Dear Pet Column,
I have a very vocal cat with a wide range of vocabulary, including his meow greeting which sounds awfully similar to “hello…” Is there a way to figure out what all of his sounds mean?
Sincerely, The Cat Whisperer
Dear Cat Whisperer, my name is Clementine, a 5 year young gorgeous and unusual female orange tabby (unusual as orange tabby’s are usually always male) here at Second Chance Humane Society with a lot to say about chatty cats. I shall begin with a little back info…
Non-domesticated cats, which are typically independent hunters, have limited need for an extensive vocal repertory as cat-to-cat vocalizations are generally restricted to communicating with one's kittens, sexual partners, and potential enemies.
However, through domestication we have learned that an expanded vocabulary gets results within our human families. Changing the volume, intensity and number of repetitions of our vocalizations, coupled with expressive body language, ensures our messages are received and our needs are met.
The purr is the most common sound issued by felines. Kittens just a few hours old begin purring as they nurse. While purring is often heard when cats seem content, those familiar with handling cats in pain or near death know that we also purr when under duress, the reason for which is still our secret.
Rarely heard between cats, meowing seems specifically designed for cat-human inter-communication. Early on, we notice our meows bring attention, contact, food and play from human companions. Some behaviorists (and cat parents like yourself) suggest that certain cats alter their meows to suit different purposes, and that some parents can differentiate between, say, the “I’m Hungry!” meow, the "Pet Me!" meow, and of course the “Helllo” meow. I personally would not dispute this claim as I have mastered the words “Adopt Me!” quite well.
Cats also employ some unique sounds beyond meowing when highly aroused, such as the chirping at the sight of prey. When frustrated (for instance when indoors and unable to get to the birds at the feeder) our chirping turns more to chatter. And then our distress call (issued as a kitten when cold or isolated from our mothers) sounds like an angry wail. As we mature, this distress call is used for other forms of protest.
A hiss denotes an intense emotional state and is typically uttered when we are surprised by something perceived as threatening. A high-pitched shriek or scream is expressed when we are 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 signals danger.
I hope this helps you to better communicate with your cat and to better appreciate our intelligence and yearning for human bonding. I am actually a rather quiet mellow girl who really enjoys cuddling. If I could talk I would let you know that my person died recently and my life has simply just not been the same. I am hoping for a new home of my own where we can cuddle and you can pet my long soft fur. I am good with other cats and enjoy a good game of chess.