Common Cat Vocalizations And What They Mean

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Written By ManuelPeterson

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It can be puzzling when a cat meows. Do they want playtime, a treat or attention? Even when you know exactly what your cat is “saying” to you, they can always switch it up on you. To get the breakdown on the most common cat vocalizations, read The Refined Feline’s analysis on what they mean for you.

Cats Can Talk!

Cats can “say” more than just meow. Cats have a wide scope when it comes to their vocalizing, even more than dogs! Canines can make around ten sounds, felines can make over 100! There are few carnivores with this high pattern of vocalization, and cats are one species. Cats, like most animals, will communicate differently with their own species than they do with humans.

The majority of cat-to-cat communication comes from body language, and only occasionally do they choose to vocalize. However, because they know how much humans vocalize, they tend to “speak” with us more than they would bother with their own species. A cat’s environment and how socialized they are can contribute to how much they rely on these vocalizing tactics. If they aren’t as familiar with how humans communicate in the first place, they may be less vocal than pet cats in households.

Vocalizations of Cats

Cats still choose to vocalize with each other for certain things, and these vocalizations are usually broken down into four main categories:

  • Cat-Human Interactions
  • Agonistic Interactions
  • Mating/Sexual Interactions
  • Queen-Kitten Interactions

In most studies, a cat’s vocalization would be categorized by researchers into separate categories too, including murmur, vowel and strained intensity patterns. Researchers have even broken it down further when it comes to the sounds. The categories were closed mouth, fixed open mouth, and the mouth steadily closed but emitting sounds.

Who knew a cat’s meow was so complex, right? Since cat’s are so varied in their wide range of vocalizations, it can be quite the undertaking to comprehend every single nuance. With the typical housecat, though, there are typically seven common vocalizations you’ll be familiar with. We will look deeper into these seven most common vocalizations, which are: Meow/Miaow, Purr, Trill/Chirrup, Chatter/Chitter, Hiss, Snarl, and Shriek.

7 Most Common Vocalizations of Housecats

#1: Meow or Miaow

The most widely used communication by a cat is the meow. Mostly used with humans, it’s usually in some form of solicitation. Your cat may be lonely, hungry, or wants a toy and is asking politely. Before asking for something more, they may also meow a quick greeting. If they don’t receive what they asked for, however, the meow may become longer, more frequent or more insistent. You may also hear a meow from kittens looking for their mother, but it is most often used towards humans. The frequency, length, and intensity of a meow will vary with your cat and what they want. One cat’s meow won’t be the same as another cat’s meow, even if they are meowing for the same thing!

#2: Purr

Purring is often associated with positive interactions, either with a human or a fellow feline. A cat will purr when they are relaxed and content, but also when they are sick or ill. They may use their purr as a comforting measure if they are in a high level of pain. Some studies have shown that a cat’s purr is at a healing frequency of sound! A large portion of the time, though, a cat will purr with pure contentment from being around their favorite people and felines

Queen cats will purr while with their kittens, and the kittens will purr back, especially during nursing. Your cat may purr while you’re petting them, brushing them, or while they are relaxed on your lap. A purr’s frequency level can also differ from cat to cat. You may barely perceive one cat’s purr while another cat’s purr is so loud it sounds like a helicopter!

#3: Chirrup or Trill

A trill is used as a form of greeting or friendly interaction, both with felines and humans. It can be used along with meows, especially towards humans, as a greeting and then beginning to ask for food or attention. A bit like a meow and trill combined, a chirrup can also be used when mother cats are calling for their kittens to stay closer to them.

#4: Chatter or Chitter

Chattering usually occurs when your cat is watching prey but can not get to the prey. Most cats watching birds outside will chatter or chitter, which is similar to a chirp-style meow. Mostly directed towards live prey, a cat could chatter towards a toy as well. Having a cat tower near a window can encourage this!

We don’t fully understand why a cat will chitter, but it’s believed to be out of frustration. Chattering could also be in anticipation of going after the prey instead of feeling frustrated. Some researchers believe the chitter sound may be the cat imitating the noises of birds or mice. This deception would then bring the prey closer and make catching them even easier.

#5: Hiss

A hiss is often used as the first stage of warning towards another cat or a human. A cat that is scared or feeling threatened will use a hiss as well as changing their body language to something more defensive. They may arch their back, turn their ears backwards, raise their hackles, and try to appear bigger and more threatening as a scare tactic.

Hissing is a long exhalation of breath when a cat’s mouth remains widely open, and the teeth are bared. A cat may also spit after hissing, especially if they are unfamiliar with humans, as another form of saying, “keep away”.

#6: Snarl

Another sign to back away from a cat is the snarl, commonly used in defensive measures. The snarl could be directed toward anything that appears threatening, whether that’s feline or human, and dependent on the situation. It’s mostly used to intimidate or frighten the opposing party. This will hopefully cause the other cat to walk away and they won’t have to take any more drastic measures.

A snarl happens when a fast inhalation occurs while their mouth is wide open. The snarls are usually harsh, loud, and high-pitched. When cats are already locked into aggressive actions or may be experiencing pain, they may emit a snarl.

#7: Shriek

A shriek is typically a high-pitched, howl-like yell that should be addressed right away by humans. This sound typically means the cat is in some sort of distress or pain, and should be addressed urgently. A cat may shriek if they are highly frightened or feeling threatened as well.

You’re Now An Expert On Cat Vocalizations 

Hopefully this quick overview of the seven most common vocalizations will help you better understand your furry feline. Cats’ communication can be intricate when trying to ask humans for something. Focus on their body language first and foremost to gain a better understanding of what they want. Really try to decipher which vocalization your cat is using, and take it from there!