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What’s in a meow? (Sound communication in the cat)

What’s in a meow? (Sound communication in the cat)

It has been theorised that living alongside humans has meant that the process of evolving a domestic subspecies from a wild ancestor went hand-in-hand with increased vocalisation in domestic cats and research has shown that the different sounds a cat makes are extensive. There are between 16 to 20 different types of “meow” which differ in pitch, rhythm, volume, tone, pronunciation and the context in which they are used.

The familiar purr is used for contentment and also for self-reassurance, a purring cat is not necessarily a happy one. It is an invitation for close contact. Injured or sick cats, even cats which are dying purr. Interestingly, the frequency of the purr has been shown to soothe the cat and to promote healing.

The “meow” and purr are just two of at least thirteen different categories of sound made by cats: caterwaul, chatter, chirrup (chirp), cough-bark (rare in pet cats), growl, hiss (with or without spit). meow, mew (of kittens), purr, scream, squawk, yowl and idiosyncratic sounds (i.e. sounds peculiar to an individual cat).

The number of sounds a cat makes depends on how much the cat communicates with (a) other cats and (b) other non-cats e.g. humans. Cats which communicate with humans have a wider vocal range because they learn that humans understand sounds but do not readily understand feline body language. Cats learn which sounds elicit the desired response from their human companions and some cats have a wider “vocabulary” than others. Cats which communicate mostly with other cats use mainly on body language and scent.

Although entire cats, males all of the time and females in season can make a great deal of noise as they seek to advertise their sexual status to the opposite sex. Old cats may also vocalise more, although it is not know if it is because they are losing their hearing or are becoming a little addled in old age. If your old puss suddenly becomes more vocal, a check up from the vet is in order, but you may find that the only treatment is reassurance and even this is not guaranteed to work, in these cases, acceptance of your old companion’s aging foibles is the only ‘answer’.

Pet cats develop a wide variety of sounds to alert humans to their needs and intentions than feral ones. Many are variations on mother/kitten meow or chirp sounds which the cat has adapted in order to “speak” to non-cats. This is quite logical since the cosseted housecat remains dependent on humans i.e. a permanent kitten. Indoor only cats, particularly pampered pedigrees may be often more vocal than latch key cats. Others are purely adult sounds such as the caterwaul (used in a sexual or territorial context) or the cough-bark (a fear/anger sound usually accompanied by a front paw stamp).

Cats kept with other cats are communicating with each other all the time through body language and scent. They are communicating with their owners all the time too, although the human may not understand all of the communications. Cats learn which sounds elicit suitable responses from humans (positive feedback) and learn to make those sounds in order to achieve a particular aim e.g. for a door to be opened.

Cats have different personalities and this affects how much they want to vocalise to humans. Personalities are partly controlled by genetics and partly by upbringing so both factors contribute to how much an individual cat talks. For example the oriental breeds are known to be far more vocal than the average Persian, which despite being a sizable cat, usually have very ‘quiet’ voices. My own breed, birmans, if ‘spoken’ to on a regular basis will learn to chat back. I even have one queen, who when in season sounds like she shouts ‘helloooo’ at the top of her voice. Which is certainly entertaining for a while, but does lose its appeal at 3 a.m.

Most cats tend not to vocalise with strangers unless the stranger approaches them. The vocalisation then depends on whether the cat is fearful or friendly. If fearful the cat may hiss or growl and thrash its tail (agitation) to warn the stranger not to approach any closer. If friendly it will meow or purr and its tail will stick upwards (greeting) inviting attention. Stray cats living around restaurants learn to beg appealingly to diners.

Cats also learn to communicate with other household animals e.g. dogs. They are less likely to vocalise because dogs can interpret scent signals and can learn some feline body language. Sometimes the cat must reinforce its unspoken message with a hiss if the other animals ignores or fails to understand body language.

In a household setting, cats and dogs are in close enough proximity for long enough that they can learn each other’s body language to some degree. Feral cats rely more on their body language to convey meaning – posture, gesture, facial expression, tail position, whisker position, ear position, scent-marking – with vocalisation often being a last resort to augment or reinforce the non-verbal communication.