Cats "talk" so we listen (c) 2009-2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
Cats express emotion and intent through body language, scent and vocalization. In
their natural environments cats are thought to mainly employ a wide range of
vocalizations for interactions between mother and kittens, sexual interactions and
aggressive encounters. Cats also use vocalizations for a fourth interaction, with
There are two major types of feline vocalizations, single type calls like a growl or a hiss
or mixed calls combining varied vocalizations. If you live with a cat and have spent
any time trying to figure out what it is that they want or just what it is they are
trying to tell you, you’ve probably been helped along by a purr here and a trill there. A
hungry cat or a cat who wants attention has a definite way of letting you know it.
A 2009 study in Current Biology found that cats purr differently in proximity to people
when they are seeking food. Individual owners are able to gauge the message contained
within “solicitation” purrs which are perceived as “more urgent and less pleasant.”
While dogs, whose primary sense is smell, have keyed more into our reliance on the
visual, honing shared eye contact with us, our feline companions have come to rely on
our ability to interpret the meaning in a range of auditory signals or words for humans
and purrs and meows for cats. We tend to be deficient in deciphering such "cat speak "
seen in tail up ("greetings friend/ happy to see you"), whiskers back ("definitely
concerned here"), airplane ears ("not happy/angry") or eye blinks ("let's be friends/it's
all good"), for starters, so cats communicating with humans have developed what
appears to be a particularly effective repertoire to help us help them.
A 2004 article in the Journal of Comparative Psychology notes that meows may be the
most widespread cat-to-human verbal communication and can last for a fraction of a
second or several seconds. Meows can begin or end with a trill or a growl and typically
rise and fall in tone. Believe it or not, these calls are not so common cat-to-cat, kittens
both undomesticated and not will vocalize but usually stop when they reach adulthood.
(That cats continue to meow to us as adults, especially around mealtimes, is not so
surprising when you realize we continue to provide cats with their main source of food,
just like mom did when they were babies.) Meowing, is in fact, found in only about 5 of
the 40 cat species that exist. The African wild cat -thought to be the ancestor of the
house cat, is one of the cats that do meow. But when the author tested the reactions of
human listeners comparing the meows of the African wild cat to those of the domestic
cats the results were in favor of domestic cats.
A later study, done in 2014, looked at whether or not unrelated human listeners were
able to judge if meows occurred in scenarios the cats would consider negative or
positive. In this study the researchers tested recordings of meows related to feeding
times versus those recorded while waiting to visit a veterinarian. The food related
meows were characterized by rising tonal patterns while the vet related meows had
falling tonal patterns. The human listeners were able to correctly identify the context
65% of the time, for those listeners who had experience with cats the percentage rose to
Generally, with cats and other animals, including humans, vocalizations that are
associated with fear or affiliation tend to be higher and more tonal where vocalizations
associated with aggression tend to be lower in frequency and not tonal. Think growl
As to how the human brain responds to positive and negative vocalizations, a 2008
study looked at MRI results when humans are exposed positive and negative
vocalizations of rhesus monkeys and cats compared to similar contexts for human
vocalizations. When asked to identify the animal vocalizations, the humans responded
correctly 67% of the time for positive contexts and 71% for negative, compared to 78%
for positive human contexts and 70% for negative.
The researchers found differences in the human brain response to negative and positive
vocalizations in the areas of the brain that are associated with auditory processes as
opposed to emotional and decision making processes. There was a greater response in
the secondary auditory cortex to negative vocalizations (these vocalizations tend to be
of longer duration) and a greater response in the region of the brain (orbitofrontal
cortex or OFC) associated with emotional response, in this region of the brain, there was
no difference in whether the response was to human or animal vocalizations. This
suggests that even when we may not be consciously aware of what the message may be
from a sender we are aware of it on another level of processing and no doubt respond to
it in some way (perhaps why we're buying all those different cat food flavors each time
A ongoing study launched in 2016, aims to record and analyze hundreds of cats and
their vocalizations to humans in their home environments in different regions of
Sweden for prosodic patterns or patterns of rhythm and pattern found in language. Is
"cat speak" influenced by the dialects or language patterns of humans? Well, if they
are talking to us in the first place, it is entirely possible. For cats, the researchers are
looking to isolate distinct patterns of intonation, length, intensity and voice quality in
various contexts as well as whether these variables are shifted as the contexts shifts or
what are the cats "saying" and when, further evidence that the cats themselves are
aware of what messages are contained in their human directed vocalizations.
While, there is no disagreement that cats have learned to produce different meows
directed at humans for different purposes there is not an agreement that all cats know
what they are saying. In this study, the researchers point out, cat expert, John
Bradshaw's belief that meows are: "an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound
rather than some universal cat– human ‘language.’” In other words, each cat learns
how to meow individually to each human. The study author's contend in response: "If
each cat and owner develop their own arbitrary vocal communication codes, other
humans would be less able to identify meows uttered by unfamiliar cats." Good point
and why the authors are also hoping to determine if most cats are using similar
vocalization patterns and if experienced human listeners are responding to them.
The authors have additionally proposed testing how responsive "baby talk" is with cats.
This sort of speech pattern tends to utilize a higher pitch which is more effective with
dogs than with cats. For cats with exquisite hearing being their primary sense, it is
best to appeal to it softly. Professionals working directly with cats recommend using
your "elevator voice" around cats. There's a reason the melodic tones of classical music
benefit cats as opposed to the more discordant types of music like heavy metal.
Further evidence that cats have developed more effective ways to communicate with
humans are helpful for science. Additional research is needed to identify if adult cats
do vocalize to each other in cat colonies with human caretakers, especially those where
social relationships exists including shared parental care, common among related
felines. And how much meowing is going compared to other vocalizations in those cat-
human households where cats are allowed regular outside hunting forays.
For practical purposes, the careful and experienced listener and observer already
knows that cats do communicate with humans. The resourceful cat with a rich
inventory of scent to pick up on as well as leave behind and body language, including
significant eye, ear, tail and whisker positioning has already figured out that as visual
as we are we are not visual enough to "read" cat and has met us on common ground -
vocalizations. Use your soft "elevator voice: and remember, the next time your cat
says something to you, give it the favor of a response, start with a soft verbal
acknowledgement including their name and then take a look around to figure just
what it is they are asking you to "listen" to.
McComb, K., A.M. Taylor, Wilson, C., B.D. Charlton (2009). The cry embedded within the purr. Current
Biology. 19. R507-R508.
Nicastro, N. (2004). Perceptual and Acoustic Evidence for Species-Level Differences in Meow
Vocalizations by Domestic Cats (Felis catus) and African Wild Cats (Felis silvestris lybica). Journal of
Comparative Psychology. 118, 287-296.
Schötz, S., & van de Weijer, J. (2014). A Study of Human Perception of Intonation in Domestic Cat Meows.
In M. Heldner (Ed.), Proceedings from Fonetik 2014. 89-94. Department of Linguistics, Stockholm
Belin, Pascal & Fecteau, Shirley & Charest, Ian & Nicastro, Nicholas & Hauser, Marc & L Armony, Jorge.
(2008). Human cerebral response to animal affective vocalizations. Proceedings. Biological sciences /
The Royal Society. 275. 473-81.
Schötz, S., Eklund, R. & van de Weijer, J. (2016). Melody in Human–Cat Communication (Meowsic):
Origins, Past, Present and Future, Proceedings from Fonetik 2016. Speech, Music and Hearing, KTH,
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"We tend to be deficient in
deciphering such "cat speak " seen in
tail up ("greetings friend/happy to
see you"), whiskers back ("definitely
concerned here"), airplane ears ("not
happy/angry") or eye blinks ("let's be
friends/it's all good"), for starters, so
cats communicating with humans
have developed what appears to be a
particularly effective repertoire to
help us help them."
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"For practical purposes, the careful
and experienced listener and
observer already knows that cats do
communicate with humans. The
resourceful cat with a rich inventory
of scent and body language,
including significant eye, ear, tail and
whisker positioning has already
figured out that as visual as we are
we are not visual enough to "read"
cat and has met us on common
ground - vocalizations. Use your soft
"elevator voice: and remember, the
next time your cat says something to
you, give it the favor of a response,
start with a soft verbal
acknowledgement including their
name and then take a look around to
figure just what it is they are asking
you to "see."
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