Cat Communication and Language

by Sarah Hartwell
View Biography

There are at least nineteen different types of "miaow" which differ in pitch, rhythm, volume, tone, pronunciation and the situations in which they are used. The familiar purr is used for contentment and also for self-reassurance.

A loud purr is an invitation for close contact. Injured or sick cats (and even cats which are dying) purr. Interestingly, the frequency of the purr has been shown to soothe the cat and to promote healing. The "miaow" 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).

There are probably over 30 different sounds. 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 a lot have a wider spoken vocabulary because they learn that humans understand sounds but cannot easily 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 - this is their "native language". Their body language is subtle, but many owners and cat workers learn to read the more obvious cues.

House Cats, Feral Cats and Big Cats

Housecats develop a wide variety of sounds to alert humans to their needs and intentions. 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. Others are 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, it's our problem that we can't understand their language. Cats work out 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.

Since humans are in charge, it makes sense for the cat to learn to communicate vocally though it must sometimes be frustrating to a cat which has clearly communicated its mood using facial expression to have to explain things vocally to humans. It is the feline equivalent of speaking slowly and loudly to a foreigner!

Cats have different personalities and this affects how much they want to "speak" to humans. Personalities are partly controlled by genetics and partly by upbringing so both factors contribute to how much an individual cat talks. Like some humans, some cats probably have nothing much they want to say! Also, some owners are good at reading cat body language and the cat simply doesn't need to vocalize quite so much.

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