Whether they are greeting you at the door, asking for a meal, or letting you know you’re interrupting their fifteenth nap of the day, most cats have no qualms about speaking up and telling you how they feel. But, when it comes to vocalizing, your pet actually has more in common with their wild relatives than you may realize.
The way all cat species communicate is different than the methods used by humans; yet the ways they vocalize are effective and deeply significant to each other. Vocalizing helps cats in a variety of ways—from social bonding, to showing off, and even for self-defense. Here are some of the main methods of communication of both wild and domestic cats:
Roaring and Purring
For the most part, big cats (lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars) can roar, but they can’t purr. Cougars and smaller cats (bobcats, ocelots, lynxes, and house cats, among others) can purr, but they can’t roar.
Purring is possible because of tightly connected links of delicate bones that run from the back of a small cat’s tongue up to the base of the skull. When a cat vibrates its larynx, or voice box, it sets the twig-like, bones called hyoid bones to resonating. The hyoid is a U-shaped bone directly above the thyroid cartilage; also known as an Adam’s Apple in humans. No one knows for sure why smaller cat species developed this ability, but one theory is that a mother’s purr helps to camouflage the mewing of her nursing kittens—thus avoiding the attention of possible predators. If you listen to your own cat carefully, you will notice that their purr is one continuous sound that they make while breathing both in and out.
When it comes to big cats and roaring, a length of tough cartilage runs up the hyoid bones to the skull. This tough cartilage prevents purring but gives the larynx enough flexibility to produce a full-throated, terrifying roar. In the case of lions, their roar can easily be heard and “felt” up to five miles away—their deep roar is loud enough to almost reach a human’s pain threshold if they’re standing nearby. Although they can’t purr, lions do have the equivalent (or, in the case of some other big cats, the equivalent of a chuff. But more on chuffing later). Instead of purring, older lions will lowly moan and groan when socially bonding with one another, sometimes trying to drown each other out with their sounds.
Tigers are capable of roaring, but their roar sounds more like an impressively loud growl; a “growl” that can carry for almost two miles. A tiger’s roar can serve multiple purposes. It can be used as a warning to other tigers in their territory or serve as an invitation to potential mates.
Cheetahs are unique when it comes to vocalizations; they purr instead of roar and are in a special cat-category all their own; this is mainly because they can’t completely retract their claws like all other cats. Instead of roaring, they emit a high-pitched sound similar to a canary’s chirp. Cheetahs chirp when they are in distress, want to attract a mate (in the case of females), and when they need to locate each other.
Growling and Hissing
If you have multiple cats in your household, then there is no doubt you have probably heard your fair share of growling and hissing. All cats, both big and small, growl and hiss to some degree. Whether wild or tame, it’s easy to understand the meaning of these two sounds; the cat is not a happy camper. A growl is a raspy, guttural sound that is produced by pushing air through the cat’s vocal chords. Cats growl when they feel threatened (either by another cat or another animal), when they want to tell a pride member to back off, or to claim possession over something like dinner. If the message hasn’t quite been received, hissing usually follows. A hiss is created when a cat forces a short burst of air out through its arched tongue. Some feline experts believe that cats may have developed this defensive habit by imitating snakes; mimicking another species is a survival tactic among many animals. Hissing is primarily used as a last resort before a full-blown attack. But this serpent-like sound can also serve other purposes, such as establishing dominance in a hierarchy or intimidating a prey animal.
Tigers, Jaguars, Snow Leopards, and Clouded Leopards chuff. Chuffing—also called prusten—is the equivalent of a domestic cat’s purr. It is a low-intensity sound that a big cat will emit in short, loud bursts. To vocalize a chuff, air is blown through the nostrils while the mouth is closed, producing a breathy snort. It is typically accompanied by a head bobbing movement. It is often used between two cats as a greeting, during courting, or by a mother comforting her cubs. Chuffing is always used as a non-aggressive signal and helps to strengthen social bonds.
Surprisingly, meowing is not expressly reserved for domestic cats. Snow Leopards, Lion cubs, Cougars, and Cheetahs also meow. Meowing can be used to locate each other or simply a request for food or affection.
If there is more than one cat in your home, you may have noticed that domestic cats never meow at each other. House cats use meowing as form of communication with humans and no one else (you lucky human, to have such an honor bestowed upon you).
Just in case you may be new to cat ownership and are not quite sure what your cat is trying to tell you, here is a quick cat-to-human language lesson:
· Short meow—short and high-pitched, this just means “Hi!”
· Multiple meows—can be a sign your cat is happy to see you or wants attention.
· Mild-pitch meow—usually a request such as “Can I please have some food…pretty please?”
· Drawn-out, mild-pitched “mrroooow”—is more of a demand or an early warning of aggression/fear.
· Drawn out, low-pitch “MRRRooowww”—usually a complaint but, can also signal heightened aggression/fear. If agitated for much longer, the cat may lash out.
· High-pitched, loud “RRRROWW!”—is reserved for pain or maximum aggression. In this state, a cat is most likely to lash out at whatever is causing the agitation, fear, or pain.
It’s never much fun in any household when, for whatever reason, your cat(s) work themselves up into such a state that you hear hissing and yowling as the fur flies. But, when all the feline drama is over and done with and your cats have relaxed and returned to contentedly purring, appreciate the fact they took a little time to get in touch with their wild side.
Shelby Wyzykowski is a Gallery Presenter in CMNH’s Life Long Learning Department. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.