The Special Language of Cats
Meow. Meeeeerrrooooww. MEEEOOOW!
Most of us (and certainly all Care2 readers!) recognize the sound of a cat. Our kitties talk to us when they are hungry, when they want to go outside, when they want to play, and when they do not want to be bothered while napping on a sunny ledge. An astute cat owner can discern between one meow and another and thus understand their feline’s needs and wants.
Interestingly, domestic cats seem to reserve most of their vocalizations for us. Cats communicate with each other primarily through body language and scent. Cat lovers around the world are familiar with flattened ears, an arched back, tail between the legs, tail erect and perky, and a urine spray on a fence post. This silent communication is a cat’s “native” tongue — a universal language all cats understand (maybe unless they have been nursed and nurtured from birth by a dog!)
Of course, domestic cats engage in some vocalization with each other, as anyone who has had a tomcat outside their window yowling for love, can attest. Additionally, the demonic-sounding drawn-out rrrrroowwwwwww, is a clear indication that two cats are engaged in a territorial dispute, as was captured in this YouTube video. (For a HILARIOUS human interpretation of this feline dispute check out: Talking Cat Turf War.) Kittens also rely heavily on mewing to communicate distress to their mama, and mama cat (the queen) will often respond by meowing back.
Cats also occasionally purr to each other to communicate (the classic example is the queen and kittens purring during a nursing event) and they will purr to themselves when injured, likely as a calming technique, but again, they seem to purr primarily for us to show their contentment (please, please, please keep rubbing my belly). That low-rumbling happy feline sound is indeed one of the things many people find so delightful about their cats.
Most of a cat’s mellower mews and meows are however reserved for us humans, who from the cat’s perspective, seem quite daft at reading scent marks and body language. It is thought that domestic cats developed such a wide repertoire of “words” specifically because the humans they depend on miss a cat’s subtler cues. Some cats have been recorded as having over 30 different vocalizations reserved just for their favorite humans such as Meeerrrrow: Hello, I am happy to see you! or Mrrew, Mrrew Mrrew: Feed me now, I am hungry!! An alternative explanation as to why our cats vocalize with us so regularly, is that in many ways domestic cats that depend on humans for food, water, shelter, and protection are “stuck” in a protracted kittenhood — and like kittens they must continually vocalize their needs to their provider.
In contrast to the pampered house cat, feral cats rely heavily on nonverbal communication and typically meow very little, if at all. Scent marking, posture, whisker position, tail position, ear position, and facial expression are far more important “cat to cat” than a fancy repertoire of meows. Since feral cats are typically not dependent on humans, there simply is little need to employ a “second language.” They of course use all the major yowls and growls as needed, but these sounds are more often than not a last resort to get a warning across to other cats they cannot clearly see.
So it appears that the process of feline domestication has taken a rather quiet animal and turned it into a rather chatty animal; and just as can be said of humans, some are chattier — and cattier — than others!