Cat Vocalizations: Meows and More

more than just meowCan cats “talk”? Absolutely. Is cat vocalization easy to understand? Not always – but the more time you spend with cats, the more you’ll pick up the language.

Ask most non-cat owners what sound cats make and they’ll say “meow”. That’s true to a point, but it’s kind of like saying that the sound dogs make is “bow wow”. “Meow” is just one of many sounds that make up feline vocalizations.

One of the most important keys to understanding cat vocalizations is evaluating pitch, duration, and volume. Generally speaking, the lower the pitch the more the sound is meant to be aggressive or threatening (think in terms of lion impersonation) and the higher the pitch, the more likely it is that the vocalization is friendly. Loud, prolonged vocalizations mean the cat is feeling urgent about getting her point across, and short, soft sounds generally indicate a more intimate communication.

Like people, cats vary a great deal in how “talkative” they are. Some cats always seem to have something to say, while others vocalize relatively rarely. Most cat owners find that “conversing” with their cats – listening carefully to the cat’s sounds and answering them – is a great bonding factor that can really enhance the relationship and help both the cat and the person understand each other.

Here are some of the most standard cat vocalizations and their meanings:

Meow - the classic all-purpose cat vocalization; can mean anything from “Hi, How are ya?” to “I want your attention” to “I’m bored”. Interpreting a meow depends on both the situation and the sound itself – is it cheery and chipper, whiny, demanding, etc.? Cat voices can be remarkably expressive and the inflection of the sounds they make is crucial to understanding them.

Mrrrrrrp - a lovely sound, sort of a cross between a purr and a meow, which is almost always friendly, confiding, and happy. Sometimes used as a greeting, but often just a contented commentary.

Mewp! – a short, emphatic sound, sort of an abbreviated meow, which is often kind of the cat equivalent of “hey!”, as in, “Hey! Hurry up with the food!” or “Hey! Don’t stop petting me!”

Me-yooooooo - sort of a cross between a cajole and a whine, and generally means “I want something and I want it now”. Often heard while dishing out the catfood.

Grrrrrrrr - low and ominous, this is the domestic feline version of the growling tiger or lion. In a multi-cat household this often means something along the lines of “knock it off or you’re gonna get it!”, though it can also be a hunting-related sound, in which case it means “this catnip mouse is gonna get it!”

Me-YOWWWWWWWWWWL!!! - Harsh, high-pitched, and often surprisingly loud, this is one that usually erupts during a cat conflict. Signifies aggression, alarm, and impending retribution.

Hisssssssss – A warning signal, usually to another cat, which means “You’re getting on my nerves and I’m not gonna put up with it – continue at your own peril!”

eh-eh-eh-eh - Difficult to transliterate, this is that funny semi-clucking noise that cats often make when they spot a bird, squirrel, or other potential prey in the vicinity.

yow-yow-yow - a low pitched, weird, yodeling-type noise of distress that many cats make when acutely ill or about to vomit.