by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Last week we looked at the first sounds cats make, there are many more that they use to communicate as they grow up and older, some references say that cats make over 100 different sounds. Cats imitate and create sounds to communicate; as with other learnt behaviour they will continue using those that achieve the desired outcome and discontinue those that do not provide a reward.
Once kittens are old enough to learn, mother cat will start using chirps, or chirrups, for communication. This sound is a combination of purring and meowing and is typically used as a happy greeting. Chirps can also be used when a cat is startled or enjoying attention.
Trills are high-pitched chirps that mother cats use to gather the family together and follow her. These can also be used when a cat is very excited, as when playing a fast game.
When watching or stalking a bird, cats will chatter with their teeth. This has been likened to the sounds birds make, as if to disguise the cat so he can creep closer. However, this goes against the standard hunting practice of silence and stealth that cats usually use so the common understanding is that it is a sign of excitement or frustration.
Once the kittens are fully grown, they need to protect themselves from others. The first level vocal warning signal, after body posturing, is the growl. Often the pitch of the growl will change if it is initially ignored. This is used in situations where the cat feels insecure, angry, or fearful, or if territory is invaded. Snarling is an advanced form of growling.
If growling didn’t have the right effect, the cat will hiss. The mouth is open and air is expressed with a sound like a snake hissing. This is an indication of fear or anger as perceived by the cat, and a warning that a physical attack is likely to follow. Cats can hiss as a defensive measure if surprised or interrupted while eating or grooming. If the hiss is not enough of a warning, the cat can spit, a short, sharp hiss.
Yowling, a long-drawn-out moan, has many meanings, depending on the circumstances. It is used to express injury or pain, concern, distress, anguish, boredom, disorientation, loss, the start of a territorial fight, a female looking for a mate or tom cat looking for a female. The yowl can be anything from a war cry to a cry for help. It is loud and persistent, and demands attention. Cats that are trapped may use a yowl in order to be found.
Cats that are in pain can cry, a sad, plaintiff sound that readily indicates pain. Old cats, and those who are fearful, lost or disorientated can howl, a deep low drawn-out sound that carries a great distance. These are both cries for help.
Some cats have a special sound to announce their gift of prey, a cross between a meow and any other sound. This is often made around a mouthful of prey so can seem distorted and alarming.
All this means that cats can make a lot of noise! Some breeds are generally more vocal than others, such as the Siamese, Tonkinese, Burmese, Peterbald and Bobtail. Long-haired cats tend to be quieter, with medium-haired cats such as the Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest talk mainly in chirps. Within each breed the cats are individual, early experiences and interaction with humans will encourage some to talk and others to keep quiet.
Understanding what your cat means can be tricky at first, as you learn the various sounds and associated body language you will have a better idea and be able to respond appropriately. Knowing if the cats are happy, worried, needs help or telling you about their activities creates a better relationship with them.