How to Understand Cat Language

posted: 05/15/12
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Cat Language
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You may be surprised by how much they communicate despite their limited vocalizations. Along with their long-distance olfactory dialogues and close-up exchanges of body-language signals, felines possess their own vocabulary of sounds. Long considered a marginal element in the communication system of cats, their spoken language is surprisingly evolved and effective, especially in domestics.


In the wild, big cats roar to lay claim to territory and intimidate interlopers. Small felines prefer less conspicuous ways of communicating that won't alert predators to their presence. Even if they did yearn to let loose an earth-shattering roar, they couldn't. The bony composition of a structure called the hyoid that attaches the larynx to the skull severely limits the small cat's vocal range, wild as well as domestic. In big felines, the hyoid is composed of cartilage and allows for a flexibility that, coupled with a large chest cavity, produces far greater resonance. Despite volume limitations, small cats still vocalize. When confronting rivals before or during a fight, all felines exercise some combination of growls, high-pitched threats, spits and hisses to tell their opponents exactly what they think.

Speaking Cat

Studies disagree on the actual number of feline vocalizations, but three categories of sounds generally are recognized: vowels, murmurs and high-intensity sounds.

- The classic — meow — originating in the kitten's plaintive or anxious — mew — contains vowel sounds. Adult cats express variations of this vocalization to state their demands for food or attention, register complaints and convey bewilderment. A slight alteration in tone, pace or punctuation changes the meaning.

- Murmurs are usually happy sounds, along with purrs, trills and chirrups of greeting or contentment, uttered through closed mouths.

- The feline's repertoire of high-intensity sounds, such as angry or fearful hissing, spitting, growling and shrieking, is most often directed at other cats. And the ultimate purpose of a female's wail while in heat is to attract males.

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