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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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At DivineCaroline.com, women come together to learn from experts in the fields, of health, sustainability, and culture; to reflect on shared experiences; and to express themselves by writing and publishing stories about anything that matters to them. Here, real women publish like real pros. Together, with our staff writers, they’re discussing all facets of women’s lives from relationships and careers, to travel and healthy living. So come discover, read, learn, laugh and connect at DivineCaroline.com.

400 comments

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4:36PM PDT on Apr 15, 2014

I never found the same level of communication with the cats I've had as with my dogs, but that's probably because I didn't spend as much time with them. Dogs and cats both communicate a lot more with scent than we realize. Once I started imitating them, I could also begin to smell differences in each animals health. It has really helped.

12:14PM PDT on Apr 13, 2014

Thanks.

12:09PM PDT on Apr 13, 2014

We've had our cat for almost 15 years. The last time my husband took her to the vet; she miawed in her usual expressive way and the other people in the waiting room told him, astonished. Oh! Your cat is talking to you! Yes, indeed she was! She trusts him totally.

9:56AM PDT on Mar 17, 2014

Thank you.

1:15PM PDT on Mar 15, 2014

Thank you

8:18PM PDT on Mar 13, 2014

Thank you for posting!

8:01PM PDT on Mar 13, 2014

One of our cats actually can meow in a way that its sounds very much like now
especially when Its mealtime !

8:27PM PDT on Mar 11, 2014

I love my Cali and I know I shouldn't compare to Angel my 20 year old who passed away lately she was a perfect friend,understood everything I said knew all kinds of commands, fetch , sit,meet me at the door, never tried to go out, knew where to sit when wanting treats miss her so much, Cali won't let the dog or I sleep,I have so many scars from her jumping on me, and she keeps wanting out,anyone have ideas how to fix this?

2:02PM PST on Mar 8, 2014

Thanks

7:13PM PST on Mar 1, 2014

Nothing new for a cat owner.

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