Do You Speak Cat?
Do you speak cat? By this I mean do you not only understand what your cat is trying to tell you when he/she meows, do you answer your cat in his/her native tongue. In other words, how many of you will admit to meowing at your cat?
I came up with this article a few days ago as I watched my daughter Laura in action. Here’s a sample of what I heard. We’ll start it off with a cat meow coming from her bedroom.
Elisa: Did someone meow?
Laura: Yea, that was Jasper.
Elisa: What does he want?
Laura: I put him in my bedroom before you got here so we could get the groceries in without anyone running out. Jasper wants out now.
This may sound like a normal conversation concerning a cat in the bedroom asking to be allowed back in the living room area. As it turns out, Jasper wasn’t alone in the bedroom. Out of the potential escape artists (Gizzy is the WORST at wanting to experience the outside world), Laura not only knew who was meowing, but what that particular cat wanted.
I’m going to take this topic a bit farther at the risk of being thought completely insane. Not only does Laura know which cat is meowing and what it’s asking for, she answers by meowing back mimicking the cat speaking to her. What’s worse (or better?) is I now find myself doing the same.
Each cat has a different pitched meow. The closest comparison I can make is how we each have a different voice. Our friends who are around us know us by voice alone. Laura takes that same principal and uses it on our cats. They appear to understand her as she meows back at them.
I often find myself meowing at the cats. They all appear to enjoy this individualized attention.
Sealy and Cassie, who are both black cats, have high pitched meows. They say Me-oh. Garfield, our gold tabby who hopefully is now in his forever home, sounded more like a goat or a lamb than a cat. He would say MA-aaaaa. His meow was different than any cat I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He would come running anytime he was spoken to using his particular pitch meow.
Why do cats have different meows? Does it REALLY matter? Do any of you meow at your cats? Until Laura made this a daily event, I used to talk to the cats in my high-pitched baby voice. Very much like the voice I used on infants and young children when I was a studio photographer. People who have heard my voice on my YouTube videos tell me their cats come running to the computer when they hear me.
I don’t know whether to feel strange or flattered on that subject. It’s much more comfortable to meow at the cats. Um…for the cats. TO the cats? Perhaps not to any humans who may overhear me, but to the cats themselves. I often wonder whether they’re thinking “oh good, mama understands what I’m saying to her. Not only that, I can understand HER!”
It’s good to learn the different meows your cat uses to speak to you. Should your cat become ill, it’s likely you’ll notice a change in pitch to alert you something is wrong.
During my research for this article I learned cats do NOT meow to each other. Cats communicate by movements, noises and chemical signals. So I’m not sure how to explain why a few of my cats meow when looking for their cat friends who just happen to be hiding out in my bedroom. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does make me feel loved to think the cats are “talking” only to the humans in the house.
Readers, please enlighten me and admit you meow to your cats? We can’t be the only cat lovers out there who do this.
I have two questions for you today. Obviously, the first is do you meow at your cats? The other is a bit more serious. Have you ever known your cat was ill by the tone of your cats meow? I’m just curious. Possibly a bit insane……I just HAD to ask.
We have meowed at our cats. Once our current one looked at whichever of us did it as though to say, “Watch your language. Do you KNOW what you just said?”
A particular tone and a desperate tone indicates a problem more than a specific meow. We felt terrible that we did not understand it when our dear indoor cat was asking for help. We figured it out in time — barely — and got him medical help but basically a meow or cry or noise always means something if only “note that I am in your path way and I know you can’t see me since I am a black cat.”
The great thing about one’s cat reaching six years old to me is we understand each other’s language better.
Last weekend we were outside chatting with our across-the-street neighbors. I had left Oscar’s favorite window open. When we were about 20 minutes later than he expected we heard a familiar voice.
I talk to my cats a lot. I use the trill, and I also use a ‘crying’ distress call to get them to come inside at night, followed by purr-and-trill when they appear.
I find I have much more success communicating with my cats using body language, though. Since we’re both predatory mammals, we have a lot of body language in common. Mirroring (copying/repeating back body language) works really well on humans, and it also works really well on dogs and cats.
For example, predatory behaviours are hostile acts, so staring or making stabby hand/paw gestures is rude; whereas a yawn-and-stretch with added slow, sleepy eyeblink is a universal sign of being relaxed and non-threatening. So blinking and yawning at my cats relaxes them when they see me do it, which is especially useful as I can do it from yards away.
Rolling over onto your back and showing your stomach is a universal sign of non-aggression and trust, as is raising your chin to show your throat (which is also a sign of confidence used by superior animals). Looking down or to the side, avoiding eye-contact, and lip-licking are nervous, appeasing signs, as is a cringing, head-down and slow-moving body posture.
There are some differences, though: cats keep their eyes open when they nose-kiss and breathe breaths, and they show affection by rubbing up side to side, tail over back, instead of embracing front-to-front as humans usually do. And humans don’t generally knead, but my cats love it when I make kneading gestures at them.
I also noticed that open-mouthed, near-silent chittering jaw movement they make when they spot a bird or a spider they want to hunt; I use it back at them when I spot a spider I want them to kill, and it works really well. And there’s nothing like putting on a pair of quiet shoes and letting your cats take you for a walk at night for seeing how and why cat body language works the way it does: shouting would ruin your hunt, so why make noise when you can say it all with ears and tail postures?
Neat comment. Thanks for commenting. You really do communicate nicely with your cat. It is interesting you should mention the raising the chin signal. I use that as part of conversation. My cats taught me the body language 🙂 I didn’t really know what it meant but it does help with the conversation. Body language and routines count for a lot of communication I find.
Dan, your comments reminded me of my late grandfather who used to love to quack at the ducks on Lake Delton. Sometimes they would quack back at him. It’s kind of funny though, because only the female ducks have that loud quack he was imitating. The ducks must have thought he was a very large and strange looking female duck.
I have been imitating cats for as long as I can remember. This led to an interesting discovery. I hadn’t seen my mom’s cat for a few weeks I naturally emitted the higher pitched trill sound I picked up at home. Fluffy, who was attacked by a pet raccoon when she was a very young kitten, was very stand offish. She hated everyone except my mom. When I emitted this sound she ran up to me and nuzzled my leg! I just thought she missed me or something. But years later and after doing this with many cats, I learned that the sound I made was the sound a mother said to her young as she returns to her nest. It is believed it is a mother’s greeting and it’s usually responded by the same exact trill by each kitten followed by a nose kiss. Very interesting stuff. I also can bark like a big dog. I used to amuse my friends by getting all the dogs on the block to bark at me.
The point I think I’m gathering from this, is those of us who do mimic our cats meows, hisses, etc. are in fact speaking to our kitties. The thing is what are we telling them? With my Maine Coon Nicky (I was really his I think) I learned a ton of different cat sounds. Trills, growls, mewls, meows and the very rare hiss. He was just to big to be picked on.I never hissed at a cat, but I have growled at a dog, who was not amused in the least. I will have to try that. Great comments!
You must forgive my ramblings. I am disabled. I take my pain medication, get on the webs and ramble… It’s my hobby.
Dan you do remind me of my late mother lol lol as we used to say we were sure she was half cat and feral at that and she was as much of a comedian as cats are, in that she’d even bite us sometimes lol
She was a very intelligent lady and quite sane, she just loved cats so much I think she’d rather have been one
I imagine if there is a Heaven she is there surrounded by cats, her own and all others who had no one to love them in this life too.
Michael your last few words say it all:
‘Maybe humankind would do better being quieter and doing more’
There is nothing to add.
Hi Ruth, that idea come to me while writing the comment and I thought of politicians! 🙂
What a fun topic! Yes, I meow back to my cat. She always wants the last word, however. And I do recommend hissing as an interruption for inappropriate behavior but this typically works best with kittens (not adult cats). The adults often look at hissy humans like, “What? Who are YOU trying to fool?”
Cats do have different dialects, I believe, based on breed, location, and environmental influences (other cats). There’s a reason they call it “copy cat” behavior, because many felines do tend to mimic each other–or humans. That’s the common explanation of cat meowing, by the way, in that it appears to be an attempt of the cat to vocalize/communicate with verbal humans who may ignore their non-verbal communication tools.
Great comment. Thanks for adding to the debate. It makes me wonder whether a person can learn to meow exactly like a cat and have a dialogue. Would it be beneficial to the relationship? I also wonder if a cat prefers that we meow or is content with any suitable sound and signal. Cats and dogs get on very well when socialized and a dog does not learn to meow or a cat bark. They communicate silently by and large. You can say almost all you need by actions. Maybe humankind would do better being quieter and doing more.
I don’t talk to cats in meows because I haven’t learned their language because that’s impossible.
It would be like talking French to a French person without even having any French language lessons, just by trying to copy their sounds isn’t enough and the person would know I was just mimicking them.
With cats we can never learn their language, we don’t have phrase books tranlating their meows into sounds for us to make, we can only ever mimic them and they know it. But then again we don’t need to speak their language just as they don’t need to speak ours, we understand each other perfectly without.
Meowing and hissing and growling are sounds cats make, not people, we may think we are good at it but I think it’s likely cats simply humour the people they love who do it.
The way to talk to a cat is always gently and calmly and to a frightened cat very softly, remembering always how much more sensitive their ears are than ours and that loud noises or harsh or shrill voices can upset them greatly.
I agree, Ruth, except that making a sound like a hiss or a nice gentle sound can elicit a positive response.
I think it is about sound and a gentle voice is the best sort of sound for a cat.
I’ve hissed at a cat who threatens my cats. I currently have two young kittens, one is 3 months and the other 4. They are still learning what’s what in my flat and I find making the hiss sound is most effective to stop them from doing something I dont want them to do. I can ask them all I want in English without results necessarily, loud even, but as soon as I make loud airy sound (not really a throat hiss, like a cat’s, more using my tongue against my teeth and alot of air pressure such that it is loud, sharp and airy sounding without becoming a whistle) – they stop what they are doing. They totally understand now that when I make this sound it’s my limit and they stop. I also make a clicking sound when I want them to come. These two sounds are as good communication between me and my cats, as words would be with a person. Like this I can keep them out of harms way, and I can draw them towards something which I think will interest them. And I talk to them in English, but its not really English anymore, its my cat language version of English. Often Lilly will say something, she is a big talker, and I will reply in English based on what I thought she was saying to me. I will reply. She will jump up on the counter and head for the sink with a little chirp. I will say ‘you want water, sure you can have water, love, you can have anything you want’ – and I will turn on the the tap to a drip, or more if thats what she wants. Another person would understand me maybe, but the way I say the words are completely distorted by virtue of the fact that I am totally love with her, and I tell her this constantly. As would two humans in love talk more sweetly, its just alot more extreme and less intelligible to another human as word form. And sometimes I use just sounds, not words, often in reply to one of my cats sounds, especially when I am not sure what they want. If I am not sure what it is, I repeat the sound as best I can with an upward, question-like tone to it. I am trying to ask them what it is they are saying. They seem to understand I dont understand and usually repeat, or sniff the ground to express hunger for example and so our communications go, slowly growing and becoming more eloquent each day as we learn to understand each other with our needs and wants.
Yes, the way you talk to cats is a model of cat talking. Cats do respond to the sound we make. The actual language is pretty irrelevant. And the hiss is a sound that is air passing through a small gap and this sort of sound does get a cat’s attention. It makes them wary. Whereas soft melodic sounds reassure a cat. Sounds + actions are also a very efficient way to communicate.
Maybe it is time to compile a catalog of human produced sounds suitable for cat communication. There is a little project for someone…
It is interesting to speculate whether in a household where there is cat, a wife hisses at her husband to show her displeasure! It might happen from time to time.
I admit to hissing but its been awhile. As you said, it was at an outdoor cat coming up to bother my cat.
My husband growled at Monty once when Monty was trying to steal his food. Now Monty leaves my husband alone when he eats. I tried that but I can’t do a convincing growl. Even Monty was laughing, I’m sure, and I still have to fight off a small black cat who’s trying to steal my food.
Lately when I call Monty in from outside I’ll say to him, “Treat?” and he answers back with a meow. He used to just run to the door. He’s done this twice now. I do meow back at him. I even make up meow songs, because sometimes it seems like he’s singing me a song as he’s meowing. He meows to be fed or to be let outside. Otherwise, he’s not much of a meower, which is why I was surprised when he answered my question of “Do you want a treat?” with an actual meow. The more we talk to cats the more vocal they get, or so I’ve heard. So Monty will probably become even more chatty with me, since I talk to him all day long.
I’ll be the first in on this discussion! Brave I think… 🙂
I don’t normally meow in conversation with my cat, Charlie. He meows and I make a human sound but it is not English or any known language.
We do have real conversations though. I understand him and vice versa.
I do occasionally meow in conversation with him. The big question, next, is does anyone hiss at a cat? I am thinking about a stray cat that is harassing your cat or hissing at you.
I can hiss with the best of them and my hiss usually works. It is about being the dominant cat….meow..hiss…gurgle…purr.