Hello, and happy Sunday! For our new readers, welcome to the Sunday Read - a weekly blog delving deep into the science of cats. For our regulars, it's so lovely to see you here.
We've made it to part 3 of our What is my cat thinking? series, and this week it's all about vocalisations. The final piece in our cat-mindreading jigsaw.
If you haven't read the other parts in this series it's well worth checking them out.
You don't have to read them in order, but each one contains essential clues that you'll need to work out what's going on in your cat's mind. By combining the knowledge in all three, you can gain a really deep insight into what your cat is thinking and feeling.
Since writing and researching these three posts, I've found I can tell much better which out of my two cats is starting fights vs. who is just defending themselves... who is hungry and who wants to play, and whether they are too scared to go outside, or just too lazy!! I wish I'd known this stuff years ago!
And now, without further ado, let's get on with finding out what all those kitty noises REALLY mean!
Individual cats vary in how vocal they are, but ALL cats purr. They start doing it almost from birth as kittens, and it's thought that they use their purrs to request milk from their mothers.
In grown up cats, we tend to think of purring as an expression of pleasure, but it turns out that it is actually a much more complex signal than that. For instance, cats have been found to produce a special type of purr that has some 'meow' sounds mixed in, that they use to try and get food (it's different enough that we humans can tell the difference between the two), and cats have also been known to purr when in severe pain.
Overall, the picture that emerges is that purring is not so much 'pleasure' as a care-soliciting signal - your cat's way of saying 'love me / pet me / feed me / take care of me / soothe me', depending on the situation it finds itself in (Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2013).
After purring, meows are the second most common noise that our cats like to make.
Interestingly, adult cats rarely if ever meow to each other. Instead, a cat's meow is entirely for our benefit.
"Cats needs to meow because we humans are generally so unobservant...we do, however, reliably look up when we hear something unusual, and cats quickly learn that a meow will grab our attention"
It's thought that meow is an elongated and modified version of 'mew' - a kitten's distress call that they use to get the attention of their mothers. (Tabor, R. 2003)
Once cats realise that they can use a meow to get our attention, they then work on fine-tuning their meows to try and tell us what they are after. Over months and years of trial and error, every cat settles into a language and pattern of meows that is unique to them and their owner.
Typically, cats will have subtly different meows for 'I'm hungry', 'You're annoying me', 'Love me', 'There's something in my way' and 'I'm scared' - that you and you alone will be able to decipher (Overall, K. 2013).
I remember the first time I saw Lyra chattering at a bird - I thought she had been possessed! I always assumed that this was her way of 'talking' to the birds... like 'Hey bird, you may be laughing now, but I'm going to catch you....one day!'
Instead it turns out that chatter is a sound of excited frustration... and that cats also make this sound in other scenarios where they might get frustrated, for instance if they almost catch a fly and it escapes from their grasp (Overall, K. 2013).
Mother cats trill to their kittens to tell them come near. When your cat trills in greeting to you, scientists believe that it is trying to convey the same meaning - 'come close to me'! (Tabor, R. 2003)
GROWL / SNARL / HISS / SHRIEK
"Sounds made with the mouth held open in a relatively constant position are usually related to aggression. These include the growl, yowl, snarl, hiss, spit and shriek."
This set of sounds, which are all associated with a similar open-mouthed position, are all warning sounds - designed to warn the other party about the consequences if they continue with their actions (Overall, K. 2013).
They can be offensive or defensive, and it's thought that the pitch and volume of these sounds may convey honest information about the cat's size and strength - in order to scare their opponent into backing down (Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2013).
At the mild end of the spectrum is the low growl. After the growl comes the hiss - which some have suggested is designed to mimic the sound of a snake. It is, after all, a sound that a cat's wild predators would have been very attuned to (Morris, D. 2009). If the other cat or person doesn't get the message after a hiss, they will usually escalate to a loud shriek - the ultimate in cat language for "leave me alone!"
That concludes our guide to cat vocalisations. Have we missed any? Does your cat make a sound that's not on this list? Let me know - on Instagram (@supakitstore) or in the comments below, and I will do my darnedest to find out what it means!
I hope this series has helped you find out what your cats are thinking and feeling, and what they've been trying to say to you all along! If you have any suggestions for future Sunday Reads, or cat questions you'd love to know the scientific answers to, just let me know!