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Meows, Purrs, Hisses and Chirps. What Do Cat Vocalizations Mean?

Updated on September 7, 2013
Meowing cat
Meowing cat | Source

Cat Vocalizations and Their Meanings

Those of us who live with cats know most of them are very "talkative" animals. We can sometimes figure out what our cats are trying to say - any cat owner knows her own cat's "feed me" or "open the door" meow, for instance. However, cats have more to their vocabulary than just "meow." They also purr, chirp, hiss, growl, and yowl. What does this "cat talk" mean?

The multipurpose meow

The meow is a sound that came about due to the cat's contact with humans. They prefer to communicate with each other through body language and scent. That's not to say that they don't vocalize with each other at all - anybody who has heard two cats fighting (or mating) knows that they aren't completely silent creatures. However, the meow is the cat's way of talking to us humans who don't speak cat.

Cats have many different types of meows, and some are specific to the particular cat. When I was growing up, we had a cat who did a deep, throaty meow whenever he wanted catnip, and only when he wanted catnip, I had another cat who made a kitten-like "mew" when he wanted attention. Most cat owners probably have similar stories. Even so, there are certain types of meows that generally mean the same thing from cat to cat.

  • Basic, short, pleasant meow or mew (sometimes with a chirp): A greeting.
  • A more drawn out "me-ow-ow": A request or protest ("How about some attention?").
  • A louder drawn out "mrrooooowww": More of a demand than a request. ("Feed me now! Can't you see that I'm starving?")
  • Low-pitched growling meow or a sharp "mup!": A complaint. ("What is this garbage you put in my food bowl?")

Hissing cat
Hissing cat | Source

Hisses, yowls, and other unpleasant cat sounds

It's fairly easy for us to figure out the meanings of most of the less-than-pleasant sounds our feline friends make. Cats hiss when surprised, annoyed, afraid, or as a way of saying "back off." Yowls can also be used as a warning or threat, but cats will also sometimes yowl if they want attention or are confused. When a cat makes a long, loud howl or scream, it means he's scared or in pain (my old cat used to make an ear-splitting banshee shriek sound when in the car on the way to the vet). If a cat sees another cat or other animal invade his territory, he'll often let out a long, obnoxious sound that's a cross between a whine and growl as a warning to the intruder.

One of the least pleasant cat sounds is the caterwaul. This is the sound made by a cat in heat, which is her way of announcing to the world that she wants to mate. If the desire to help control the pet population isn't enough to get your female cat spayed, listening to a caterwaul is an added incentive!

Chirping and chattering cats

The chirp isn't a sound exclusive to birds. Cats often make a chirping or chattering sound when they are watching birds through a window or screen door. No, they aren't imitating the feathered ones, but are voicing their frustrations at being unable to get to what they see as their prey. My own cat does this when she's chasing the dot from the laser pointer - it seems that she's figured out that she can never actually catch the mysterious red dot.

Many cats also make a similar "chirrup" sound as a greeting. One of my old cats would do this when he wanted me to follow him somewhere (usually to an empty food dish or dirty litter box).

Sleeping kitty
Sleeping kitty | Source

The peaceful purr

Most cat owners would put the purr at the top of the list of favorite feline sounds. Even many people who generally don't like cats can appreciate the soothing qualities of the purr. Because of the way cats often purr when they're sleeping, sitting in our laps, and/or getting chin or ear scratches, we humans tend to assume that a purr always means contentment. While cats certainly do purr when they are contented, they also sometimes purr when they are sick, in pain, or otherwise distressed. Many researchers think the purr originally came about as a way for mother cats to communicate with their kittens. It's probable that cats also purr as a way to help themselves relax. There's even a theory that the frequency of a cat's purr promotes healing, for the cat and whoever else is in earshot. No wonder cats will often sit on our laps and purr when we're sick!


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    • jenb0128 profile image

      Jennifer Bridges 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for the comments! Jackson, the newest feline member of my family, is quite the chatterbox, especially when he's watching the birds. I'll have conversations with him as well. Cats are such characters!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I have one kitty in particular who chatters away at me incessantly. We banter constantly and seem to understand one another. I enjoyed this delightful hub.

    • leni sands profile image

      Leni Sands 4 years ago from UK

      I really enjoyed reading this. We have two cats and their vocalisations are very different, Billy does the chirping while watching birds through the window, Max meows silently...your hub has helped me to understand them a little better. Thank you

    • jenb0128 profile image

      Jennifer Bridges 4 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you! Cats really seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to knowing when people could use a little bit of purring nearby. :)

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      All of this information makes a great deal of sense. I have had cats do their best to comfort me with purring. Great work, Jen!