Cat vocalizations: What’s on their mind?

Cats have a very impressive vocal range that includes purrs, hisses, meows, even chirps. According to French researchers, cat sounds cover more than 60 notes and over the millennia of domestication, many of these sounds have evolved to reach out to the pet parents. We need to know what our beloved feline is trying to tell us.

Because cats are highly evolved independent hunters, their need for communication in the wild can be limited. When required, a mother cat will purr or meow to her kittens, growl at predators, or attract mates with chirps. Domesticated cats possess a highly developed communication skill set and cat sounds play an important role here. Another neat piece of information for cat owners is that certain cat breeds are known to be more vocal than others. For example, Siamese cats are more “chatty” compared to the Persians. By the way, did you know that the cry of a cat in heat is called a caterwaul?

When we think of cat sounds, we instinctively consider the most famous association — meow. A cat meow with its different pitches and lengths is the definitive cat sound, closely followed by the purr. Both sounds are a part of our vocabulary in the form of analogies and expressions.

Meow: A cat’s meow is directed at humans when it wants something. A kitten meows when it wants attention from its mother. Interestingly, adult cats do not “meow” to one another. The intensity of a cat’s distress can be gauged from the pitch of the meow. An agitated cat’s meow will have a lower pitch as compared to the meowing sound from a contended cat. In time, we can learn the meanings associated with the different types of meows. To the untrained ear, they may all sound the same but the caring pet parent knows one meow from the other. One’s for food, the other to be let out, another is a plea to be cuddled, and yet another is simply a cute meow of “life is good” contentment.

Purr: A cat’s purr usually signifies that all is well in its world. And yet, this feline acknowledgment of content is also associated with duress. The original function of purring was to serve as a form of reassuring communication between a cat and its kittens. Females purr when they are about to deliver kittens and frightened cats may purr to indicate submissiveness. Recent research indicates that although the reasons for purring — states of relaxation and distress — are contradictory, there is a good reason why cats do it. The urge to purr originates in the brain and is associated with the release of endorphins, chemicals that have analgesic properties. Endorphins are released in mammals when they are either happy or sad.

Chirp: If you see your cat gazing intently in one direction and then chirp or make a chattering sound; consider it a signal that there is some prey nearby and your pet is planning to launch at its target. Threat-related vocalizations include a hiss or snarl.