Feline Vocal Language is Universal: Is it Like Music?

Oriental shorthairs in a box

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Feline vocal language is universal. In the same way that music is referred to as the Universal Language, no matter what part of the world in which we live, the familiar sounds that cats make when expressing emotions are also considered truly “universal” by feline aficionados around the world. In fact, some of their amazingly expressive vocal communications are considered “music” to their ears.

All domestic felines vocally communicate using chirps, chatters, purrs, hisses and growls. The “meow” is the most common of all their sounds.

Kittens will meow to their mothers; however older domestic felines rarely “meow” to other cats. They do meow to humans, especially to their human companions.

Since kitty guardians who are acutely “tuned” in to their cats are aware that all their meows don’t mean the same thing, just by listening to the different types of meows their cats are uttering will reveal to them if their kitty wants attention, is hungry, angry, or is just plain content and happy.

For example, take the feline “chirping” sound. Since we live in a crowded, heavily trafficked area, our cats are strictly indoor only dwellers. I love to watch them sitting by the window perch that we recently constructed for the pleasure they derive from spending time basking in the sun while watching the huge variety of birds and other wildlife outside the window. This is the best kitty TV that can entertain them for hours on end.

If I am lucky enough, I often can catch them in the act of bird and squirrel watching as they make those fascinating little sounds that resemble a cross between a meow and a bleat while they are swiftly moving the ends of their tails, and their ears pointing forward in anticipation. However, while these pleasant chirping sounds are generally expressing excitement, it might also be from frustration since they are unable to pursue this tantalizing prey.

While kittens are more communicative than older cats, our two senior kitties, Dr. Hush Puppy and Sir Hubble Pinkerton are both extremely vocal. I must admit that sometimes it’s difficult to understand exactly what they are trying to convey when they are yammering away at me; but over the years I have learned that their incessant chatter means that they are seeking my attention, inviting me to play with them, or scolding me about my tardiness when I am late serving them their dinner.

Most people make the assumption that cats purr when they are happy and content. In reality however, felines often purr for a variety of other reasons such as feeling threatened, frightened or to sooth themselves when they are in pain, or close to death.

Depending on the situation, cats hiss for a variety of reasons. However the majority of hisses are generally made in response to fear. Hisses can be targeted at other cats or animals, and sometimes can even be directed at a human. While a cat is hissing, it’s wise to give the kitty plenty of space until the cat calms down to avoid being attacked.

The ear-splitting wailing sound of a caterwaul generally means that a cat is in heat and is looking for a mate. Caterwauling can also be symptomatic of deafness, insecurity, disorientation or senility. To check out any underlying medical conditions, if your cat is frequently prone to caterwauling, a visit to the vet is always wise.

Just by paying close attention to your cat’s meows, other sounds, and by observing your kitty’s behavior and body language, these are excellent ways that kitty guardians can interpret what their kitty is trying to tell them.

How fluent are you in kitty language? Tell us what you have observed in a comment.


Photo credit: Jo Singer Sir Hubble Pinkerton and Dr. Hush Puppy

P.S. from Michael. You can see a difference between domestic and wild cats in the vocalizations of these jaguarundi kittens. The sound track was edited a bit to bring the vocalisations closer together to avoid silent gaps but it is still noisy! It reminds me of the F2 Savannah kittens playing.

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32 thoughts on “Feline Vocal Language is Universal: Is it Like Music?”

  1. I know that this is a bit postmortem, but MuckyLucky never bothered. She never sounded off. When you would say, “MuckyLucky, bebe! Do you want me to pick you up? Or, would you rather I gave you fresh water for your thirst?” She would respond [to me], bright-eyed and with a low, low gutteral sound that was so pleasant, “I would like whatever you lay on me, Mama! 😉

  2. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

    Something interesting I learned when I first started the originally Estonian owned UnitedCat.com was that cat sounds are called many different things in other languages. I liked the “ronron” sound that if I remember correctly, is made by South American kitties.
    My Pancho runs around the house meowing at the top of his voice to the world in general, from what I can tell. Cisco only meows at me, but Pancho’s meow is for general circulation.

  3. Cat language is a great language to learn but it has to be learned totally and there is more to their language than vocalizations. It is very complex.
    I have been a stay at home mom all these years and now I have a husband retired and at home. During this time, while my two legged kids grew and were in school, it gave me tons of time to observe. I have learned happy, sad, fear, and other vocalizations. We currently have a cat that gets so excited that I hear the voice of, “I’m going to up chuck.” I have also experienced finding a cat that was hit in the road and purred to me as I rushed him to the vet. He survived and lived with us for 14 years. 🙂 I love their complex language Thanks so much for this article. It is super.

    1. I agree. Cat language is really a bundle of various signals including vocalisations and it can all be learnt through observation and living closely with your cat. The closer one lives with a cat and the more one interacts with a cat the more you learn and the more one is able to communicate through an understanding of the language of the domestic cat. After a while it becomes instinctive as all learned processes do. It is not dissimilar in fact to learning a new human language. I lived in Paris, France for 2 years and worked there and had to learn French to a certain extent before I travelled to Paris and while there I spoke and studied it more and gradually it became more and more instinctive. Initially, I was living in a complete fog.

  4. She is so insistently affectionate that sometimes I wish she would leave me alone. She also has the loudest purr ever, more like an outboard motor. I remember checking-in my LH’d Cypriot cat “Natilla” at Amsterdam Airport. The loud Wak, wak sounds were coming from the carrier, so the clerk had to come over and see what I was doing with a duck in a cat carrier. I laughed at your description of Marvin and his rrraaa…aaahhh. Never had one like that, but one of these days….. who knows?

  5. Marvin was already a big tom cat when he was trapped and neutered many years ago before I knew him. That fact makes me wonder if it is the reason he is so loud and a constant talker. If he sees me coming towards him at a distance, he starts to trot towards me saying loudly “rrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh” until he reaches me and I reach down and touch him. With the trotting, his long song has a lovely staccato to each paw touching the ground. I’ve started recording his chatter on video. I’ll share it sometime.

    I consider it cat opera.

    1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

      I’d love to see Marvin’s cat opera on video.
      I wish I’d had the camera handy on video earlier today, Walter was sitting on the catnasium in our garden playing his castanets watching a huge crow on the roof. He’s often around, we call him Jim….anyway he swooped down just over Walter, shouting ‘caw caw caw you can’t catch me’ and Walt was playing his castanets double time, it was like some very weird duet lol

    2. Ruth (Monty's Mom)

      I have a song on a record (from my childhood) called “The Pussy Cat Opera” that begins: “Every night about nine o’clock out in my back yard…” It’s all about the cats caterwauling at night. “Meooow, meow, meooow, meow..” It gets stuck in your head. I suppose it would break all kinds of copyright to record it into my iPhone and then post it online. It’s from a record of nursery rhymes set to music from the early 1970’s.

  6. Not all that many people have pure white cats compared to the usual colours and consequently few people have had the opportunity to notice if a deaf cat has a louder voice. Long time owners and breeders of white Turkish Angoras and Vans are in a better position to comment, and amongst them this is widely known. One of my white cats seems to be deaf and she has a very loud voice but that doesn’t affect her ability to make a very wide range of different vocalisations.
    A tortie and white female of mine has the widest range of different sounds I have ever heard in a cat. She is also possibly the most affectionate cat I have ever had, which casts some doubt on a recent article suggesting that torties have an attitude. I have 4 torties and they are all exceptionally loving. They are all Turkish long-hairs, meaning a different ancestral line from that of western cats, so maybe that is where the difference is. They rarely meow. Their language consists of gurgles, croaks, rasps, whistles, and squeaks. One sound they often make is best described as “WAK” modulated with a gurgle. I suppose they don’t see me as human. Some people think that too. LOL. The closest to s meow i hear is from my white wandering Van kedisi ” Kars ‘. He comes from afar for a feed and emits sounds outside the kitchen something like a long drawn out sad sounding Waaaa!

    1. Oh my, she is gorgeous. Bigfoot makes that “wak” sound when he is happy. He sounds like a duck. The wak is surrounded by a gurgling purr, and sometime he shortens the wak to “ack…ack…mew” .

    2. It may be a bit of a fiddle but our love it if you could video your cats talking to you and with each other. I would upload it to the website you could do that. The cat in the photograph is stunning. You live with a lot of very handsome and beautiful cats.

      1. I’ll do my best Michael, but just now I’m snowed under with trying to find the consular representative for Costa Rica in Cyprus, after following all kinds of red herrings and phoning numbers given on numerous websites that should have been taken down years ago, turns out there is none now. Getting the cattery and house spic and span ready for a visit from one of the biggest cat associations with the purpose of promoting the genuine Turkish Angora and van. That entails preparing a load of printed documents, graphs, and diagram so as to make a good case. And who feeds and cleans the 30 cats? I do, whilst sleep walking.

        1. No problem. I wish you the best of luck with the visit from the cat association. I can well understand the amount of work that goes into caring for 30 cats. Daunting from my perspective.

  7. Both my cats have different “CAT VOICES” akin to “Human Voices”. My male tomcat “Matata” has a loud yowling call which at times wakes up my house at night and at times he has the sweetest of soft “purrs”. My female cat “Matahari” just purrs, a sweet soft tone, never ever shrill.

  8. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    Our Walter is very vocal, he’s become more so just lately and he has different sounds during the day to bedtime.
    We hope to make a short video one night of how he says goodnight to me every night from Barbara’s bed.
    Jozef isn’t very vocal at all, except when he’s confined to a cat basket for a vet’s trip, he shouts at us then lol
    Our old cat Ebony was quiet all her life until shortly before she died, her caterwauling at dawn was really very eerie, a lonely sound and we’d get up to comfort her.
    Narla a neighbours cat who visits has a funny little squeak.
    I think cats meows are a very fascinating subject.

  9. Living with deaf cats gives a person a whole new respect for that ‘meow’ as it becomes very LOUD music. Mikey literally startles me with his meow if I don’t see him before he lets it out. He obviously doesn’t hear it but the rest of us can hear him just fine…even when we are asleep. 🙂

    1. That is an interesting observation that Mikey has a very loud meow. I wonder if part of the reason is because he is deaf or whether he is naturally loud. Talking about loud sounds, my cat has the loudest sneeze I’ve ever heard. It is certainly louder than my sneeze! It is actually quite frightening 😉 but I’m used to it and he sneezes about 5 times in succession which makes it even more impressive. When my cat wants to be fed and I ignore him he does the Chinese water torture and makes a quiet sharp meow over and over again like a dripping tap until he wins and he always wins. I’m not sure I would call it music 😉 As I said is more like Chinese water torture but highly effective.

      1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

        I have noticed that the deaf people I know all talk very loud, I suppose it’s because they can’t hear themselves, maybe it’s the same with deaf cats?

        1. the same thing is on blind people. I have a friend who is totally blind and talks very loudly but she still has a cat can get on in normal situtions. She amazes me as she has a laptop tht has speaking software on it which tells her what button to press etc. Her cat is called Holly looks alot like my smokey cat.

      2. I have two white deaf cats and they both meow extremely loud. I know it’s because they cannot hear themselves.
        Sometimes I will be lost in what I am doing and got to turn around and there he or Daisy is and as soon as we make eye contact they let out this whale of a meow and I swear sometimes I literally jump. Its actually very funny because being startled is not something that one can just get use to. 🙂

  10. Totally agree with this all my kitties have different degrees of vocal, i think Rebel is more vocal than any cat ive had. He chatters, chirps and always complaining to me. Nice to see an article like this

  11. The universality of the feline language or vocalisations reminds me of the fact that there are no country boundaries either for the domestic cat. Neither are their country boundaries for the wild cat species.

    Individual domestic cats do have their own individual ways of saying things, nonetheless. Individual cats make variations on the universal sounds that cats make to create their own vocalisations.

    But as you say, the feline languages universal. They use the same language and wouldn’t it be nice if humans did the same thing? It would sure as hell help to avoid some of the conflicts that take place on the planet all the time.

    The wild cat species appear to have a wider range of vocalisations or a least there have a slightly different range of sounds but even then at a fundamental level they speak the same language.

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