Cats can be TALKATIVE, and until someone develops an English-Cat Dictionary, we’re here to help you translate all those meows, purrs, and everything in between into messages you can understand.
Understanding cat communication can be tricky! A purr can mean different things when paired with different body postures. Plus, do you know the difference between a chirp and a trill? Let’s break down some of the most common feline vocalizations so that your conversations with your cat can become a two-way street.
This one’s a classic! We all learned that cats go “meow” back in our old picture books, but adult cats actually meow mostly for our benefit.
Kittens have plenty of unique meows and chirps to tell their moms exactly what they need, but wild adult cats typically stop meowing as they grow up and use body language for most of their communication. Domestic cats, however, keep meowing so that we can keep up with their conversation. (Maybe our cats learned to talk back after listening to us tell them about work drama for the hundredth time…)
Since meows are a sound cats make for humans, they’re typically a sign that cats want our attention—like when they want snacks or their favorite toy that’s stuck under the couch. If the meows are longer and more plaintive, they might be complaining about something painful—or just saying they stepped in water and their paw is wet. And of course, a meow can be a friendly greeting saying “Hey! You’re finally home!”
You might also notice that older cats crank the volume up to 11 on their meows—a side effect of their fading hearing.
That signature throaty rumble is a sound of comfort for cats and their people. (Does anyone else put on recorded cat purrs instead of white noise or is that just us?) Purring while they’re being petted or curled up at your side is one of the surest signs that your cat feels safe and happy.
In some cases, cats can also self-soothe by purring. In the same way that you might hum a tune or mutter to yourself when you’re doing something that makes you anxious, your cat might purr to calm their own nerves. Pay attention to the nonverbal signs they’re giving you—if their ears are pulled back or their body is tense, they’re probably concerned about something.
Chirps and Trills
These sweet vocalizations are the sounds of a perky cat! Chirps are short, chirpy meows, and trills sound like a sing-songy combination of a meow and a purr. These sounds can be a cheerful greeting or a request saying “Follow me!” These are also sounds that cats use to communicate with each other and might be familiar if you live in a multi-cat household.
Have you ever heard your cat chatter? This sounds like an abrupt, stuttering series of short, mumbled chirps. It’s hard to describe, but very distinctive once you hear it!
Chattering is usually reserved for the times when your cat has seen really tempting prey—but they’re stuck behind the window and can’t get to it. The next time your cat is trying to paw their way through the glass to catch a squirrel, listen for the chatter!
The yowl is the louder, longer, and unhappier version of the meow. These plaintive calls are a clear and obvious complaint that something is very wrong as far as your cat is concerned. The cause for this can vary wildly from painful medical conditions to male or female cats’ howling mating calls to good old-fashioned late night boredom.
Hisses and Growls
Cats aren’t afraid to set boundaries, and they do that with a whole range of angry sounds. Growling, hissing, and spitting can all tell you that your cat did NOT agree to receive that tummy rub! Hissing can happen any time your cat feels scared or threatened and is especially common among nervous cats. Growling and snarling are usually territorial responses to let a stranger know that they aren’t welcome on your cat’s turf.
It’s also important to note that any sudden and unusually excessive meowing can be a red flag! Excessive vocalization can be a sign that your cat is in pain, so don’t be afraid to have your vet check on your pet’s health if you’re at all concerned.
You could fill a book (or two, or twelve) with everything there is to know about cat behavior, but with these basics under your belt, you’re on the road to becoming a cat whisperer! Now you have many wonderful years ahead of you of (unfortunately) knowing exactly what your cat means when they meow for you to clean their litter box.