Although caterwauling is commonly associated with unsterilised female cats on heat calling for a mate at night, this loud feline vocalisation can also be used in different contexts with the general message: “I am angry. Clear off, or I will attack you”.
Perhaps, slightly confusingly, caterwauling is for some people uniquely associated with females on heat but this is a mistake it seems to me because the word describes a particular feline sound, a loud, yowling sound which is used in different situations by both male and female cats.
Apparently, there was a time – and it might still be the case – that the Oxford English Dictionary defined caterwauling as “to make the noise proper to cats at rutting time.” Although that appears to be an old-fashioned definition.
But the sound can be heard at times when two cats are fighting and when their behaviour has nothing to do with sex. In fact, a couple of spayed females can caterwaul as loudly as “rutting” tomcats. Note: “rutting” normally applies to deer but it means an “annual period of sexual activity”.
The reason why caterwauling is linked to “rutting” is because that is when it is used most commonly. The sound is very loud because the female is calling from a long range to bring males to her. And in bringing tomcats close to her they are likely to be hostile towards each other and they, too, will start yowling loudly making caterwaul sounds.
The sounds that the males make are designed to tell the other to clear off or they will be attacked in competing for the female. The sound can vary in intensity and tone as the mood of the cat and their hostility varies.
It would seem that the word “caterwauling” is quite elastic in its meaning and it can be described as yowling, wailing, snarling and growling.
The point worth noting is that domestic and unowned cats have a wide range of vocalisations because their basic vocalisations are very variable and individualistic. A single type of call can have a high degree of variation.
For example, looking at the meow to illustrate this, you will find Siamese cats honking and a little female tabby meowing like a baby. They are all meowing but just with great variation.
My feeling is that caterwauling is an umbrella term which means yowling loudly either as a long-range call and/or as an emphasised call at close range. It is often a belligerent sound and its usage goes beyond the female sexual call. For instance, you will hear cats at very close range making a strange ‘ouhwah’ type sound like sumo wrestlers in a face off. This could be described as caterwauling and it certainly means ‘clear off’. Here is a video of this version of caterwauling:
I welcome the input in comments of visitors.
Origin of the word ‘caterwaul’
It is both a noun and verb. “She is caterwauling” (a verb). “The caterwaul is a loud often aggressive feline sound” (noun). Cats are the animal best known to caterwaul, and the word is believed to come from the German katerwaulen, “cry like a cat,” or possibly the Middle Dutch cater, “tomcat,” and Middle English waul, “yowl.” (source: vocabulary.com).
Some more on cat sounds
Purring is caused by a simple airflow over connective tissue masses embedded in the vocal fold of the larynx
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