The way a domestic cat signals that they are frightened

A cat might be anxious because of something that is happening around them or not far from them. They might be slightly afraid and the normal reaction will be to run away silently and hide. If they are walking at the time, they will lower their body to tense the muscles of their legs in readiness to spring up and run. But this is not fear. It is anxiety about what might happen.

Yowl of fear and threat
Yowl of fear and threat

A domestic cat might become genuinely frightened because of the animal including the human-animal that is in his presence often immediately in front of him. It might be a predator and sometimes a domestic cat views humans as predators. Humans are in fact the world’s greatest predator if we want to be totally honest with ourselves.

And if that dangerous ‘hostile’ corners them they will vocalise their fear. But it’ll a ‘qualified’ vocalisation by which I mean it is intended to state, “I fear you, but don’t push me too far because if you do, I will attack you and defend myself.” It is both a signal of fear and also of an impending attack.



This vocalisation is a throaty, yowling noise. It will vary between individual cats as all feline vocalisations do. And their ears will point backwards and flatten on their head to protect their ear flaps. These actions indicate that the cat is fearful but ready if needs to be to defend themselves.

Larry and Palmerston
Larry and Palmerston yowling standoff. Larry is still at No. 10 Downing Street while Palmerston was the Foreign Office’s resident cat and is now retired because he was stressed (by Larry perhaps!). Image in public domain.

For a domestic cat, fear does not equate to being paralysed into inaction. This can happen to people but push a domestic cat into a corner, at a certain point in time they will attack fearlessly with great aggression.

But before that final action they will deliver the usual snake sounds which are the spit and hiss. This is the final attempt to deter the aggressor on the understanding that most mammals appreciate that a snake is a dangerous creature. It is something that they have learned throughout evolution and therefore the signal transmitted with these two snake sounds is, “I am dangerous and therefore you should go and don’t threaten me anymore”.



Should that signal fail to elicit the required response from the aggressor then the attack begins. So, as you can see it is a staged buildup to the final action of physical attack with various vocalisations and behavioural postures i.e. body language.

The cats in the audio below are fighting.



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3 sounds that a domestic cat might make when cornered and frightened

Normally domestic and unowned cats have a tendency to retreat and hide when confronted with something or someone that frightens them. They do this silently as making a sound during this action would be pointless. But if they are cornered and can’t run off, they will be forced to defend themselves and part of that process is vocalising hostility in an attempt to scare of the perceived ‘hostile’.

Sphynx cat hissing
Sphynx cat hissing. Photo in public domain.

Their initial sound will be one that transmits the message, “I fear you but don’t push me too far or I will turn on you”. The sound is a rather strange throaty, yowl. It might be described as a caterwaul as this is a description used flexibly. The video below is an example:

(Please note that I can’t ensure that the video will remain in place and work for the lifetime of this website as I do not own the video.)

The cat is frightened but still able to be aggressive. If the sound does not produce the required response in the ‘hostile’ he or she will lash out. This will be combined with the hiss and spit display sounds.

These are close range sounds which deliberately and instinctively mimic the sound of the snake. It seems that the evolution of the domestic cat’s wild ancestor (North African wildcat) included the development of these snake sounds because over eons they learned that they helped in survival as many mammals have an inborn fear of poisonous snakes and the hiss and spit are closely associated with snakes.

Cat hissing at another cat
Cat hissing at another cat. Picture in the public domain.

The cornered cat temporarily pretends to be a venomous snake in the hope that the aggressor will clear off.

My cat has done this to me when he brought in a mouse. It was his kill and he was insistent on keeping it. I wanted to save the mouse. He refused to cooperate and hissed and growled. There was no spit but the classic hissing sound was there. And it did not matter to him that I was his provider and caretaker as it was entirely instinctive.

Below are two posts when cats made snake sounds under unusual (to the human) circumstances.

My boy cat just got neutered, and his loving sister is hissing at him. What’s going on?

Just moved house, cats are hissing at each other!

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Caterwauling in domestic, stray and feral cats

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”.

Caterwauling illustration by MikeB
Caterwauling illustration by MikeB.

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:

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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

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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.

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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Cat yowl, howl and growl

Nighttime yowl of a wandering, intact female cat
Nighttime yowl of a wandering, intact female cat. Image: MikeB

Yowling

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

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.

Growl

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.

Distance

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.

Science

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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Why is my cat anxious at night?

Firstly, you got to be sure that your cat is anxious. You might be mistaken. But anxious cats tend to vocalise their anxiety through yowling at night or meowing. And they might find it difficult to settle down and therefore restlessness is a reasonable symptom of anxiety. Or a cat might hide to feel safe.

However, my gut feeling that if your cat is yowling at night due to separation anxiety and restless the most likely reason as far as I am concerned is that he or she is possibly suffering from early-stage dementia or what is also called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).

Symptom checker for cat dementia
Symptom checker for cat dementia. Photo: vets4pets.com.

RELATED: Dementia symptom checker for domestic cats

THERE ARE SOME MORE ARTICLES ON DEMENTIA IN CATS AT THE BASE OF THE PAGE INCLUDING A POSSIBLE TREATMENT.

There may be confounding factors. But if a cat is alone as they will normally be when their owner is asleep at night, and if they suffer from cognitive dysfunction, they may become confused and upset. They might feel that they need their owner around them to reassure them. They seek attention. It depends upon the relationship of course but in a good, close relationship this may happen.

Whereas in the past they were able to deal with the hours while their owner slept and they were left alone, with their early-stage dementia they might forget the routines that have been built up before and therefore feel that their owner has suddenly abandoned them. Confusion is bound to cause anxiety.

There is an interesting issue here in any case with indoor/outdoor cats. They will likely go outside during the night while their owner sleeps. Suddenly the cat is left alone to their own devices. They have no access to their owner for several hours. This might cause a little bit of uncertainty in a cat even if they are cognitively able. And it is also why domestic cats wake up their owner at four in the morning. They want them around. They want their owner to participate and interact with them. I wonder sometimes if cats understand that we are asleep.

When you add that inherent minor dysfunctionality in the cat-human relationship because cats are crepuscular and humans are not, to a cat in cognitive decline you’re going to get anxiety.

Yowling at night
Yowling at night might be a sign of anxiety due to confusion which in turn is due to CDS. Picture in public domain.

This is the main reason. There may be other medical issues or behavioural issues which perhaps become more apparent at night when the cat’s owner is asleep.

And if a cat is a full-time indoor cat and their owner goes to work all day, they won’t be aware of the fact that their cat is anxious and quite possibly suffering from separation anxiety throughout the time that they are away.

Perhaps the underpinning issue here is that in a proper cat-human relationship there is a close bond and if the human is no longer around for a number of hours their cat will recognise this and want to meet up again. So, the anxiety at night time may well be there whether the cat is mentally able or disabled in some way.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to assess whether your cat is suffering from cognitive dysfunction due to early-stage dementia. A veterinarian will obviously help. The signs will be apparent at other times such as a lack of interest in playing, disorientation or confusion, perhaps a loss of interest in food and water, changes in sleep patterns and sleeping too much and also perhaps inappropriate elimination. They may also lose interest in playing and become disorientated. Very clearly, if your cat demonstrates any of these signs then you’ll probably know why she is anxious at night.

Below are some more articles on dementia in cats.

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Screaming match between cats through the back door

Screaming match between 2 cats - resident and invading cat with the backdoor separating them
Screaming match between 2 cats – resident and invading cat with the backdoor separating them. Screenshot.

I have described this as a “screaming match” between two cats. It is more a yowling match. One of the cats is inside the home. That is the resident cat. He considers the home and the area around the home his territory or ‘home range’. Just outside the back door there appears to be a ginger tabby cat, looking in through the glass. This is the invading cat. He is invading the resident cat’s territory. This would normally result in a pre-fight stand-off with the kind of yowling you hear in the video; followed perhaps by a fight or chase.

Note: This is a video from another website. Sometimes they are deleted at source which stops them working on this site. If that has happened, I apologise but I have no control over it.


But the backdoor separates them so they are restricted to this typical domestic cat yowling call which happens when there is a face-off as a preliminary to a potential fight. Normally during this pre-fight phase one cat backs down and slinks away because neither party wants to genuinely fight. They don’t want to incur injuries. It is so much more efficient to yell at each other and see whether either party can psych out the other party to believe that they would lose the fight.

Domestic cats, just like wild cats, instinctively defend their territory. The typical feline behaviour of spraying urine on vertical objects within a territory and particularly on the boundary of a territory is a way of telling invading cats that this is their place. It is a calling card and the objective is to avoid clashes. In the domestic cat world, you sometimes see resident cats spraying urine on an object and then the invading cat re-spraying it as if to reclaim the territory. This is because their respective territories are overlapping and therefore there is constant competition for it.

The resident cat appears to be a blue British Shorthair, but I can’t be sure.

SOME MORE ON HOME RANGE:

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7 reasons why a cat might yowl after eating

A cat yowling after eating is fairly unusual. I think that there are two initial aspects of the question which need examining. Firstly, what kind of cat sound is a yowl and under what circumstances do cats normally make this sound? The second is whether the yowling is linked to the eating.

A feline yowl is a very particular sound. It is the plaintive sound (somewhat melancholy) of a cat calling. It indicates that the cat might be distressed, confused or making a forceful attempt at attention. Sometimes cats with dementia yowl at night because their owner is asleep, they are left alone and they want company and the reassurance of their human caregiver. A cat does not normally yowl before, during or after eating. If a cat wants to be fed, they will normally meow. The feline meow is the normal sound to request something from their owner.

Siamese cat yowl
Siamese cat yowl. Photo: Facebook.

Discomfort after eating due to medical condition

So, the yowl is normally more of a distress signal and not a request or demand. So why would a cat make a distress sound after eating? Is it linked to the eating? It might be if in eating something the cat suffers distress or discomfort. I am not a veterinarian so I am loathe to write on the subject of medical conditions and illnesses concerning a cat’s digestive system. However, acute gastritis might cause the cat to vomit shortly after eating and before vomiting the cat might yowl indicating pain. This is just one example. Another possibility is that the cat is suffering from a gastrointestinal foreign body. A third possibility is poor oral health which makes eating painful. This is a real possibility. You can confirm this by checking the mouth for gum disease and tooth decay. I’ll stop there. The point I’m making is that a cat might yowl after eating if eating causes discomfort.

Calling for owner

Alternatively, the yowling may be linked to calling for their owner. The call might not be linked to eating. Or the feeding may have distracted the cat and she suddenly realises that her owner is not around and calls out.

In heat and calling

Another possibility for yowling after eating and which is not linked to eating is that the cat is in oestrus. Perhaps she’s not spayed or neutered and yowls to alert males to attract attention.

Confused and eating at night

As mentioned earlier in the article, the cat may be confused and yowl anyway, perhaps at night when she eats. Cats eat throughout the night very often because they are active during the night.

My cat I think is getting a touch of dementia, she does this a lot now in the night when she leaves the bed to take care of urgent business – April DeShields on Facebook.

Siamese cat demand for attention

This is a distinct possibility as Siamese cats have special way of communicating. It can be quite harsh and yowly. The yowling in this instance is not necessarily linked to eating.

Not a demand for food

I don’t think that the yowling is a demand for more food unless it is a modified yowl and the cat is particularly vocal and has an individual way to make demands. However, this would be unlikely in my opinion. It could happen because each cat is an individual and each individual cat makes their own sounds within the general framework and limitations of the sort of sounds that domestic cats can make. So, this possibility cannot be completely discounted.

Satisfaction with the food

It may be that it’s a sign of satisfaction at the food provided. Once again, I would argue that this is unlikely because, as mentioned earlier, the yowl is a call to attract attention and rarely a thank you for food or anything else provided.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure can cause neurological issues leading to yowling. There is no necessity for it to be linked to eating.


These are my best thoughts on this topic. Of them all, the most likely is that the yowling is unassociated with the eating unless it causes pain and I would check the cat for health issues first. This box needs to be ticked before you can move onto behavioural issues which rarely may be linked to dementia if the cat is elderly.

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