Tag Archives: hearing

Q&A: The Silent Meow

Q: Why does my cat look like he’s meowing, but no sound comes out?

A: When I first started researching cats, I was surprised that no one had checked to see if those silent meows were actually silent, or just too high for us to hear. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to show that most cats do, in fact, make a noise while “silent” meowing, we’re just unable to hear it.

Those “silent” meows, often used when the cat is hungry, have been recorded at as high as 22 kilohertz, and since very few researchers have recorded these silent meows, it’s quite possible that they go much higher.

The higher end of their hearing range helps them hunt. They can hear all those squeaky little animal noises that we humans, and even dogs, cannot hear. For more on cats’ hearing, and how even deaf cats can hear in the ultrasonic range, see this article: Of Cats and Crinkle Noises)

It’s pretty well established at this point that cats can in fact hear up into the 65 kilohertz range.

We can’t know the entire vocal range of cats, mostly because different cats have different voices, and some are more prone to make high pitched sounds, and some have a lower pitch. We have only officially differentiated 16 different types of vocalizations (caterwauling, yowling, purring, chattering, growling, hissing, chirping, trilling, meowing, etc.), despite a lot of data that says there are many more. Cats can make over 100 distinct sounds.

There isn’t really a great deal of research on the topic of feline vocalization ranges either. But, yes, when he looks up at you with those big eyes and it seems like he’s silent meowing, he is making a noise. He doesn’t know you can’t hear it.

Q&A: Can Cats Recognize Their Owners in Photos or Videos?

Cats rely a great deal on smell to identify individuals. That’s not the only factor, but it’s a main one. Many photos are also too small, and the idea of having a small, flat piece of paper being a representation of the real 3D world is not a natural assumption.

Cats do recognize faces. In a study published in Journal of Vision, it was shown that cats, but not dogs, can recognize the faces of their owners. They are better at recognizing the faces of other cats, but they can pick out their owner’s face from a line-up of life-sized head shots 54% of the time. That’s pretty good.

Cats also rely on body language, the way a person moves, and other things to recognize individuals. But most of them do recognize their owner’s voice.

A 2013 study published in Animal Cognition showed that cats also recognize their owners’ voices, and can tell them apart from stranger’s voices. Their hearing is much much better than a dogs’ or humans’ hearing (PDF), so they aren’t usually fooled into thinking the sounds from TV, computers, radios, etc. are real when they are adults. But they can still recognize the sound of their owner’s voice, or things like their mother cat’s call.

I had a video of a cat we fostered. Her name was Freya, but we called her Bunny. She was 6 months old when we began fostering her, and it turned out that she was already pregnant. (More on that later.) She was Stiles’s mother. The video had audio of Bunny calling her babies, and also a bit of Stiles’s sister, Cleo. When Stiles heard the video, he ran in, and started pawing at the speakers, and was in great distress because he couldn’t find them. I put him on my desk, and he watched that video 3 times, but I decided it might be doing more harm than good, so I took him in the other room and played with him until he was sleepy.

The video: https://youtu.be/5NwINsxG13c

Our oldest cat, who is 18, is strongly bonded with my daughter. She spends most of her time in my daughter’s room. My daughter went out of town with my sister a few weeks ago, and Kagome wasn’t doing well. So my daughter recorded some videos, and I put on one of her unlaundered shirts, then played the video. Kagome listened very carefully. I played it again, and she started purring immediately.

And finally, two of my cats, Kikiyo and Stiles, will come running every time they hear elephants, whales, or David Attenborough.
kiki-stiles-tv

Of Cats and Crinkle Noises

Cats love soft rustling sounds, and the sound of paper and plastic bags crinkling. They have ultrasonic hearing (there is actually pretty good evidence that even deaf cats can hear in the ultrasonic range). This helps them hunt, especially small rodents like mice or rats who make noises in that range. It’s a sort of soft rustling, crinkly sound that they like.

So they like noises in that range when playing, but they also like it when they’re looking for a nice place to nap. The sound can mimic that of a bed of dry grass and brush, which make a nice place for a cat to sleep. 3 of my 4 cats love the sound.

However, you should be cautious, especially with older cats. The higher pitched sound of tinfoil (AKA aluminum foil) crinkling can cause seizures in cats. Colloquially referred to as Tom and Jerry Syndrome, its official name is Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures (FARS).

Other sounds that can cause seizures are clanging spoons, clanging pots, metals on ceramics, and clinking coins, among a long list of noises in that range.

The lead author of the study that uncovered this problem, Dr Mark Lowrie of Davies Veterinary Specialists, said in an interview:

“The sounds responsible are high-pitched sounds, often relatively quiet sounds, with increasing loudness and persistence of a sound only serving to enhance the severity of the epileptic seizures.

“Avoiding these sounds eliminated the seizures in 72 out of 96 cats.

“The reason for cats being so sensitive to these seemingly benign high-pitched sounds may have its origin in the ultrasonic hearing range of the species.

“Mice and rats communicate in the ultrasonic frequency range and it is believe that cats developed a secondary ultrasonic sensitive hearing range presumably as an evolutionary advantage in catching rats and mice, their natural prey.”

Further reading:

Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures in Cats

‘Tom and Jerry syndrome’ causes seizures in old cats

Audiogenic reflex seizures in cats