Of my two cats, Ivan is chattier with an extensive vocal repertoire. He gives a friendly “mrrp” for a greeting or invitation to play, “me-owt” when he’s at the sliding door asking to go out, and a raspy, bordering on obnoxious, “mrne-ow” when insisting on more treats. Should I ignore his appeals he yells, “ME-NOW!” One vocalization I’ve learned not to ignore is his low-pitched bellyache “ow-w-w, ow-w-w, ow-w-w” which means urp is imminent. He grunts when jumping up or down, makes happy nom-nom-nom noises when eating, hums when digging in the litter box, murmurs when settling in for sleep, and has heart-melting purrs.
Cats use a variety of communication systems that include scent, body language, touch, sight, and vocalizations. Cats vocalize to express their mood, emotions, and physical wellbeing. The vocal repertoire of the domestic cat is considered more extensive, developed, and complex than any other member of the carnivore family, which may be explained by their social organization, nocturnal activity, and long period of time spent between the momcat and her kittens. House cats are also more vocal than their wild cousin, Felis silvestris lybica.
When communicating with other cats, vocalization is used less often than other communication forms. Cat-to-cat vocalization is generally reserved for mother/kitten interaction, mating partners, and potential adversaries, with specialized vocalization for each interaction. Where feline vocalization excels is cat-to-human communications. Many of their vocalizations are not only reserved for us humans but are specialized to get what they want when they want it, which is usually, food, attention, or access to a different area. With over 10,000 years of domestication under their collars, cats have learned to fine-tune their vocalizations to their individual household to best get what they want. That means the 600 million worldwide pet cats make the same sounds but with personalized nuances, making them masters of persuasion.
The Cat’s Meow, Miao, and Mew
The sparse number of studies about feline vocalizations indicate that feline sounds range from a handful to 20ish, or more, so it’s difficult to pin down an exact number.
“There is some disagreement as to how many vocalizations cats use, and this all depends on whether you’re a “lumper” or a “splitter” in terms of classifying vocalizations,” says Marci Koski, Ph.D., Certified Feline Behavior and Training Consultant and Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. “I tend to lump vocalizations into several categories, although there are variations within each group.”
Researcher Mildred Moelk’s 1944 in-depth phonetic study of feline vocalizations gives us the extensive cat vocabulary. Cat vocal sounds are separated into three categories: (1) closed mouth, (2) the mouth is open and gradually closes, and (3) mouth tensely held open in the same position. Moelk split the three categories into four murmur patterns, six vowel patterns and six strained-intensity patterns. She further identified 16 phonetic patterns including refusal, demand, complaint, bewilderment, and acknowledgment.
Purr is a vibration of the vocal cords during inhalation and exhalation. Purring is associated with a content, happy cat but cats may also purr when hungry, nervous, fearful or stressed, in pain, giving birth, or dying.
Trills, chirrups, murmurs, churrs and grunts are friendly greetings, a cross between a purr and meow rolled on the tongue and often ending in a high-pitched tone, like a question. Grunts are lower pitched. Some sounds are combined, creating more complex vocalizations.
Meow is a multipurpose vocalization that can be a request, demand, greeting, announcement, or objection. Whether meow, miaow, mau, mio, mew, at least 31 different spellings cited, the sound fits the vowel patterns [a:ou]. Meows are usually reserved for cat-human communication and may be an extension of the kitten “mew” used to solicit attention from the mother cat. Squeaks and moans also fall under the meow heading.
Trill-Meow is a blend of trill, or chirrup, chirr, murmur, and meow.
Howls, yowls, moans, and wails are long, drawn out, often repeated usually warning signs in response to environmental stressors. Howls and wails may indicate pain, or sometimes confusion such as that from cognitive dysfunction. See your veterinarian if you don’t observe any stressors.
Calls or mating cries are produced by females announcing to males or by cats about to fight.
Growl, snarl, cry, pain shriek, and hiss and spit vocalizations are often linked to agonistic or aggressive behaviors.
Chirp and chatter, tweet and tweedle are prey-directed vocalizations. Cats either mimic calls of their prey, express excitement of watching prey (birds, squirrels, insects, etc.), or frustration that they can’t reach prey.
We know cat-to-human vocalizations have different meanings and that they are tailor-made to each household to elicit a desired response, but do cats understand human vocalizations when we talk to them?
“Some individual cats are more vocal than others, and certain breeds, like Siamese, are known for being very vocal with their people. I’ve heard that cats are more likely to communicate vocally with those who talk to them–they know a conversation when they hear one!” says Dr. Koski. She says cats can distinguish their names and recognize tone of voice so we need to be careful how we say something because cats are listening whether or not they give a vocal response.
Susanne Schötz, a linguist and phoneticist at Lund University in Sweden, and two colleagues, are deep into a five-year study, Melody in Human–Cat Communication (MEOWSIC), which examines how cats and humans use melody (rising and falling intonation) to communicate with each other. The purpose is to improve not only human-cat communication but also to improve quality of life for cats and other animals in settings such as veterinary clinics and animal shelters.
It’s important that we are familiar with our cat’s vocalizations not only so that we recognize a need such as food, play, or attention but also to detect any changes in their vocalizations. Cats hide pain and illness so vocalization changes may indicate a change in health, and a veterinary visit should be scheduled.
“Vocalizations are only one way your cat communicates with you,” says Dr. Koski. “It’s important to pay attention to body language and behavior to get a complete picture of how your cat is feeling and communicating her needs to you.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed, is an award-winning writer and 2017 recipient of the prestigious Fear Free Pets Award. She writes about pet care, health and behavior, and cats in the arts. She’s also the author of “Cats for the GENIUS.” Her feline muses are Tsarevich Ivan, a joie de vivre silver tabby Siberian, and Natasha Fatale, a full-time diva dressed as an “anything but plain” brown tabby. You can read more about Ramona and her work at www.RamonaMarek.com.