Understanding Cat Behavior: Vocalizations
Cat expressions spark many memes and millions of video views through crazy antics, so it’s no wonder cats and their habits, and individual personalities keep us all laughing. But, of course, understanding cat behavior and their unique language is another story.
Some cats are more vocal than others. When you have a talker on your hands, understanding cat behavior and vocalizations become essential, or your cat may become frustrated and act out. But if you listen closely, you’ll be able to learn your cat’s language and what they’re saying to you, which only strengthens your bond.
Cat Expressions & Sounds 101
Cats and their habits are fascinating, but understanding cat behavior can be challenging, especially when you don’t speak the language. For example, researchers have identified more than 20 types of cat expressions and their meanings. In addition, there may be other vocalizations that are at such a high frequency the human ear can’t detect the sound—only other cats can hear it.
Cat language is a complex combination of expressions, including chirps, yowls, and purrs. The non-verbal portion of cat language includes scent signals, body positions, ear signals, and tail talk. Unfortunately, most humans can’t detect the scent signals, let alone translate them, so it’s no surprise that aside from the most basic types of meows and vocalizations, it’s a struggle to understand what our cats are trying to say. For instance, have you ever wondered what’s behind the meow and the actions that come with it? As people owned by cats can attest, a meow can mean everything from ‘I love you so much’ to ‘if I were you, I’d sleep with one eye open.’ It’s all in the cat’s tone and body language.
Meows are how cats tell people they want something. It’s interesting to note that meows are rarely used when cats talk to each other, so think of ‘meow’ as your cat’s particular love language reserved for the human members of their family. Listen carefully to the nuances—they are significant clues that indicate your cat’s emotional state.
Some cats meow loudly to announce they want food, while others are far more dramatic. For those cats, loud, rapid meows mean, ‘Attention human! My bowl is empty and I’m starving to death!’ Other meows can indicate everything from ‘welcome home’ to ‘hey, get up and open the door because I want to come in/go out right now.’ Sometimes a short meow means ‘I’m lonely, pay attention to me.’ Others can mean ‘I don’t feel good.’ Longer, more plaintive meows are the equivalent of an eye-roll, or ‘Oh come on, seriously?’
Purring or trilling are murmur patterns. These vocalizations convey contentment and comfort, so all is well in the cat world. But, of course, if the cat is on your lap or another part of your body, you’ll probably hear about it if you move or disturb them. On the other end of the spectrum, some cats will ‘worry purr’ or trill when they feel anxious or tense. The telltale sign of anxiety is in the position of the ears and posture. If the cat’s ears are back and their body is tight, they feel nervous about something.
Vowel patterns and diphthongs are different types of meows with meanings, so pay attention to your cat’s posture and ears for extra clues. Chirps and chattering patterns are most often expressions of frustration, so pay attention or reap the consequences.
Growls, hisses, and spitting are easy to understand. The strained intensity means that something makes your cat feel threatened or angry, and they’re ready to strike or defend their territory. An arched back, puffed out fur, a twitchy tail, flattened ears, and an open mouth means ‘look out, I’m ready to fight!‘
Yowling is another complex form of cat expression that can indicate everything from ‘stay out of my territory or else’ to ‘I’m worried and let me tell you why in detail’ to a love song designed to attract a mate. Yowling can also indicate your cat is in pain or they’re simply bored, depending on the tone and frequency.
Those are just a few ways we can demystify the meow and make you a better feline communicator. If you notice a change in your cat’s vocalizations and behavior or excessive yowling or meowing, make an appointment with your vet for a wellness check.
Want to learn more about the language of cats? Check out the Feline Dictionary from DVM360.