Why do cats purr and meow? The meaning of their vocal communication

At first glance (or listen), it might appear that a cat only has a small vocal repertoire of ‘meow’, ‘purr’ or ‘hiss’. However, studies on cat vocalisations show that the feline has at its disposal, a wide range of sounds to communicate with both their own kind and other species. Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour takes us on a journey to discover the vocal communication of this charming animal.

Meow: what a passion!

Whoever owns a cat knows that one of the most common ways for our feline to communicate with us is through their meow. However, the meow is multifaceted: the cat has adapted its meow to communicate more than one message. It also seems that cats have learned that their meows can evoke an immediate response from their owners as if they were responding to a crying baby.

Types of meows:

– Kittens meow in an insistent, prolonged and repetitive way to call for attention, or when they are hungry. Adult cats also use this vocalisation when they require food.

– A single meow, perhaps repeated after a small period of time, or as we speak to the cat, can be interpreted as a sign of greeting or a real communication. The cat may simply want to “talk” to us when we are in the same room. However, this type of meow is frequently misinterpreted by humans as a demand for food; so the cat learns that meows = eat. The cat then repeats this learned behaviour over and over; this can lead to problems with obesity.

– On other occasions, a meow is preceded by a sound that we could reproduce with a ‘prr’ … Again this is a greeting through which the cat lets us know that he is happy to see us.

In this first video, we find three examples of cat vocalisations: the first clip is a kitten that is in difficulty and is calling for assistance; the second clip is a request for food by adult cats, the third clip shows a classic greeting meow.

Our second video shows two typical examples of “conversations” between cats and their humans, and the third clip reveals a delightful chat between two cats.

Meowing to express moods

The meow is not just a communication tool for the cat: through these vocalisations the feline can also express its emotions and moods, such as fear, distress or discomfort. In the case of fear or discomfort, the meows will be deep and prolonged, as if they come from the throat. If the cat is disturbed, then the mewing will be brief. In the next video you will see two cats that express fear, the third cat expresses discomfort at the sight of a threatening hand, whilst the last is announcing its dislike of the style of petting. Never do these things with your cats!

Another distinct meow is the short, repeated meow that comes about when a cat watches birds and other wildlife out of the window; it wants to hunt its prey. You can see this in the next video.

Communication between one cat and another can be very dramatic. Many of you will have witnessed quarrels between cats and heard the meows that can reach a real crescendo of screams. Also in these cases, there will be an individual who expresses fear while the other expresses aggression: try to identify who is the aggressor in this next video!

Not just meows: but purrs

The most accepted theory as to how a cat purrs, is that the brain signals muscles in the larynx to vibrate, these muscle contractions open and close the glottis, which in turn passes air over the vocal chords. Cats generally purr during pleasant experiences such as petting, or cuddling; kittens also purr while drinking milk from their mum. In other cases, a cat also uses its purr as a form of comfort: it is therefore not uncommon for cats that are sick or suffering to purr. Above and beyond a meow, if a cat is extremely fearful, it will hiss loudly, with its mouth open. In these instances, the message is clear: do not come any closer!