Let’s Talk About Talk!

By Jackson Galaxy

Without fail, the most fascinating information about the cat world comes to us from our clients, subscribers and cat-loving friends, not merely from “book learning.” This time, we’d like to have a virtual roundtable with all of our readers about the topic of cat vocalization. We see many questions come to us around this topic. For instance, our friend and subscriber Lea W. from Lafayette, CO writes:

“I am wondering if people have done research on how cats communicate among themselves? What I have observed with my two darlings is that they often “talk” to one another verbally—it usually sounds like a question to me, and is usually a prelude to a wrestling match or a chase around the house…they never fight for real, so these conversations are not disagreements or arguments. They are merely “what’s up?” kind of conversations, I think…It would be fascinating to know more about how cats communicate with each other when they live together.”

From another perspective, I found this query from an anonymous poster on an Ethology listserve back in 1997:

“I heard recently that while domestic cats make the famous “meow” sound, this is not innate behavior in that they don’t (usually) use it to communicate with other cats, nor do wild or feral cats use this sound. Rather, this sound is used almost exclusively to communicate with humans.” The poster goes on to wonder if there had been any studies on cats mimicking human vocal patterns, since he had personally experienced “meows” that sounded unbelievably close to “hellos.”

When I set out to write this article, it was to explain the knowledge we have, in a scientific rather than experiential sense, about cat vocalizations. But, as time went on, there were so many more questions than answers that appeared, and the conclusion felt obvious—that was to open the floor for stories, experiences about how your cats verbally respond to each other, you and the other humans in your home, and the world around them.

Lets start with the facts. The accepted model continues to be the one put forward by M. Moelk in 1944. Cat vocalizations are divided into 3 categories with the following subcategories:

Murmur Pattern
1.    Grunt
2.    Purr
•    I – Greeting (request)
3.    Call
4.    Acknowledgment

Vowel Patterns
1.    Demand
a)    Whisper
b)    Begging Demand

2.    Bewilderment
a)    Worry
3.    Complaint
4.    Mating Cry (mild form)
5.    Anger Wail

Strained Intensity Patterns
1.    Growl
2.    Snarl
3.    Hiss
a)    Spit
4.    Mating Cry (intense form)
5.    Scream
6.    Refusal

Famed cat watcher Desmond Morris has suggested that the whole vocabulary of the vocal sounds of cats can be broken down into six simple messages: I am angry; I am frightened; I am in pain; I want attention; come with me; and I am inoffensive. However, one has to believe that a specific cat’s breed, age and life experience both with other cats and with humans, must shade this translation guide.

From my own experience, I know that cats have adapted many of their vocal patterns to fit the humans they live with. What the anonymous Ethology poster noted is something I see not only with my cats but with my clients—the plaintive “I’m hungry” mew for instance, sometimes seems like a spot-on mimic of their guardians asking, “are you hungry?”

Let’s face it—cats’ sense of hearing rates as one of the top in the whole animal kingdom. Cats can hear sounds as high-pitched as 65 KHz; a human’s hearing stops at just 20 KHz. Their vocal habits, then, should reflect this amazing range. My conclusion is that they use vocal patterns in our hearing range strictly for our benefit. If you’ve ever seen the “silent meow,” you can conclude one of two things: either they never got to explore vocalization properly during their crucial learning phase, or they are communicating—we just can’t hear it.

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