Cats "talk" so we listen

By 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 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 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. (Continue Reading Below.)