Decoding Cat Chatter
Cats often get a bad rap for being hard to read. I agree, in that they definitely keep me on my toes (and I love them for it). However, as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time with cats both at home and at work, I’ve found that cats, like dogs, are usually pretty good about telling us what they want—we just need the vocabulary to understand it.
Of course, there is no fail-proof way to *completely* avoid a sudden wrap-around-bunny-kick attack (Scorpios gonna Scoprio), but the more you pay attention to a cat’s body language and sounds, the easier it is to understand their moods and predict their behavior.
So without further ado, here are a few common cat vocalizations and what they mean:
The classic cat sound. Depending on the intonation, this can range from “welcome home,” to “give me treats you old troll.” (Bonus points to anyone who gets the Housewives reference on that one.)
Interestingly, cats will only meow at humans—never at other cats. This is because a meow is a direct request for something: a treat, a cuddle, a kingdom, etc. Cats learn to meow as kittens when they’re dependent on their mother’s milk. When we then take them into our homes and become their primary caretakers, they transfer those requests to us.
My roommate’s cat Fitz is constantly workshopping his “give me treats” meow. He’s learned that the more pitiful he sounds, the more likely he is to get treats. I am never not being manipulated in my own home.
“I’m too cute and smol to be ignored.”
A cute, adorable little sound that cats affectionately use to get attention. My cat Joan uses this one a lot. If I’m working at my computer (the audacity!), she’ll first get my attention with a hoarse, pitiful little “aaah” sound, like she’s on the verge of crumbling into a pile of dust and floating away on the wind. Once I put her in my lap, she’ll look up at me and trill, signaling her instant—and quite miraculous—recovery.
“Take me to those birds outside; I wish to break their bones.”
An excited reaction to seeing tasty-looking prey.
Excitement or content, but not always. I was once bit by a cat who was purring. I didn’t understand how this was possible, but after some research, I learned that purring can also communicate stress, fear and anxiety, as it’s a way for cats to soothe themselves. This is why it’s important to put sound in context with its body language.
Also, for a truly mind-blowing fact of the day, cats sometimes purr when they’re hurt, because purring can stimulate bone regeneration. Pretty crazy.
“Leave me alone, you beast.”
Depending on the intonation and circumstances, this can mean anything from, “where is everyone!?” to “look what I found,” to “stay away from me!”
My cat James is the King of Yowls. He loves to walk around the house yelling. Sometimes he sounds like a baby crying. Sometimes he sounds like a tornado siren. I’ve never heard anything like it. In older cats, nighttime yowling can be a sign of dementia, but since James has been yelling since he was a kitten (and at all hours of the day), I think he does it when he’s just woken up from a nap and needs to find a lap ASAP, like when you fall asleep on the couch and wake up to find everyone gone.
Joan and Fitz will often yowl when they bring us their favorite toys. This communicates that they want praise and playtime.
Angry yells and yowls can communicate distress, fear or pain. Again, pay attention to your cat’s intonation and body language. If your cat is yowling in a way that sounds angry, or like they’re trying to keep you away from them, this could be a sign that something is wrong.
While cat sitting, I’ve had cats yell at me when they feel like I’ve infringed on their territory. Not every cat is willing to accept love from a stranger, and that’s ok! In these instances, I do my best to take care of chores (food, water, litter, etc.) without bothering them. Disrespecting a cat’s boundaries is a sure way to stress them out, and I never want to do that.