The way animals communicate with each other and with us is intriguing to many people, especially animal lovers. Human communication made up of complex body language and verbalizations, but sometimes we still misunderstand each other. If we can be confused by our own species’ method of communication, imagine the challenges of communicating with another species, such as cats.
While most cats are not as openly vocal as dogs are, there are some that are very vocal. These cats often learn to use vocalizations to attempt to communicate with their pet parents. Failure to interpret these attempts correctly can weaken the bonds between cats and their humans and in worst-case scenarios, can lead to human injury.
Jeanine Berger, DVM, DACAW, DACVB, who’s with the San Francisco SPCA has compiled a “feline vocalization dictionary” to assist veterinarians with interpreting cat vocalization patterns.
Here are a few excerpts from Berger’s dictionary:
Murmur: A soft, rhythmical pulse given on exhalation. Interpretation: Request or greeting.
Meow: Characteristic feline call, “mee-ah-oo.” Interpretation: An all-purpose greeting.
Purr: Soft, buzzing, rapid contractions of the muscle of the larynx. Interpretation: Sign of contentment; however, a cat may also purr when it’s anxious or sick.
Growl, hiss and spit: Harsh, low-pitched, open-mouth sound; can be explosive. Interpretation: Cat is feeling defensive, frightened, stressed or aggressive. Leave this cat alone!
Squeak: High-pitched, raspy cry. Interpretation: Used in play or feeding; heard in females after copulation.
Shriek: Loud, harsh, high-pitched sound. Interpretation: Cat is feeling intensively aggressive or painful. Stop what you are doing; it is not working for the cat.
Chatter: Teeth chatter together. Interpretation: Cat is hunting or is being restrained from hunting.
Estrus call: Long-lasting, variable-pitch sound; cat starts with open mouth then gradually closes it. Interpretation: Female in estrus.
Howl and yowl: Loud, harsh, drawn-out calls. Interpretation: Cat is feeling aggressive or in distress. Elderly cats with cognitive disorder make this sound.
Mowl or caterwaul: Variable-pitch call. Interpretation: Male sexual call.
Mew: High-pitched, medium-amplitude, long “eee.” Interpretation: Mother interacting with kittens.
Moan: Low-frequency, long-duration, “oo” or “uu.” Interpretation: Used in epim-eletic situations or before a cat coughs up a hairball.
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