Cats don’t learn by example, ones that are born deaf still vocalise even though they’ve never heard any sounds. Each one is born with the ability to purr and hiss but they need to learn when to use each sound appropriately.
Our cat friends are individuals and they appear to enjoy communicating with us, equally we love hearing them ‘talk’ to us. It makes us feel warm and special when they purr and gently vocalise to us but what exactly are they trying to tell us?
To start with, that characteristic ‘meow’ sound is only used with people! Kittens make little sounds that their mother responds to quickly. If the kittens live with humans they’ll continue to use this sound with their guardians. If they become feral, they’ll often communicate with other cats on an ultrasonic sound wave that humans can’t hear. They can be observed simply opening and closing their mouths when around other cats.
Each cat learns how to use their meow with their guardian. They quickly realise that they get a favourable response such as their dinner or being allowed out whenever they meow so chances are they’ll keep doing it. In other words, they’ve learned how to signal their human!
Cats usually talk to us in the following 3 ways: soft sounds made with their mouth closed; vowel patterns – sounds made as their mouth is closing (meow), and loud sounds as they keep their mouth open. Research shows that cats have up to 19 different vocal patterns, each one with its own unique sounds for their specific guardian. Guardians can learn to distinguish between their cat’s meows. Moggies who are in good form will often meow for a short time and it can sound higher. It’s like a ‘chirrup’ sound. If they’re distressed, the ‘ow’ sounds higher and if they’re disappointed, more emphasis will be on ‘ow’ rather than the whole meow. Hissing, growling or spitting sounds mean they’re feeling fearful or threatened.
Why cats purr is still a mystery although it seems to be related to kitten hood when their mother purred to them. Cats not only purr whenever they’re happy and content but also when they’re unwell. It would seem that purring is soothing so it helps them to relax and heal.
Some breeds talk more than others’; the Siamese is well known for being talkative. It seems it’s to do with how we talk with them and if they get rewarded for doing it.