by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats have a range of vocalisations used to communicate with each other and other species. Some cats are more talkative than others, and some breeds are known for their amazing range of sounds, but not all cats make every type of sound. In order to understand what your cat is saying it is important to take into consideration both body language and the conditions under which the sound is made.
Cats have a range of sounds that they use depending on what message they want to convey. Using different tones, volume and length of sound, even a standard meow can have many meanings. Sounds can be mixed in many ways to many new variations. The way we react to certain sounds re-enforces them for the cat, making it easier for them to communicate their needs.
The first sound a kitten will make is a purr, as it suckles from its mother. Although kittens are born deaf and blind, the first purrs are thought to aid them in regulating their breathing for successful suckling. The vibrations of the mothers purr helps the kittens feel secure and the kittens’ purr helps the mother identify her kittens and know that they are safe.
The purring sound is generated on both the inhale and exhale, with a break between each breath. Due to the structure of the throat and larynx cats can either purr or roar, therefore lions roar and cheetahs purr. The frequency of purring has healing properties, specifically for healing bones, with significant benefit both to the cat and to those on whose lap he is lying at the time!
Purring is controlled by endorphins in the brain and is usually considered a sign of contentment; however cats will also purr when agitated, hurt, ill, dying or as appeasement gesture. The tone of this purr may be different; to read the real reason for the purr look at the body language and situation at that time. It is possible that this is a survival strategy; by purring they signify that all is well and they will deflect an attack by a predator.
The first sound a kitten will make is mewing, a high-pitched meow that is used to alert its mother when the kitten feels threatened or lost. This sound is not used once kittens have been fully weaned. Since women usually have higher-pitched voices than men it is thought that cats react to them instinctively as they would to a kitten.
As cats rarely meow to each other, it is believed that cats learnt to meow in order to communicate with us. It can be a greeting, a request, a complaint, a call, or be part of a conversation. The tone, pitch, and length of the sound, as well as how many are put together in one call will indicate the message.
Meowing can also be a request for help or support, especially from older or disabled cats. As sight and hearing fail and arthritis sets in, cats can meow with anxiety or pain, or when they need help. When cats feel disorientated or needy they can meow. Continuous meowing can indicate distress.
Not all cats make an audible sound when they meow; this may be outside of our range of hearing or really be the silent meow. Some breeds are less likely to meow and rather to converse in chirps and other sounds.
As kittens grow up they expand their vocabulary, as we will see next week.