We love to talk to our cats. There's just something incredibly special about saying something simple like, "What do you need?" and having your fuzzy little friend respond. But what is your kitty actually trying to tell you? The language of cats is far more complex than we assume, and although they may not be responding to your question like you would expect, you can be sure all the cat noises that brighten your day have their own specific meaning.
Happy Cat Noises
One of the most recognizable cat noises on the planet, meowing is actually fairly uncommon in nature. Kittens typically meow to their mothers; however, this behavior tends to come to a halt as babies mature. House cats, though, maintain this vocal habit throughout their lives as a way to communicate with their people. Generally speaking, these vocalizations are happy or attention-getting.
To humans, a cat's purr is both profoundly endearing and physically healing. To cats, though, this low rumble is most frequently a sign that your kitty friend is in a fantastic, calm sort of mood. Different purrs can mean different things, though. For instance, according to a paper by Karen McComb, "solicitation purring" - a high-cry mingled with a regular low purr, which has a frequency similar to that of a human baby's cry - is used as a way to sort of "ask" their people for things - usually food.
Chattering is that sort of bleating, stuttery meow that cats make when something interesting or huntable catches their eye. Anecdotally, there are claims that these particular sounds are a way to mimic rodents or birds. Though, more likely these vocalizations are a way to express excitement. On occasion, this sound is a sign of frustration - after all, that tiny, tasty critter is so tantalizingly close, yet just out of their reach.
Chirps, Chirrups, Trills
Used by mothers as a sort of declarative statement, these sounds are learned in kittenhood as an attention-getter - usually as a way for mom to tell her kitties to "listen up." As adults, these sounds range from quiet and bird-like, to a gentle purr/meow combination, to a squeaky scale of musical notes. Adult cats most often use these noises the same way their mothers did - to let you know that you need to pay attention to them. They are also indicative of happiness and excitement.
Unhappy Cat Noises
Although a meow is typically a happy cat noise, from time to time it can indicate a problem. Sometimes it can simply imply loneliness - I mean... have you ever tried locking your cat out of your bedroom?! - while at other times it may be a demand, often for food or attention. Kittens and younger cats are usually the ones doing all the demanding, while mature cats may meow due to anxiety. No matter the age, elongated meows are sometimes a way of expressing annoyance or concern, or as a way to tell you they disagree with your methods. Excessive meowing may suggest illness, so if your kitty is suddenly exceedingly vocal, it may be time to visit the vet.
Like meowing, purring can also double as a negative vocalization. In most cases, a gentle purr is a sign of joy or pleasure, but from time to time it may express feelings of fear or intimidation. Very occasionally, a purr might be the result of pain, as research has shown that cats emit their soft rumbling sound as a form of self-soothing and self-healing. It can be tricky to tell a happy purr from a distressed purr, so just be sure to keep an eye out for body language.
Yowling is a sort of moaning meow. It is typically long and drawn out, and can reveal a number of things. Most often it is used between cats; as a way to express distaste for other felines, as a way to show dominance, or as a sort of mating call. At other times, a yowl can indicate illness, mental decline, sadness or boredom. Though this isn't an uncommon noise, and you can usually figure out exactly what's causing the problem, if the sound becomes incessant, it is definitely time to see the vet.
Hisses, Snarls, Growls
Hisses, snarls, and growls are all obvious sounds of a pissed off cat. Hisses may be exceedingly soft or surprisingly loud and harsh, as is often the case with wild cats; however, because house cats are infinitely smaller than their wild counterparts, snarls and growls tend to have a rather high pitch, and may either begin or end with a yowl. These cat noises are often a way to show their seething kitty rage, express fear or insecurity, or tell others that this is his territory and that the interloper is infringing upon it.
Breed-Specific Cat Noises
You may think a meow is a meow, but not so! Certain breeds have specific "accents" or interesting vocal habits. For instance, Tonkinese and Oriental breeds are powerful purrers, while Singapuras are loud, frequent talkers. Maine Coon kitties are also avid orators, but their meows tend toward the musical, full of trills and chirps. Siamese cats are quite talkative, and emit sounds weirdly similar to the cry of a human baby, while Sphynx cats tend toward a raspier, more insistent tone.
Body Language Reinforces Cat Speak
Vocalizations are only one way that cats communicate. You'll have noticed that when it comes to meowing and purring, the sounds themselves may be represent either happy moods or less-than-happy-moods, so this is where it comes in handy to keep an eye on how your cat is holding himself. For instance, if your cat is tense or trying to hide away, all while purring, you might be dealing with a pained or nervous feline. If, while meowing, your cat has an arched, poofy back and a flicking or rapidly swishing tail, he's probably in a filthy mood, and you'd best keep your distance.
Cat noises are a wonderful thing. Maybe they speak solely as a matter of necessity, but no matter. There really is nothing as delightful or endearing as a kitty speaking his mind!