Understanding cat language

Cats possess a wide range of vocalisations, from gentle purrs, meows and chirrups to more urgent shrieks and yowls. Understanding your cat’s language better and decoding some of the sounds they are making will help you learn more about how they’re feeling.

Bear in mind, though, that some cats are naturally a lot more vocal than others – and noisiness can also vary by breed. Cat breeds that are reputed to be particularly ‘chatty’ include Orientals, Asians, Siamese, Tonkinese and Burmese. Less talkative felines include the Persian, Russian Blue, Norwegian Forest and Maine Coon.

What do cat meows mean?

Cats meow to get their human’s attention – they don’t actually talk to each other in this way. Instead, they communicate with each other using scent, facial expression and body language. We build up a relationship with our feline friends over time, during which they often develop specific meows, depending on how we respond to them.

So if your cat meows in a certain way at the door and you then let them out, they’ll know to use the same type of meow to be let out in the future. Generally, when your cat meows, they want something: attention, food or access to the outdoors.

Why do cats purr?

The gentle rumble of your cat’s purr often means they are feeling contented – especially when stretched out in the sun or curled up on your knee. Kittens and their mothers purr to reassure each other of their presence.

However, it’s a bit of a myth that purring always means that cats are happy and relaxed. It can also be a sign that your cat is in pain or agitated over something – similar to how we might nervously hum or whistle. Check your cat’s body language – if their ears are back and their body is tense, the purr might imply they are worried or uncomfortable.

Why do cats growl and hiss?

Growling is a defensive sound, showing that your cat feels threatened. Sometimes accompanied by snarls and yowls, it can signify fear, anger or a territorial menace – your cat uses these vocalisations to make themselves sound more intimidating. You’ll also notice a change in their body language, such as an arched back, flattened ears and puffed-up fur.

If your cat makes these sounds, stay back. If you’re able to, remove the source of stress that could be causing them to react.

As with growling, when your cat hisses or spits, they mean business, so give them space. This defensive behaviour is a warning that they are likely to scratch, bite or fight.

What does yowling mean in cats?

A long, drawn-out yowl is usually a sound made from one cat to another, and can indicate worry, discomfort and territorial or mating issues. Your cat might also yowl when they’re not feeling well or if there’s something in their environment that’s upsetting, such as a new cat. Newly moved cats may also make yowling sounds – and some simply yowl when they’re bored.

If your cat starts yowling, check to see whether another cat or something else might be invading their territory. Also ensure they have toys and ample attention – they might just want to play with you. If you’re concerned that it’s out of character, get them checked over by your vet.

Feline shrieking or screaming

If you hear shrieks and screams from cats outside, they are likely to be fighting or mating. If you’re concerned about your pet, or if they’re getting into fights, consider keeping them inside at night-time.

Chirruping in kittens and cats

Kittens learn trills and chirruping noises from their mothers, and will sometimes use them to greet humans when they’re older. Chirrups tend to be used to get your attention, and signify excitement or happiness.

Have you heard your cat chattering?

Does your cat ever make chattering sounds through their teeth? Some cats will do this when they spot potential prey outside, such as birds or squirrels. It’s thought to convey both their excitement and their stress at not being able to get to the prize.

Whatever your cat’s typical vocal habits, if a previously ‘chatty’ feline suddenly becomes quiet – especially if they also seem lethargic or depressed – then a visit to the vet might be in order.