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What is Kitty Trying to Tell You?

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Speaking Felinese
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.

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Read more: Behavior & Communication, Cats, Pets

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418 comments

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3:34AM PDT on Aug 18, 2014

ty

3:57AM PDT on Aug 10, 2014

Cats are fascinating.

9:17AM PDT on Aug 8, 2014

My cat wakes me up every morning at about the same time by meowing. She has food, so I know she is wanting a good morning petting. And as the author stated - 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. Priceless.

7:59PM PDT on Aug 5, 2014

Yes, John S, while cats sleep more often than do dogs, they still manage to pack a lot into a purrfect day and evening.

The cat that owns me believes that a meowing opera is in order as soon as I go into the kitchen a prepare a meal, even if it is salad. She sings a non-stop opera while I am in the kitchen, even with a food bowl that is full.

3:21PM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

I´m even convinced that my cats understand every word I say, f. ex. if I say one of them´s silly with a friendly voice, he/she will be offended, hahaha!!! Aaaaawww, what a cute kitten, I understand my 3 furry kids very well, but I´ve already been growing up with cats...

8:58AM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

One of my cat simply go bezerk with giving me love bite and little head ''poke'' to my legs, when I whistle :-) . He also go is lenght to meows very long single mew. This is pretty funny! I wonder if there's a guiness record for that :-P

9:42AM PDT on Jul 30, 2014

great article, thank you

9:19AM PDT on Jul 8, 2014

Our cat just says,"hurry up.Breakfast. Supper's in the cupboard. Faster. Faster."

12:27PM PDT on Jun 27, 2014

I know both of my cats' vocal arrangements, the little terrors, from 'Mehhhh' ('Give me my own way, immediately') to "M-roooo' ('OK, I give up, but I'm not happy about it'.

4:45AM PDT on May 20, 2014

One of my cat's answers when you ask her something and she really likes to initiate a conversation too.
My other cat mainly makes the prrrrrrt sound when she goes and lays herself down in the middle of the doorway...as if to warn you not to accidentally trip over her, and she tends to miep when I get home.

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