Cat sounds are a source of amusement and fascination for many cat owners. They're also used to manipulate people on a regular basis! Some sounds say play with me, others say I'm not happy, and still others say give me food.
Research into the myriad of noises that domestic cats (and their wild cat ancestors and cousins) make has yielded some interesting facts and conclusions. Living with three cats has given me a unique opportunity to observe many different cat sounds (often called cat calls) under various behavioral circumstances.
"Cats are domesticated animals that have learned what levers to push, what sounds to make to manage our emotions, and when we respond, we too are domesticated animals." -Nicholas Nicastro Cat Person and Researcher
Your cat's meow sounds like what? We're all familiar with the standard meow, but each cat is obviously unique. Some have high pitched voices and some have low pitched voices. Some sing a smooth song like George Michael, and others are more raspy like Janis Joplin.
People have described the various vocalizations their cats make in many ways including sounding like a baby, birds, or even monkeys.
At times, some cats sound like other animals when they meow, and some even sound almost like people. Sometimes the voice doesn't seem to match the cat, at least in physical size and appearance. Many members of the very large Maine Coon cat breed, for example, generally have a soft meow voice. In fact, they have often been described as sounding like birds.
Research Into Cat Sounds
Research into cat sounds and the effect they have on humans has revealed some interesting points, including how cats get what they want from people by using vocalizations.
Most cat communication is non-verbal. Cat talk consists mostly of body language (although most humans don't understand this cat body language very well). Why then, are cat sounds, such as the meow, generally directed toward humans more than other cats?
The answer might lie in a psychology study at Cornell University, where researcher Nicholas Nicastro played a collection of over 100 cat sounds from 12 cats to 2 groups of people.
What's really interesting is that apparently, these 100 sounds were only a sub-set of the total number of vocalizations recorded. This makes me wonder... how many sounds can a cat make? But I digress.
Each participant (the people, not the cats) in the first group were asked to evaluate each sound for "pleasantness and appeal" on a scale of 1 to 7. The second group was asked to evaluate the same 100 cat sounds, but this time they were asked to rate how "urgent and demanding" the sounds were.
The cat calls were then analyzed against the responses to see which qualities were present in pleasant vs. urgent meows.
After the data was analyzed, what they found was that the sounds that were unpleasant and the sounds that were more urgent had characteristics in common. These sounds tended to be longer with more emphasis on the lower frequencies, such as "Mee-O-O-O-O-O-W!"
Likewise the cat sounds that were more pleasant (and less demanding) were shorter, with more equal treatment of the high and low frequencies, such as "MEE-ow."
Basically, the study showed that domestic cats are able to manipulate us into giving them what they want!
The meow is probably the most familiar sound associated with cats and it comes in many forms. This signature vocalization is sometimes a full "meow" sound or is elongated into something else. Other times it shortens to "mow" or barely a "meh" or "eh."
Teddie often does a longer "maaoooww" sound and has earned herself the nickname "mowster." When she gets revved up, it starts to take on a "maaowow" sound. When she's chasing you around, it often comes out as "maowah." Sometimes it's just an "eeh" or "eh."
Frankie makes a "meep" sound. She does this so often that she earned the nickname "Meepster." Sometimes, when she's very excited, it comes out as a long "meeeeooooweep" often followed by a mad dash around the house.
Meowing Monica... This Tuxedo cat is a chatty kitty!
Funny Cat Videos of Cats Talking
Here are some videos of cats "talking" and exhibiting variations on the meow and other vocalizations.
I can't tell if this one is real or a voice-over...
Here's one of my favorite talking cats from the Web, Alaska the Siamese cat. Alaska demonstrates a number of different vocalizations here and some variations on "meow" which are all designed to manipulate her very well trained owner.
If your cat is yowling excessively, this may be a sign of illness. Yowling can be a cry for help, or a sign of pain or confusion.
In old age, for example, some cats develop dementia and will often yowl, sometimes literally while staring at the walls. You should, of course, contact your veterinarian if there are sudden or drastic changes in your cat's behavior.
Years ago, a girlfriend of mine had a cat named Sweet Pea. Sweet Pea was a muscular black and white (Holstein) cat with a huge personality and a fierce defender of his territory (yes, Sweet Pea was a boy, but originally thought to be a girl). Sweet Pea would get into nose-to-nose yowling matches with any cat that dared to step on his property.
Some cats, on the other hand, just have a yowling sort of tone to their voices. As a group, Siamese cats tend to yowl.
Sometimes cats will tend towards a yowl when they get excited and want to play or want attention. Teddie uses a kind of yowl which has an "aaooooww" sound with a very raspy tone when she wants to play. Often the sound will be muffled because she's walking around with a ball in her mouth looking to start a game of fetch.
Although usually much less obvious about it (ever the classy ones) cats will growl much as dogs do. Cats growl for the same reasons dogs do, including perceived threats, or situations they don't appreciate. Priscilla growls when strangers show up at the house. She's quite the watch cat and always a protector.
Of all the possible cat sounds, the purr is probably the most pleasing of all, and certainly one of the most fur-miliar. It tends to be soothing and if you've ever had a cat lie on top of you and purr you know what I mean.
Kittens start purring at about one week old, and may purr throughout their lives during times of contentment or times of pain or stress. Some cats purr while at the vet, presumably because it's stressful.
Some cats are very loud with their purr and others purr softly. Some cats will purr so softly that you can't even tell unless you're up close.
When Teddie purrs, the only way to tell is to put your hands on her belly and her throat and feel the vibration (or put your ear next to her). Sometimes you can see her belly vibrating, but she has to be positioned just right. Priscilla on the other hand is a much smaller cat than Teddie, but her purr is extremely loud.
Priscilla often puts a purr and a meow together, which makes for some interesting tones, kind of like this cat, Nima, in the video below.
All cats have the ability to purr. Big cats (Panthera) are often said not to be able to purr. They can only purr on the out breath, however, while domestic cats can purr continuously while breathing in and out.
Why cats purr and exactly how the purr is produced is still subject to some debate. Some recent research has shown that purring may be a healing mechanism, building muscle tone and improving bone density.
The Hiss (and Spit)
Cats will make that nasty hissing sound when challenged, or sometimes when ill or just when they've had enough and want to be left alone. The hiss may be accompanied by a spit as well. If your cat begins hissing at what seems like inappropriate times, she may be ill.
Chattering is usually seen when a cat sees prey. Birds, or possibly rodents may elicit this response. I've read that it is often attributed to frustration. This may be because it is often observed when cats are looking out the window at prey they can't actually catch.
I'm not sure I agree with that assessment. Priscilla and Frankie chatter quite often, especially directed at birds outside the house. If I had only seen them do this when they couldn't get to a bird, I'd take it that maybe they're frustrated. But, I've also seen them do it at a toy they're playing with.
Also, Priscilla loves to catch lizards, and she's pretty darn good at it. I have seen her sit inside the house and observe a lizard outside the window for long periods of time, and never chatter at it. I've also seen cats outside do the chatter while hunting birds they're about to pounce on. I'm not sure that I've ever seen Teddie exhibit this behavior at all.
One of the cats in this video is a chatter box...
Everyone recognizes the roar of a lion. I'm sure you're familiar with the MGM studios lion that roars at the beginning of their films.
Depending upon conditions, a lion's roar can be heard up to 5 miles away.
Only big cats can roar. The trade off is that they can only purr on the out breath. Big cats, or great cats, as they are called, are the pantherine cats (of the genus Panthera).
This elite group is restricted to tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards. These felines are much larger than other cats (ya think?) and have rounded pupils rather than slits like the domestic cat.
Although these are not the only cats with rounded pupils, other cats do not roar. Even a 150 pound mountain lion (which is not considered a big cat!) cannot roar. This is due to certain anatomical differences in the four big cats.
The ability to roar was thought to have been made possible by a "soft" hyoid bone (the bones supporting the larynx). Newer information attributes roaring capability to more anatomical differences than just that. Snow leopards have a soft hyoid bone and are sometimes classified under "big cats," but they do not roar.
The ligament that connects the hyoid bones in house cats is rigid. But in adult lions, for example, that ligament is 6 inches long, stretching to 9 inches to allow the air flow for a roar. Other differences in the structure of the larynx may be at work here as well, but I can't find a lion that will talk to me about it.
You'll also sometimes see information that classifies 2 other wild cats as big cats. These are the cheetah and the clouded leopard. These cats, however, do not roar either.
In fact, cheetahs don't even make cat sounds... they chirp! Cheetah speed is, of course, legendary. But, the sounds they make are often quite interesting. Here's what a cheetah purr sounds like. There's also an mp3 of a serval purring on that page as well.
OK, cheetahs do make cat sounds since they're, well, cats. But they do have unique communication skills in comparison to much of the feline world. Here's more information on the sounds that cheetahs make including a video of a cheetah chirping.