A simple guide to cat talk
Updated Jan 9, 2009
Whenever I ask people how many words they think a cat can understand, they often guess “0” or “3”. I am amazed because some of these people actually have cats in their lives.
I guess they figure cats can’t comprehend a single thing we humans are trying to say, so don’t really expect much of a relationship with their pet. This is very sad for cats, who not only are extremely communicative, but do have some understanding of the gibberish we speak.
Cats can actually comprehend about 25 human words, but people who really understand and listen to them may say they understand a lot more. I know my cat comes when I call as well as responds to me coaxing her silently with just a finger beckoning her on my direction. She screams at me if I don’t give her a treat when I am handing them out to the dogs; paws me on the head to get my attention; and headbutts when I don’t listen. She purrs and meows in a dozen different ways, all designed to get me to do what she wants me to do at the moment she wants me to do it. She’s a genius.
Cats actually communicate vocally more than dogs, but people aren’t good listeners. We react to dogs because they jump on us, run, beg for attention, and are louder about their wishes. Sadly, when cats talk, however, we have a tendency to not hear their subtle pleas. But cats in fact can make more than 100 different kinds of vocalizations, whereas dogs can only vocalize about 15 different sounds.
So turn up your hearing aid and listen to what cats have to say.
Meow — This is a sound reserved for humans only. Cats do not meow at other cats. In other words, they figured out to make a sound to get you to pet them, open the door, feed them, and give them attention. And by golly, it works.
Purr — No one knows for sure why cat’s purr, but they do it when they are content as well as when they are sick and distressed. Perhaps it is a form of meditation that soothes them.
Chirping — This is the sound a cat makes when they see prey outside they want, like a bird. Kind of ironic the sound is a chirp, huh? When they realize they can’t get to it from inside the house, they get a little agitated and may actually make a chattering sound.
Wailing — Kittens who are separated from their mother make this sound to ensure her speedy return. As an adult, however, cats make this sound when they have something to protest, like accidentally being locked in the closet. But I had cat who actually loved to wail in the middle of the night from inside the shower stall. I think he just liked hearing the sound of his voice echo off the walls. It was great to listen to if you weren’t trying to sleep.
Caterwauling — A harsh yowling from a cat in heat. Spay her and it stops.
Snarling — Part snorting, part low growl, cats reserve this sound for tifts with other cats, which usually escalates into even more frightening sounds.
Growling — This low, rumbling noise can be directed at any living creature and is a clear message that they will strike if provoked. The message here: back off and leave me alone or you will get what’s coming to you.
If your cat cries constantly, especially when he hasn’t been particularly vocal, that may be a sign of illness or injury, so take him to the vet. If you feline is healthy though, listen to them and talk to them too. They apparently love the interaction and have a lot more to say than most of us apparently think.
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Cathy Rosenthal (aka The Pet Pundit), CHES, CFE
Animal Welfare Communications Specialist
Cathy brings more than 35 years' experience in the animal welfare field. She is a sought-after speaker, Certified Humane Education Specialist, a syndicated pet advice columnist, an author, a publisher, and of course - a loving pet parent.