Cats "talk" so we listen (c) 2009-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen
all rights reserved
Cats express emotion and intent through body language, scent and vocal-
ization. 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 humans.
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 have 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 prox-
imity to people when they are seeking food. Individual owners are able to
gauge the message contained within “solicitation” purrs which are per-
ceived 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 ("def-
initely 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 70%.
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 versus meow.
As to how the human brain responds to positive and negative vocaliza-
tions, 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 we shop).
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. Profess-
ionals 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 comm-
unicate 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,
-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, Stockholm
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"We tend to be deficient in de-
ciphering 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 communi-
cating 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
their name and then take a look
around to figure just what it is
they are asking you to "see."
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