Cats are capable of a huge variety of sounds. Their vocabulary is all the more remarkable when you consider that cats are solitary creatures by nature. Domestic cats are more likely to be “talkative” than wild ones because tame cats are mentally kittens all their lives. That’s why they remain with their human families instead of striking out on their own – they consider their human friend to be Mommy and act accordingly.
Experts divide cat vocalizations into three main categories: vowels, murmurs, and high-intensity sounds. Vowels can express a broad range of emotions, from excitement to anxiety to frustration. Murmurs are typically used when the cat is happy and relaxed, and high-intensity sounds express both fear and anger.
Vowel sounds are typified by the famous “meow,” which can carry an amazing number of meanings depending on the cat’s tone and intensity. For example, a cat who sees its person carrying a bowl of food will often utter a demanding meow, which sounds something like “MEE-yow,” while a frightened or confused cat will call for help with a string of “meOWWs.”
Murmurs include purring, chirping, and chirruping. Cats will purr when they are happy, but they will also purr when they are frightened or upset in an attempt to soothe their fear. Experts disagree on how exactly cats generate the purring noise; most believe that the noise doesn’t come from the cat’s voice-box, since cats can meow and purr at the same time. A mother cat will use chirps and chirrups to call her kittens, and also to alert them if potential prey is nearby.
High-intensity sounds include hissing, spitting, growling, snarling, and shrieking. A cat will hiss to intimidate a predator or rival. The noise resembles a snake’s hiss, and many experts believe this is a deliberate imitation on the cat’s part since nearly all mammals have an instinctive fear of snakes. The high-intensity sounds indicate extreme emotion, and if you hear a cat uttering any of these cries it’s best to step warily as he may lash out at you in his distress.
You may have noticed your cat opening her mouth as though to meow, apparently without making a sound. If you see this, don’t panic; your cat hasn’t lost her voice, she’s simply meowing at a pitch too high for your ears to detect. Cats can hear and utter sounds far above the level of human hearing. In fact, a cat’s ears are tuned such that they can most easily hear noises in the precise frequency which mice use to communicate – sounds that humans can’t perceive at all.