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 tell you what it really means.
Cats communicate using a wide variety of sounds, from purrs and meows to screams, shrieks, wails and yowls. These 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 admits that cats’ extensive range of meows is sometimes tricky to decode. Kittens meow to let their mother know they’re cold or hungry, but adult cats just meow at people – and different meows carry specific messages according to the context, such as wanting food or being stuck on the wrong side of a door.
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 that they’re perfectly 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 when in pain or very frightened. One theory behind this is that purring is usually such a positive signal that cats gain reassurance from hearing their own purring sounds, and purr when in distress to calm themselves.
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: ‘Even if you’re not the reason why your cat is unhappy, it could redirect its aggression towards you if you’re nearby. Remove any triggers that may be causing the fear – for example, if there’s a dog in the room. Owners might be keen to comfort the cat physically or verbally, but that’s a human, social behaviour and won’t necessarily help. Giving the cat time and space is the best thing to do. If the behaviour seems very unusual and prolonged, then consult a vet.’
It appears certain breeds like to express themselves vocally more than others. Sarah says, ‘We’ve noticed that some breeds, like the Orientals, Asian, Siamese, Tonkinese and Burmese, are highly vocal.’ Some cats never vocalise, but if a previously ‘chatty’ cat suddenly becomes quiet, especially if they also seem lethargic or depressed, then a visit to the vet might be in order.