Domestic cats have many subtle variations in the sounds that they make. Individual cats have their own individual sounds. They even extend to the meow which is not a meow at all: it is silent. The vocalization repertoire of the domestic cat is large. This is because domestic cats have two vocabularies. It has twice as many calls as a typical wild animal. This is because in the wild the domestic cat would have one set of sound signals. The first would be for mother-offspring communication and the other for communication between adults.
However, the tame domestic cat has a “double personality”. It remains a permanent kitten towards its human owners but becomes an adult cat towards other cats. Therefore it retains “it’s juvenile sounds while acquiring its adult ones”.
Dr Desmond Morris says that the domestic cat has seven basic messages when vocalizing:
I Am Angry
This is the caterwauling of felines in dispute. The sounds include, snarling, growling, gurgling, wailing and howling. Adult cat fights are very noisy. Although the signal varies in type it carries the same message which is: “clear off, or I will attack you”. The vocalizations vary in intensity and are prolonged while the strength of the sound increases and decreases. The sounds can be heard when several male cats have gathered around a female on heat. There is male cat rivalry accompanied by a “symphony of aggressive vocalizing”.
I Am Frightened
This is the strange sound that has frequently been commented upon on the Internet. Web surfing wags like to make light of it. They turn the sound into a comedy video but it actually signifies a terrified cat who is cornered and cannot escape and thus produces a throaty, yowling noise. The message that the cat wishes to portray is: “I fear you, but do not push me too far or I will turn on you despite my fear”.
If the cat is pushed further down this path she will lash out and attack. The attack will probably be accompanied by spitting and hissing. The spitting and hissing replicates the sound of a poisonous snake which can be disconcerting to say an attacking dog. This is because many predators instinctively react to snakes in a protective manner causing them to stop.
I Am in Pain
This is a feline scream which clearly indicates to people that the cat is in agony. The kitten version of this sound is a squeal.
Kitten in Distress:
I Want Attention
This is the classic meow. Often it is a demand for food. It is said that cats only meow towards humans and that feral cats do not meow amongst themselves. It is said to be a learned behaviour demanding attention from the human caretaker. But it can mean many things in many contexts. The message is fundamentally the same in each context: “I require your immediate attention”.
It first originates in kittens when they want to let their mother know that they need help. Domestic cats use it when they start to behave as if they are kittens towards their human owners. It is said that the human-domestic cat relationship reduces the adult domestic cat to a kitten-like state.
Accordingly, domestic cats build on this meow sound developing it subtly and modifying it to suit different circumstances. There are meow sounds which are the human version of begging, demanding, complaining, and signs of anxiety. There are also soft flat meows; a demand to be let out of the house and drawn out meows demanding to be let back in again. Then there is the meow when you are preparing your cat’s dinner with a favourite treat. This is an expectant meow. Observant cat owners have learnt to understand these various forms of the classic meow and their meaning.
Come with Me
This is a mother’s chirping noise when she wants her kitten to come near or to follow her. It can also be used as a greeting towards her kittens when she has been away for a while. Cat owners recognise this as variation which could be described as the “rising trill”. This sound can occur when a cat greets her human owner.
Dr Desmond Morris says that the trill is a reversal of the normal relationship between human and cat. He means that at these moments cats are treating humans as their kittens rather than as their mothers. He says that the “greeting trill” is a vocalization which is often performed when the cat is on the move such as when they have come in from the outside or when moving off towards where they expect food to be provided. This means that it still retains at a fundamental level the “come with me” meaning.
I Am Inoffensive
I have discussed this on a separate page. It is the classic purring sound. It starts when kittens are sucking at the nipple. The purr lets their mother know that all is well. Their mother responds in like fashion when lying with her kittens. It is a reassuring sound. It is also used by inferior cats when approached by a dominant cat to provide the signal that the inferior cat has non-hostile intentions. The nearest human equivalent is the smile. Read more about this very well known vocalisation by clicking on this link.
I Want to Sink My Teeth into You
This is a strange clicking noise made by cats on the prowl having spotted a prey item. Desmond Morris says that this is not strictly vocal but needs to be included in this discussion. The sound appears to be made by striking the teeth together sharply. It is a sound which has been described as “chattering” which takes place when indoor domestic cats see birds outside the window. The mouth opens and shuts very rapidly. It is said to be practising the killer bite at the nape of the bird’s neck although there are many theories on the Internet about this feline behaviour/vocalisation. I prefer the analysis of Dr Desmond Morris.
Is also a sound signal and to the best of my knowledge it’s purpose is not yet fully understood. Desmond Morris says that it is employed by mothers when training their juvenile offspring to “help focus their attention on potential prey, as part of a general hunt-training process”.
Over the years I have observed many different unspecified sounds made by my cats. The sounds are not discussed in books or on the Internet. Each cat has their own little set of slight variations on the standard sounds. These are always cat to human vocalizations. If they have a specific meaning, we don’t know what it is at present. My impression is that they are sounds of reassurance or sounds of pleasure in being with us by which I mean there is no specific translation.
Source: myself of course but substantially: Cat World by Dr Desmond Morris. Please buy the book. Great value on Amazon.