Can cats “talk”? Absolutely. Is cat vocalization easy to understand? Not always – but the more time you spend with cats, the more you’ll pick up the language.
Ask most non-cat owners what sound cats make and they’ll say “meow”. That’s true to a point, but it’s kind of like saying that the sound dogs make is “bow wow”. “Meow” is just one of many sounds that make up feline vocalizations.
Pitch and Length of Vocalizations
One of the most important keys to understanding cat vocalizations is evaluating pitch, duration, and volume.
Generally speaking, the lower the pitch the more the sound is meant to be aggressive or threatening (think in terms of lion impersonation) and the higher the pitch, the more likely it is that the vocalization is friendly.
Loud, prolonged vocalizations mean the cat is feeling urgent about getting her point across, and short, soft sounds generally indicate a more intimate communication.
Like people, cats vary a great deal in how “talkative” they are. Some cats always seem to have something to say, while others vocalize relatively rarely.
Most cat owners find that "conversing” with their cats – listening carefully to the cat’s sounds and answering them – is a great bonding factor that can really enhance the relationship and help both the cat and the person understand each other.
What does it mean when a Cat says...
Here are some of the most standard cat vocalizations and their meanings:
The classic all-purpose cat vocalization; can mean anything from “Hi, How are ya?” to “I want your attention” to “I’m bored”.
Interpreting a meow depends on both the situation and the sound itself – is it cheery and chipper, whiny, demanding, etc.?
Cat voices can be remarkably expressive and the inflection of the sounds they make is crucial to understanding them.
A lovely sound, sort of a cross between a purr and a meow, which is almost always friendly, confiding, and happy. Sometimes used as a greeting, but often just a contented commentary.
a short, emphatic sound, sort of an abbreviated meow, which is often kind of the cat equivalent of “hey!”, as in, “Hey! Hurry up with the food!” or “Hey! Don’t stop petting me!”
Sort of a cross between a cajole and a whine, and generally means “I want something and I want it now”. Often heard while dishing out the cat food.
Low and ominous, this is the domestic feline version of the growling tiger or lion. In a multi-cat household, this often means something along the lines of “knock it off or you’re gonna get it!”, though it can also be a hunting-related sound, in which case it means “this catnip mouse is gonna get it!”
Harsh, high-pitched, and often surprisingly loud, this is one that usually erupts during a cat conflict. Signifies aggression, alarm, and impending retribution.
A warning signal, usually to another cat, which means “You’re getting on my nerves and I’m not gonna put up with it – continue at your own peril!”
Difficult to transliterate, this is that funny semi-clucking noise that cats often make when they spot a bird, squirrel, or other potential prey in the vicinity.
A low pitched, weird, yodeling-type noise of distress that many cats make when acutely ill or about to vomit.
Cat Communications: Purring and Padding
For cat lovers, one of life’s sweetest sounds is the rumble of a purr.
The purr is one of the most interesting and enigmatic features of our feline friends – it’s observed in all species of cats, but both the specific function that purring serves and the exact physical mechanism of the purr are uncertain.
There is no “purr box” – no organ or body part unique to cats that other non-purring species don’t have – and it’s generally believed that the actual purr sound is created by rapid vibrations of the larynx.
Why do cats purr, but dogs don’t?
Exactly why cats alone developed the ability to purr is unknown.
It’s speculated that cats may have developed the purr as a means of signaling between mother and kittens, and domestic cats have been known to purr when injured or ill.
But in a healthy cat the purr signals contentment, pleasure, friendship, and love toward humans, other cats, and even other animals that are part of the cat’s “family”.
All cats purr differently, and most cats can come up with a surprisingly large variety of purrs according to the occasion.
But whether it’s soft and light or an all-out electric motor buzz, a purr of any size generally means a cat is happy and satisfied.
Padding or Kneading
Padding or kneading is a uniquely feline behavior that is often a sign of affection and trust.
Kneading usually takes place on a soft surface (like a blanket or owner’s lap) and it consists of alternately pushing each forepaw firmly down and then lifting it (like someone kneading bread).
It’s believed this action stems from kittenhood when the kneading reflex helps the kitten stimulate the mother cat’s milk production.
However it’s also true that wild cats will use a similar motion to prepare a sleeping space in the wild, and it seems the domestic cat kneading a favorite pillow or loving human lap is combining the two forms of kneading in one.
Cats often purr while kneading, and may get very engrossed in the process (to the point that they’ve very annoyed if interrupted, even by petting).
Cats may also become attached to a soft item, like a blanket, cloth, or item of clothing, and hold a corner of it in their mouth while padding.
In addition to looking endearingly goofy (especially if the cat is a big, robust adult), this behavior seems to be very enjoyable and comforting to the cat and may become a pre-sleep ritual.