We all know a purr from a hiss, but are you sure about the more subtle sounds? We have the inside scoop on cat communication that can be difficult to decipher, and why older cats are more likely to make a noise at night.
Cats communicate using a wide variety of sounds, which fall into three basic groups: when the mouth opens and closes (meows); with mouth closed (‘murmuring’ sounds, such as purrs); and mouth fixed open (‘aggressive’ sounds such as hissing or spitting). Vocalisation is generally used for defence, when mating and in mother-kitten or cat-human interactions (like soliciting food or attention).
Feline behaviour specialist Dr Sarah Ellis says that cats’ extensive range of meows is sometimes tricky to decode, as different meows carry specific messages in different contexts, such as wanting food or being stuck on the wrong side of a door. A few cats never vocalise, but, says Sarah: ‘Some breeds, like the Orientals, Asian, Siamese, Tonkinese and Burmese are highly vocal.’
Purring, a sound exclusive to cats, is easiest to understand. There’s no question that, when they’re curled up on your knee, their rhythmic rumbles are indicating they’re content. But researchers at Sussex University found cats also use a special ‘solicitation’ purr. This is characterised by an unusual, higher-frequency sound similar to that of a baby’s cry. It triggers a sense of urgency by tapping into our instinct to nurture offspring, and is generally used to coax owners into giving them what they want – usually food! Cats may also purr for reassurance when in pain or frightened.
When it comes to understanding cats, it’s important to acknowledge that snarls and growls (the only sounds dogs and cats have in common) are aggressive signals aimed at increasing the distance between the cat and the source of their fear. They hiss and spit – usually at close range – as a last resort, when really terrified. If your cat is in that state, Sarah advises against touching her: ‘Giving the cat time and space is the best thing to do.’
Some owners find their cats become noisier as they get older, which is especially disruptive at night. Samantha Taylor, a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons specialist in Feline Medicine, emphasises that, in an elderly cat, excessive nocturnal vocalisation is a distress signal: ‘It is vital to seek veterinary attention so that serious conditions, such as hypertension, hyperthyroidism, osteoarthritis and cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), may be ruled out or treated.’ Identifying any underlying cause can do more than just give you back a good night’s sleep – it can add happy years onto your cat’s life.
Adapting the environment
A vet might prescribe medications that may help stop or decrease the yowling, and environmental modifications can also make a big difference. Samantha recommends: ‘Make sure that everything your cat needs is easily accessible, but ask your vet before taking specific action, such as installing a nightlight. Some cats wouldn’t like that, as it would be a change and consistency is very important to them.’
Samantha points out that, as their hearing declines, cats may become a little noisier, but it’s hard to draw any conclusions about whether this noisiness is a sign of distress. While some cats in pain may vocalise, ‘It’s uncommon, and more often they become withdrawn and quiet,’ she says. ‘For this reason, never assume that any changes you see in your older cat, including vocalisation, are simply due to old age. Always ask your vet if your cat’s behaviour – vocal or otherwise – changes unexpectedly.’