CAT VOCALISATION TYPES
by Susanne Schötz
This sub-project aims at categorising the many different cat sounds into distinct types. It is work in progress, and this page will be updated regularly as I learn more about the different cat vocalisations. More links to videos with examples of the different sounds will also be added.
(based on Moelk, 1944, McKinley 1982 and my own recordings and phonetic analyses)
Sounds produced with the mouth closed
- purr(ing): low-pitched regular sound produced during alternating (pulmonic) egressive and ingressive airstream when the cat is content, hungry, stressed, in pain, gives birth or is dying; probably signals ”I do not pose a threat”
- trill, chirr, chirrup, grunt, murmur: a short and often soft meow rolled on the tongue, i.e. a voiced trill or purr (sometimes a bit harsh) used e.g. during friendly approach and greeting, and during play. Grunts (murmurs) are usually more low-pitched, while trills or chirr(ups) are more high-pitched. Sometimes cats combine a grunt or trill with a meow sound, thus producing more complex vocalisation types.
Sounds produced with an opening-closing mouth
- meow (miaow): Meows can be assertive, plaintive, friendly, bold, welcoming, attention soliciting, demanding, or complaining, sad, or even be silent (cf. wikipedia, 2016)
a. mew: a high-pitched meow with [i], [ɪ] or [e] quality; kittens may use it to solicit attention from their mother, and adult cats may use it when they are sad or in distress or when they signal submissiveness
b. squeak: raspy nasal high-pitched mew-like call
c. moan: with [o] or [u] vowel, often when sad or demanding
d. meow (or miaow): combination of vowels resulting in the characteristic [iau] sequence, often used in cat-human communication to solicit food or to pass an obstacle (e.g. a closed door or window) Adult cats mainly meow to humans, and seldom to other cats, so adult meow could be a post-domestication extension of mewing by kittens.
- trill-meow: a combination of a trill (chirrup, chirr, murmur) and a meow
- howl, yowl, moan or anger wail: long and often repeated vocalic warning signals usually produced by gradually opening the mouth wider and closing it again. During a threatening situation, they are often merged or combined with by growls in long sequences with slowly varying tone (melody) and intensity
- mating call (mating cry): long sequences of meow-like sounds, sometimes similar to howling and/or the cries of human infants, usually in spring during the mating season.
Sounds produced with an open tense mouth
These sounds are often associated with either offensive or defensive aggression (agonistic vocalisations), but also with prey-directed vocalisations
- growl: a guttural, harsh, regularly and rapidly pulse-modulated, low-pitched sound of usually long duration produced during a slow steady exhalation, [grrr..] with a vocalic [rrr...] or rhotic [ʌ], occasionally beginning with an [m]. Used to signal danger or to warn or scare off an opponent, often intertwined with howls/moans/yowls and hisses
- hiss and spit: involuntary reactions to when a cat is surprised by an (apparent) enemy. The cat changes position with a startle and breath is being forced rapidly through the slightly open mouth before stopping suddenly; [fːt], [ɧː] or [çː], hissing and spitting are agonistic (aggressive and defensive) sounds produced with the mouth wide open and the teeth exposed, They sound a bit like long exhalations. The spit sounds similar to a hiss, but sometimes can begin with a t-like sound; [tʃ].
- snarl, cry or pain shriek: loud, harsh and high-pitched vocalisations produced during active fighting, often with [a] or [æ] vowel qualities
- chirp and chatter (prey-directed sounds): a hunting instinct where cats copy the calls of their prey, e.g. when a bird or insect catches their attention (by making a sound) and the cat becomes riveted to the prey, and starts to chirp, tweet and chatter:
a. chatter (teeth chattering): unvoiced very quick stuttering or clicking sequences of sounds with the jaws juddering, [k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟=]
b. chirp: voiced short calls said to be mimicking a bird or rodent chirp, sound similar to a high-pitched phone ring, tone often rises near the end, [ʔə] or reiterated [ʔɛʔɛʔɛ...]
c. tweet: soft weak chirps, often without any clear initial [ʔ] and with varying vowel qualities, e.g. [wi] or [ɦɛu].
d. tweedle: prolonged chirps or tweets, often with some voice modulation, like tremor or quaver, e.g. [ʔəɛəɰə]