Cat Talk: The Language of Cat Sounds

Cat Facts, Tips & Tricks posted on November 01 2017 by

Chances are, if you’re a cat parent, you’ve been known to let out a meow on occasion—or many occasions. The deep desire to communicate with our feline friends is in all of us cat lovers. What is my cat thinking? What is he saying to me? Does my cat really love me?

One thing that is clear—they’re definitely saying something. They know what they want, when they want it, and they won’t take no for an answer. It’s why we love them—and probably also what drives us crazy about them.

What is my cat saying?

Despite all those meows you’ve traded back and forth, a cat’s main source of communication isn’t vocal; it’s visual. It’s the slight curve of the tail, the droop of the eyelids, the arch of the back, the rubbing of the face, that really shares what they’re thinking. And knowingly or not, you’ve probably learned to decipher many of the unique ways your cat “talks” to you.

When it comes to sounds, however, there remains a good amount of mystery around cat-to-human communication. There’s no universal cat language or glossary to help decipher what your cat is saying, but folks are working on it. In fact, researchers in Sweden are in the midst of a five-year study, Meowsic, aimed “at understanding how cats and humans use melody and other prosodic features when they communicate with each other.”

Luckily, we don’t have to wait until they’re done to learn a little something.

Cats meow for their humans, not other cats.

Cats don’t generally communicate aloud to other cats. In fact, feral cats don’t meow or make noises much at all—and the same goes for the big cats like lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards.

The sounds we do hear from our domesticated felines often include variations of the meow, purr, howl, chirp and hiss, all signifying degrees of happiness, dissatisfaction and excitement.

Design. Engineering. Function.

Purring isn’t always for pleasure.

There’s nothing like the sweet sound and soft vibration of a happy cat. But did you know that cats also purr when they’re in pain? According to the Library of Congress, the vibration acts as a soothing mechanism to help ease discomfort or heal what ails them. Keep that in mind the next time you have a purring cat on your lap.

Your cat may be manipulating you with sound.

If you’ve ever suspected your cat of training you—and not the other way around—you’re onto something. Multiple studies, including one from Cornell University, have examined how cats use our innate nurturing tendencies to their advantage.

Domesticated cats have evolved alongside humans long enough know certain sounds and tones will get us to do as they please. Cats will communicate with different meows to get us to feed them, comfort them, and even adopt them. Depending on the context, we assign meaning to those various meows, and do their bidding. We’ve all heard a nice, pleasant meow turn into a shriek at feeding time—especially if you still happen to be under the covers.

You (and only you) know how to talk to your cat best.

In the end, there are similarities in the sounds all cats make. But in that communication, there is a unique language (dialect, perhaps), shared by only you and your cats and that others can’t quite decipher. (Yes, it’s OK to feel great about this.)

Does your cat make any funny or unique sounds? Do you feel like you know what they’re saying? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

For the rest of you, keep practicing those meows.


You might also enjoy…

Why do cats purr?

The Slow Blink and Why You Should Use It

Is your cat bilingual?


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