8 facts about the cat yowl

Cats in pre-fight stand-off yowling
Cats in pre-fight stand-off yowling. Image: Video screenshot. You can hear the sound they make in an audio file below.
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The first task is to agree on the feline sound that we call the yowl. This is a domestic cat sound. There may be some disagreement or confusion over what it is. There is of course the issue of semantics meaning what the words mean and in the words that describe the sounds made by cats are onomatopoeic meaning that they themselves are said in a way which reflects the feline sound. For instance, there is quite a fine difference between the “howl” and the “yowl”. There is one letter difference between the words and quite a fine difference in the sound. And there is some fluidity in how people categorised feline vocalisations. It is noteworthy to see that a well-known author about feline behaviour, Linda P Case does not mention the yowl in her book The Cat, Its Behaviour, Nutrition and Health.

And the cat yowl can merge with other sounds so it might not always be distinct. Click on the play button to hear what I believe is one version of the cat yowl. However, there are variations on it which I cover below.

Here are 8 facts about the domestic cat yowl:

1. The purpose of the yowl is to communicate information to the recipient.

2. The nature of the sound varies and depends on the circumstance and the individual cat making the sound.

3. A cat will yowl to tell another cat that this is their home range and they are to vacate it (piss off 😎). We hear this when two cats are in a standoff as a preliminary to a fight. This yowl may be accompanied by snarls, spitting and low-pitched growls. The yowl is a low-pitched sound indicating a large voice box which means the cat is larger and therefore more dangerous. That’s the message. Here is the vocalisation:

4. And here is the yowl of a female cat in heat looking for a mate. She is courting a male cat waiting to be approached for mating. It is a call to say that she is receptive to mate. The tomcat is switched on to this sound and strains his senses to pick up the yowl and the odour of the female that is in season.

5. You might hear an elderly cat yowling at night because of confusion and because she wants to be with her human caregiver. She might be suffering from early-stage dementia hence the confusion.

6. Some experts say that cats yowl to (1) get attention or (2) because they are hungry or (3) bored. In general, I disagree with these suggestions although it may occur from time to time. Cats normally meow to get attention and when they are hungry. Although there can be a merging as I have said between the meow and the yowl.

7. Another possibility is that a cat yowls when they are in pain. Although I have not heard this.

8. A cat might yowl when distressed such as when in a strange place and wanting to return to his home range (the home in which he lives).

Note: there will be other occasions when an individual cat employs the yowl on a one-off basis.

For the sake of completeness, the other major vocalisations of the adult domestic cat are as follows:

Purring falls on the what the experts describe as “murmur patterns“. The same also applies to the trill or chirrup. The chirrup or trill is classified as a greeting murmur and directed at human caretakers or familiar cats during an amicable social encounter when making contact with example. My cat trills when he comes up to me while I am doing Pilates on the floor because he loves it when I am at his level.

Vowel sounds include the meow and the mating call. The latter refers to caterwauling which I have placed under the same category as the yowl. You see once again that there is some fluidity in how you categorise sounds. As you properly know, the meow is nearly always directed at the human caretaker and as mentioned the meow is extremely variable depending upon the social encounter in the circumstances.

The growl, hiss, and male mating call are said to fall under the “strained intensity” category of sounds which are emitted with the mouth held open while the sound is produced which occurs normally during times of intense emotional stress.

Below are some more pages on cat sounds.

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