What is Kitty Trying to Tell You?
By Allison Ford, DivineCaroline
I can barely stumble out of bed in the morning before my cat tries to strike up a conversation. As she goes through her busy day, she tells me when she’s ready to eat, when she wants to play, and if she’s in another room and sees a bug, she demands that I come vanquish it immediately. She doesn’t speak English, of course, but she’s trained me to correctly interpret every little sound she makes, from the meekest “meep” to the mightiest “MROW!”
Talk Kitty to Me
When cats communicate with each other, they do so almost silently. Felines mostly communicate through smell and body language, rarely having to raise their voices. Cats leave scent markers to tell other cats about their sex, their reproductive status, and their health, and when communicating face to face, they rely on a complex system of postures and body language to let each other know how they’re feeling. Cats are experts at communication, so with the exception of hisses and growls, most cat-to-cat interactions are wordless. When the humans enter the room, however, suddenly everyone’s got something to say. That’s because many of the vocalizations cats make are expressly for human benefit.
Cats start meowing when they’re kittens, in order to get their mother’s attention and food, and the most vocal babies are the ones who get the most of each. Domestic cats never grow out of this juvenile vocalization, because they’ve learned that it’s a pretty effective way to get what they want from people. It’s almost as if domestic cats think of us as mother figures, and they’re not afraid to let us know when they’re hungry, angry, or want some affection.
Animal behaviorists have identified sixteen distinct feline vocal patterns, including chirps and trills, hisses and growls, purrs, and meows. Recently, researchers from England determined that besides the regular persistent meows that cats use to get what they want, they also have a special “soliciting purr” that’s a meow embedded into a purr, and it’s especially useful when asking for a midnight snack or belly rub since the frequency and pitch mimic the urgent cries of human babies.
To cat owners, this isn’t news. Cats love to communicate with us, but they know that we prefer vocal communication to body language. Cats are experts at learning simple commands (words like “treat” and “play”) and their name, but what they usually respond to is the particular tone and pitch that humans use when talking to cats, and not necessarily the words themselves. The way we speak to pets is the same way we speak to babies, a simplified language called “baby talk” or “motherese,” and it’s full of repeated syllables, simplified words, and exaggerated facial expressions.Cats learn to respond to humans’ vocalizations by creating vocalizations of their own, even though their larynxes aren’t built for actual speech. They reply to human vocal communication in much the same way that babies learn to speak, through listening and imitation.
Cats and humans both use high-pitched tones to indicate friendliness or affection, and low-pitched grumbles when they’re displeased or upset. They even learn that certain sounds can serve different purposes. In my house, a request for dinner or a demand for play sound nothing like the particular sound made when my cat just wants to say hello. Cats quickly learn that when they respond to our vocalizations, they’re rewarded with food or attention. They learn to mimic our tone and expression just like babies do, so it’s no wonder that people think of their pets as furry children.
Your Chatty Cat
Not all cats are natural conversationalists, though. Certain breeds are very vocal, and certain breeds tend to be quieter. Siamese, Burmese, and Abyssinian cats are among the more talkative varieties, and domestic shorthairs, Persians, and Ragdolls tend to be quieter. However, exceptions do exist, and whether or not a cat is vocal can also depend on how friendly it is. Active, involved cats are more likely to be willing to chat than aloof loners. Many cat owners also find that the more they speak to their cat, the more their cat learns to speak back.
Cats have been domesticated for thousands of years and they’ve made evolutionary adaptations that allow them to live more harmoniously with humans. Vocalizing and “cat chat” might be some of those adaptations. Since domestic cats are so dependent on humans for their needs, learning to communicate more effectively is definitely an advantage, as it affords them access to more food and more protection from their human masters.
My cats have accepted that I don’t speak Cat, so they do their best to speak Human, and we get along just fine. It may make me feel like a strange cat lady sometimes, but there are few things better than seeing kitty run to the front door when I get home, ready to greet me with head bunts and friendly banter. Talking to the cats helps keep them calm, happy, and makes them feel like part of the family. Even if they can’t respond in words, I think they feel the same about talking to me.