Tag Archives: vocalizations

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: Do cats have language?

Q: Why does my cat understand so many of the words that I say and I understand almost none of his vocalizations?

A: There are a lot of factors at play here, so if you want a TLDR answer, you’re out of luck.

First, some basics:

Some cats are smarter than other cats. And there is a lot we don’t know about animals and cognition. And because cats in particular can’t be bribed reliably with food or a toy, it’s often difficult to do some classical kinds of tests to study how they think, so the research we do have on cats is severely slanted toward cats who are empathetic (they understand that you want something from them, and they want to please you) and very smart (they understand that you want something from them, and that makes them curious about it). So there is a lot we just don’t know about how they think.

But there are several things we do know. I’m up with new research on cats and cognition, and it’s some amazing stuff.

So here are some basic factors that will change how much of your language your cat understands and how much of his language there is to understand.

Some cats are more vocal than others. Cats that were strays or feral for their formative years (before age 2), will likely never meow. Meowing is a holdover from kittenhood, when it was important for them to vocalize when they were hungry, in danger, etc. because they don’t have control over the classic ways cats communicate (body language and scent). Once older kittens realize that these vocalizations work on humans too, they have made the connection, and will likely meow at least a little when they want something.

There are generally three types of cats: talkers, non-talkers, and learned talkers.

Non-talkers are cats who either don’t vocalize at all or vocalize very little. A cat that doesn’t really vocalize much isn’t likely to be putting much thought into it other than the fact that you sometimes do a particular thing if he makes a noise.

Talkers, like Burmese, can vocalize a lot. I have an Abyssinian-Burmese, Kikiyo, who will carry on entire conversations with me, and she has actual words for several things. She has a large vocabulary. Kiki has words that are very like our words. For instance, I call my daughter “Bonna”, and Kiki calls her “Waah’Wah”, my daughter calls me “Mom” and Kiki therefore calls me “Waaw”, outside is “Aw-Why” and so on. So, since she is a very talkative cat, and listens to us, and understands hundreds of human words, she does often have words that are similar-sounding to ours. But some of her words sound nothing like our words. She has at least 10 words for different kinds of water. She has a word for water in a cup (Awak – the k is almost silent, it’s like a glottal stop), water in a glass bowl (Araah), water in a plastic bowl (Araaaaaya – she doesn’t like it in a plastic bowl, so this comes with a fussy tone), and the water in the fountains (Nawa – her favorite).

I’ve only been documenting her language for the past two years. Before I became disabled, I worked a lot, so I didn’t spend as much time at home. I knew she had some words and names, but it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated how much of an effort she makes to communicate.

There are talkers who only say a few things, but they are meaningful to the cat. Sometimes it’s not so much about words, but about the tone.

We talk to our cats a lot. That, I think, is a big factor in how much a cat predisposed to vocalize a lot builds an actual vocabulary. Our 8-year-old male was a stray for his formative years, and he just recently started meowing a bit.

Learned talkers, who are generally very smart, and were raised from kittenhood with a talker cat, learn the importance of verbal communication with humans. So it’s a learned behavior. They don’t talk as much, but they can learn what works on humans. So it’s mimicry. Our 2-year-old (his birthday was January 27th) mimic is a smarty pants. He’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known. And he does want to communicate, so he borrows words from the 11-year-old. So it’s part nature, part nurture.

So, to sum up and answer your question, if you talk to your cat a lot, and your cat makes all kinds of conversational sounds at you, it may be that he does have at least a rudimentary language. Try to keep notes if you aren’t sure.

Most cats usually understand several words we say, especially ones that are most important to them, like treat, food, walk (if you walk your cat). play, bed time, etc.

Some cats understand a whole lot more of our language than you might think. They are also able to process both the word you are saying and the way in which you are saying it, so simply saying in a light, chirpy voice that it’s bath time will still send your cat running to hide under the bed.

Q&A: Screaming Cats?

Q: Why do cats scream at night?

A: There are only 3 common reasons you might hear cats scream at any time.

  1. Mating Females will yowl and make a lot of crazy-sounding noises when they are in heat. This is so that all the intact males in the area will know that this is their chance.
  2. Fighting Whether it’s a fight over territory, access to a mate, a female or male guarding kittens (yes, males do this too), food, or anything else, they are making those noises to announce that they are big, bad, and mean, and you better not mess with them. More than half the time, this works at avoiding an actual fight. So it’s a behavior that is worth keeping. Cats that don’t display this behavior (like Ragdolls) should never be allowed outside without supervision.
  3. Tail Guarding As I outlined in The Tale of the Tail, cats are very protective of their tails. Even when you barely touch it (like when you realize, right before you put your weight on the foot, that the cat is there), they will scream like it is the worst agony imaginable. They also scream if their tail gets caught in a door, and any other situation that they perceive as RED ALERT! TAIL THREAT DETECTED! DEFCON 1! DEFCON 1!!!! This isn’t about pain (remember, they do this even when you don’t actually step on the tail). It’s about keeping their tail safe.

Paradoxically, at least in the view of humans, cats rarely make noise when they are in pain. They are notorious pain-maskers, so it’s very hard to tell when Fluffy is in pain or is sick. They also don’t make noise when they are really afraid, which makes sense. If you’re in the wild, you aren’t going to make a lot of noise when you know a coyote is hunting you.

Q&A Do Cats Meow at Each Other?

Q: One of my friends mentioned that cats (especially, the adult ones) meow only to humans and not at each other. Is this true?

A: The thing is that most cats only meow at humans. Why is this? Because cats communicate with each other via body language and smell.

In feral populations, we don’t see (or hear) meowing at all. We only see it in cats who are around humans. A feral kitten can learn to hold onto the meowing that served them well with their mother, and redirect it at a human who offers food, but if that link isn’t built early, it rarely forms later in life, no matter how socialized with humans it becomes.

So why are there so many people seeing behavior(and a few videos) seemingly showing cats meowing at each other? Again, they are more likely to be meowing because the human is right there filming. This sometimes results in funny videos, where each cat takes a turn to meow, so it appears as if they’re talking to each other.

Does that account for all these situations? Nope. I have seen cats meow at each other, but it’s usually litter mates or cats who have lived with each other for quite awhile. The meowing doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t communicate that way, except for the equivalent of that one person you know (that person is me for people who know me) who can only make a series of grunts in the morning before their brains are fully caffeinated. You might be able to glean some information from it, but you can’t really be sure until you ask that person later. Same with cats and meowing.

Let me give you an excellent example of what people see and hear, and then make the wrong assumption about: My big tom, Kagetora, is 8. He’s such a tough guy that he fought a coyote and won while protecting kittens that weren’t even his. (Read his story here.) We adopted him and nursed him back to health, but he has a lot of sensitivity on his back that will be there forever. Our 15-month-old loves to play with him. He loves wrestling, chasing, all the good stuff.

Lately, when Kagetora and Stiles are playing, Kagetora will start making these little yelp-like meows. One could surmise that, since this happens whether or not humans are in the room, that Kagetora is trying to tell Stiles to lay off. That’s not a bad guess, but you’re thinking like a human, and failing to see the sheer intelligence that Kagetora is displaying. And make no mistake, Kagetora is not a really smart cat (he was poisoned and attacked by a coyote, so his brain isn’t what it used to be, but he makes up for it with cuddles), but he understands humans. Don’t worry, I’m an expert, and Kagetora tricked me. I was sure he was in pain, and I’d rush to his defense, scoop him up, and cuddle him (he loves cuddles more than any cat I’ve ever met).

Not only is Kagetora not making that sound at Stiles, he’s also plotting. Kagetora knows we can hear his weirdly baby-like crying yelps all the way across the house, he also knows that making that sound in the past has brought us running to rescue him, and subsequently even won him the rare chance to sleep on my daughter’s bed (top kitty prize in my house, generally reserved for our 18-year-old Wegie). So now he does it every single time Stiles tries to play with him.

And even though I know what he’s doing, and can plainly see that Stiles isn’t hurting him, I always have to break them up because I can’t listen to Kagetora make that sound. It’s too much. So, even though I know he isn’t hurt, my instincts are still to save Kagetora. And he knows this. So, yes, I am the target of those vocalizations.