Cats are naturally independent so they have a small array of vocalizations. Cat-to-cat vocalizations are typically limited to communication between kittens, mates or enemies. There is also a collection of vocalizations used by our feline friends when they want to communicate with us. Pellissippi Veterinary Hospital’s Cat Advocate (Dr. Jennifer) will help teach you the art of interpreting cat lingo.
The purr is the most common cat vocalization (and one of the least understood). Kittens just a few hours old purr as they knead their mom and nurse. The purr sound is made both on the inhale and the exhale, with an instantaneous break between breaths. While purring is often heard when the cat seems content, those familiar with handling cats in pain or near death know that they also purr when under duress, the reason for which is yet unknown. Most behaviorists think this is to solicit care or diffuse threats when they are vulnerable.
Meaning of Meow
The second most common vocalization is the meow. Rarely heard between adult cats, this vocalization seems to only occur from kittens to adult cats and cats to humans. Young cats learn that meowing brings attention, contact, food and play from their human companions. Some behaviorists suggest that certain cats seem to alter their meows to suit different purposes, and that some cat parents can differentiate between the “I’m Hungry!” meow” from the “Let Me Out!” meow.
Cats that are closely bonded (feline friends) often produce a greeting vocalization called a chirrup or trill. This often sounds like “brrp” or “thrrp”. In rare cases, cats that are very bonded to their “people parents” will call to them in this manner.
When a neonate kitten is cold, isolated from his mother or trapped, he issues a distress call—also sometimes called an anger wail. As the kitten matures, the distress call is used when play is too rough or the cat finds something else to protest.
The sound cats make when highly aroused by the sight of prey is called chirping.
When a cat is excited or frustrated by prey out of reach (indoor cats unable to get to the birds at the feeder), you may hear him chatter.
A Hiss Is Just a Hiss?
All threat vocalizations mirror the cat’s intense emotional state. A hiss is uttered when a cat is surprised by an enemy. A high-pitched shriek or scream is expressed when the cat is in pain or fearful and aggressive. Snarling is often heard when two toms are in the midst of a fight over territory or female attention. And a long, low-pitched growl warns of danger.