Cat yowl, howl and growl

Nighttime yowl of a wandering, intact female cat
Nighttime yowl of a wandering, intact female cat. Image: MikeB
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Cat yowling – why do cats yowl and what does it mean? You will see a lot of anecdotal responses to this question but I like to try and be as scientific as possible and there ain’t much science on the feline yowl. And let’s be honest feline vocalisations do merge and therefore it is difficult to talk of them in very distinct ways. One well-known website, Catster, I think gets it entirely wrong. They say that cats yowl when they are hungry but they meow when they are hungry. And they don’t yowl to get attention as Catster states. They meow to get attention and they don’t yowl because they’re bored. They normally meow because boredom is linked to requesting attention from their owner and that is the job of the feline meow and its variations, in almost every case.

But the yowl is another word for caterwauling and caterwauling is the female call during pro-oestrus and oestrus which has the function to advertise their reproductive status and to attract tomcats. You know, the perhaps irritating sound that intact female cats make in the dead of night when they are seeking a tomcat to mate with. That’s the caterwaul and yowling pretty much means the same thing.

Although yowling can also occasionally be heard when perhaps a cat is in pain. I answered a question about why cats might yowl after eating. This rarely happens so I was stretching my thought processes a little bit to answer the question. My overriding thought is that it might occur if eating caused distress for whatever medical reason. And there are videos of cats making peculiar sounds akin to yowls.

RELATED: 7 reasons why a cat might yowl after eating

The audio file below is of a snow leopard yowling.


Howling is also quite a rare vocalisation for the domestic cat certainly relative to other vocalisations such as the purr and meow. What comes to mind with respect to howling is an elderly cat with dementia becoming confused at night when their owner is asleep. They may howl in distress. Under these circumstances it is a long-range call although the owner might be in the next room. It is a demanding call and one of confusion sometimes.

It may also be produced in rather rare and perhaps extreme circumstances but by and large cat caregivers will rarely hear a genuine howl. It may be a distress sound emitted when a cat is suddenly panicked for some reason such as confronting a dog who is in the process of attacking them.

Howling can also be used by lynx in a standoff.

Lynx howling at each other
Lynx howling at each other. Screenshot.


Finally, the growl is much more well-known. My cat growls at me if I try and take his mouse from him. I mean I don’t want to take his mouse from him but he may think that I want to do it and therefore he growls at me and slinks off with the mouse into another room. It is a message to say ‘F off’ to use rude human language. It is a sound of aggression which is also made between cats who are hostile towards each other in a sumo style pre-fight stand-off. It is combined with body postures which also signal a possible attack. It will be combined with ears that have been pinned back to protect them.

RELATED: Why do cats growl?

Lastly, a cat might growl is an activity, such as jumping causes discomfort of pain due to an injury or joint problem due to old age.


The growl is essentially a close-range call with the recipient being a matter of feet or perhaps a couple of yards away. The yowl is a long-range call for a mate and the howl is in between the two and is not so much directed at somebody but as a general exclamation to the world to say that I’m in trouble or an immediate instinctive response in the form of a vocalisation to a deeply troubling situation.


I feel I have to mention the fact that in the excellent books that I have about all cats, both wild and domestic, the expert writers do not mention the howl. I find that interesting. But it is certainly indicative of the fact that the genuine version is rarely emitted by the domestic cat. And you will find that, as mentioned in the first paragraph, that domestic cats sounds are on a sliding scale – a spectrum – and it is wrong, sometimes, I feel, to artificially compartmentalise them into distinct sounds.

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