Cats don’t have a language center in their brains, which means they don’t communicate with words per se. But their vocalizations have meanings. If you listen carefully, you can tell whether your cat is hungry, angry, feeling affectionate, impatient, or in pain. Here’s a rundown.
Meow. Cats don’t meow to each other, unless they’re kittens plaintively letting their mothers know they need to nurse or require some other form of care and attention. Once a kitten reaches adulthood, she meows only for people. Different meows have different meanings, and you can probably discern those meanings by gauging the intensity of the vocalization and the context. There’s the “Hello, I missed you and need some attention” meow and the more insistent “Feed me now” meow, for instance. Some cat owners are also familiar with the “Here’s your mouse” meow and the “I want to come up” meow. It’s generally not hard to get the hang of what a meow is alerting you to.
Purr. This one can be trickier than meets the ear. Yes, a purr often signals extreme contentment — but not always. A cat might also purr when she is stressed or in pain. The low frequency of the vibrations inside her body can apparently ease breathing. Some also posit that purring in such a situation is like a child sucking her thumb. Whatever the reason, context is all for determining whether the purring means something good or bad.
Note: If you hear a high-frequency sound in the purring — something that might sound a little like the cry of a human baby that needs tending — it likely means your cat wants you to do something for her, like feed her. (Indeed, it is hard to ignore something that sounds a little like a baby crying; our instinct, genetically honed over millennia, is to do whatever it takes to make that sound stop.)
Chirps and Trills. These high-pitched sounds, similar to the soft rolling rrrs of Spanish, are the sounds a mother cat uses to tell her kittens to follow her. When your pet directs these vocalizations at you, it probably means she wants you to follow her — perhaps to her food bowl. Sometimes, however, a trill could mean your cat appreciates you, perhaps for offering her a desired treat.
Interestingly, while cats don’t meow to each other, they do call out to their feline brethren by chirping and trilling. What they are communicating is for them to know and us to find out.
Hissing. It means what you think it means, especially since a hiss is generally uttered with a cat’s mouth open and teeth bared. The cat is angry or fearful — or both. Do not try to calm a hissing cat. Just keep away. She needs time to regain her composure on her own.
Growling. See hissing. The low, rumbling sound is a warning. A cat’s territoriality may be involved in addition to fear or anger. Do not try to reason with a growling cat or get her to come around. Treat the growl like the cat’s decision to have a time-out — wherever and for however long she decides.
Yowl or Howl. Kind of like a loud, drawn out meow, a yowl or howl can signal a number of different things. If your pet has not been spayed or neutered, the howling could indicate a desire to mate (and, quite frankly, sounds quite annoying to human ears). If the aim isn’t to mate, a yowl could very well mean your cat is in distress. Perhaps she has been inadvertently locked in the basement and wants out. Or maybe she’s in pain and wants you to fix it. Older cats also yowl and howl sometimes because they have a medical condition such as hyperthyroidism or feline cognitive disorder and are feeling disoriented. If your cat howls or yowls for unknown reasons, make sure to have her veterinarian rule out medical problems.
Chattering, Chittering, or Twittering. These bird-like sounds may occur when your cat is watching — you guessed it — a bird, or perhaps a squirrel or other rodent. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Service, believes that the sound is an expression of frustration when a kitty’s predatory drive is thwarted.