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Understanding Cat Language: Meow and 9 Other Sounds Explained

Sherry is an animal lover with experience caring for cats, goats, turtles, small birds, and fish.

Many cat sounds have specific meanings

Many cat sounds have specific meanings

Is It Possible to Understand Cats?

As people who love and care for our cats, we want to be able to understand what they are trying to tell us—and each other.

Cats certainly communicate. The question is only whether we have taken the time to understand what they're trying to say. If we pay attention, we will observe that cats are able to express their emotional state, immediate intentions, needs, wants, and sexual status.

Have you ever wondered why your cat will sometimes start randomly meowing? What does it mean when she hisses? Or how about some of those other sounds that seem harder to describe?

Feline communication isn't limited to vocalisation. Cats also communicate via body language and odours. In this article, however, we will focus on their vocalisations.

3 General Categories of Cat Sounds

  • Sounds made with the mouth closed
  • Sounds made with the mouth initially open and then gradually closed
  • Sounds made with the mouth held open in the same position

1. Purr

The purr is a very low-pitched, relatively quiet, breathy vibrating, monotone sound made by cats in a wide variety of forms and situations. It is usually either a friendly greeting or a care-soliciting call. The mouth is always closed while the nose allows for most of the airflow. A purr seems to be more than a communicating voice because it also occurs when there are no other individuals, cats or humans around. Cats can also trill or meow while purring.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Both mothers and kittens purr during nursing. Kittens start purring within a few days of birth.
  • Mothers and their young often communicate with purring.
  • The mother cat purrs whilst grooming her kittens.
  • Some mothers purr continuously whilst they are with their kittens.
  • When the cat appears to be relaxed and content, alone or in social contact.
  • When anticipating or soliciting food or attention.
  • In extreme pain for self-calming.
  • While allorubbing and allogrooming.
  • While dying

It is assumed that the low-frequency vibrations caused by purring have a healing effect. Others have suggested that purring is a form of care or comfort soliciting or even a form of self-reassurance. However, there is no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

2. Chirrup, Trill, Brrp, Coo

This is a relatively short and soft sound, almost like a rolled ‘r’ made upon contact with a known and liked cat or person. What sounds like mrrrh, mmmrrrt or brrh is a greeting call.

The trill can be a weaker coo voice or a brighter chirr where the sound is high pitched and the tone rises. In other situations, it can be a murmur with a darker voice where the tone falls slowly. In either situation, the mouth stays closed unless the trill is followed by a meow where the mouth opens for a 'meow' before closing.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • A mother cat makes the 'chirrup' sound when close to or approaching her kittens.
  • Used by adult cats during friendly approach and greeting
  • During play
  • As an acknowledgment; for example, to say thank you!

Studies show that kittens can recognize their own mother’s voice and respond more often to it compared to other nursing females.

3. Meow

The meow is a general communication sound. It is perhaps the most widely varied call, with many different forms. Since humans are very responsive to the meow of a cat, the variation is mostly a result of the interaction of cats with people. 'Meow' is a signal that a cat uses to indicate that it wants to be fed, petted, let out of the house, or some other care-giving action of a human. The human-directed meow starts usually during or soon after weaning.

Types of Meows

Mew:

A very high-pitched meow, often with the vowels [i], [I] and [e], sometimes followed by [u]. The mouth is kept very slightly open.

Example: [me], [wi] or [mIu].

  • Kittens use this sound when they need their mother’s attention or help. Kittens are often found mewing when they are cold, hungry or lost.
  • Adult cats may mew to get their human’s attention or help.

Squeak:

A high pitched, hoarse, more nasal and often short-lasting mew made with an opening mouth, often with vowels [e] or [æ]. Note that squeaks often end with an open mouth.

Example: [wæ], [me] or [eu]

  • Friendly requests for attention.

Moan:

Deep meow with a falling tone, often with the vowels [o] or [u]:

Example: [mou] or [wuæu]

  • Used in situations of anxiety or stress; or to demand something.

Meow:

The typical meow sound with the characteristic [iau] sequence. It is used for a wide range of reasons, some of which include:

  • Seeking attention: 'I want this'.
  • To make a declaration: 'My bowl is empty'.
  • Friendly greeting: 'I see you there. I like you'.

Silent Meow:

The cat opens and closes its mouth, in the same manner, it would when producing a meow sound, except no sound is produced, at least not one that we can hear. This type of silent meow has been noted to be a part of cat-to-cat communication between feral and domestic cats. There may be sound at a frequency that humans cannot hear or it could also be a part of visual signally that we still do not understand.

4. Yowl, Howl, Anger Wail, Moan

The yowl is produced by a long and often repeated sequence of extended vowel sounds, such as [I], [ɨ], [j] or [aʊ], [ɛʊ], [ɑʊ], [ɔI] or [ɑɔ]. During yowling, the mouth is first opened gradually and closed back slowly. It is often combined with growling in long sequences with slowly varying melody and loudness.

Example: [awɔIɛʊ:] or [I:aʊaʊaʊaʊaʊaʊawawawaw]

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Used as a warning signal in aggressive and defensive situations.
  • Sometimes used as a mating call.

5. Long Meow, Mowl

These are the sounds a cat makes when it is in heat. The long meow is the female mating call, whereas the mowl is the male mating call.

In both males and females, it is a long sequence of meow-like sounds, trills followed by meow and/or howls produced with an opening and then closing of the mouth. The sound often resembles a human child crying and weeping.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • When they are in heat.

6. Growl

The growl is a very low-pitched, deep, harsh, regularly pulse-modulated sound of long duration produced with mouth slightly open during a slow, steady exhalation. It is formed by vowels like trilling r: [gR:], [R:], or a creaky [ɹ̠:].

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Signal that the cat is threatening or actively attacking.
  • Warn or scare off an enemy.
  • Often combined with howling and hissing.

7. Hiss and Spit

These are the more intense, short-length variants of growl, made as a result of defensive aggression. The hiss is produced with an open mouth, visible teeth and arched tongue, with a forced exhalation sound and expulsion of air. The defensive hiss starts usually during or soon after weaning. The spit is an intense form of hiss, where air (rarely saliva) is expelled through a scarcely opened mouth. Hiss and spit often occur together and in similar situations.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Kittens hiss during the first few weeks when cold, hungry, isolated or trapped.
  • Hiss and spit can be heard when a cat is surprised by an apparent enemy.
  • When aggressive or angry.
  • Mother cats may hiss when she tries to stop her kittens from doing something or when she warns them of danger.

8. Snarl (Cry, Scream, Pain Shriek)

This is the most painful sound you will hear from cats. It is very loud, short, harsh, and often high-pitched, and it is produced with an open and tense mouth just before or during active fighting. The sound often includes [a], [æ], [aʊ] or [ɛʊ] vowel qualities.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Sick or injured cats cry and snarl when in great pain.
  • Used as a final warning for the opponent.

9. Shriek

Have you ever heard your cat meow a lot suddenly? The shriek is a sudden loud sound often used to startle the opponent and escape in the meantime.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Made when the cat is in sudden acute pain.

10. Chatter, Chirp

The chattering, chirping or chittering sound is made when stalking prey or, more often, when potential prey can be seen but is unattainable. The cat produces this sound in an attempt to imitate the calls of the prey. The chatter can be of many variants; the two common ones are:

  1. A crackling “k” produced by voiceless, rapid, stuttering or clicking sequence of sounds produced with the jaws juddering
  2. A voiced, monotonous, repeated short calls, mimicking the chirp of a bird or rodent.

When Do They Make This Sound?

  • Prey is visible through a window.
  • Other situations are still unclear.

Happy Communicating!

Sometimes what sounds like a cat’s mere meow is really your kitty telling you that she needs your attention. As time passes most cat carers will gain a general understanding of their cat's signals. In the meantime, I recommend observing your feline companion closely to try to learn her unique communication style.

For more information about the vocalisation of cats, I would recommend this fascinating book: The Secret Language of Cats, by Susanne Schotz. Schotz has described all of the sounds and their variations and combinations that will help any cat lover understand the nuanced language of cats.

Sources and Further Reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Sherry Haynes

Comments

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2021:

Thank you for sharing all the information. I’m going to be more attentive to the sounds that my cats make now that I’ve read your article.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on May 18, 2021:

I did not know that cats had so many different ways of communicating. This was so interesting to read and I learned a lot from it.

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