
am not a threat to you").
As well as purring when happy, cats also purr when severely injured, frightened
or giving birth. A cat may even purr when close to death.
It is also believe that the familiar purr generally associated
with contentment, is also exhibited by a cat when he is being restrained
for veterinary procedures (blood samples or X-rays).
The inference drawn from this behavior is the cat indicating
that he is tractable and co-operative and does not need to be forcibly
handled. This purr is likened to behavior of a subsmissive cat attempting
to avoid conflict with a larger, more powerful animal or human.