Cat Chat: Understanding What Your Cat is Saying.

You know when you hear that familiar purr that your cat is happy and content with the world, right? Not always. It may surprise you to learn that when a cat is nervous or worried, she can also signal her anxieties by purring

The Anatomy of a Cat's Purr.

Cat Chat
The young kitten meows to get mom’s attention*

As a cat owner, you associate certain sounds with certain behaviors in your cat. Just like humans or other animals, cats use vocalization to communicate with the world around them; from warning signs that they’re not happy, to demanding attention or food.

The voice box (larynx) is located at the back of the throat where it serves as a passage for airflow from the external environment into the windpipe (trachea) and the lungs. The larynx protects the delicate lung structure from aspiration during swallowing and regurgitation and enables vocalization.

The purring sound you hear from a cat does not involve any specific anatomy of the vocal cords. Instead, it comes from rapid movement of the muscles of the larynx combined with simultaneous movement of the diaphragm (at an astonishing rate of around 20-30 times per second.) When the cat inhales and exhales, air touches the vibrating muscles which leads to generation of a purr.
The purr itself is unique to each cat and can vary in tone and volume, and the cat has some control over this and can produce different sounds dependent on the mood. In addition, when a cat is eager to get your attention, he or she will combine both purring and meowing, known as a “solicitation purr.” It has been found that a kitten will first purr only a few days after birth, and may be able to vocalize a higher pitched meow from the moment she is born.

Understanding Cat Lingo.

Purring is generally associated with happiness and relaxation in the cat. When they’re sleepy, curled up on your lap or next to you while you're stroking them — particularly under the chin or by the ears — you may hear a warm, low purr.

However, it has been found that when a cat is in pain or anxious, for example awaiting a trip to the veterinarian, they might also purr as a signal of their emotional unrest. They have even been known to purr while giving birth.

With this in mind, it’s thought that purring accompanies a mechanism that aids rest and repair in the cat. Therefore, when they experience some form of emotional high — whether pleasant, as in the case of a being stroked or stressed due to anxiety or pain — purring accompanies the physiological processes that goes along with the emotions.

The meow is slightly different in that it is a language that has evolved in domesticated cats to communicate with humans. Although a cat might hiss, spit or use a very low grumble if it feels threatened by another cat, they will never meow to the other cat, but rather communicate through scent and body language.

The only exception to this is in a newborn litter where the kitten uses a tiny meow to attract their mother’s attention. However, once they have grown and no longer rely on nursing, this action stops. Domestic cats have learned that humans respond in a similar way to their mothers when they meow, and a language has evolved because unlike cats, their owner cannot respond to scent or body language.

The meow is individual to each cat and can vary in tone, length and volume. The varying tones of the meow signal different messages, but are fairly consistent across all cats:

  • Short, sharp “mew” – Hi!
  • Multiple short meows – A more excited hello, “Hey, mom. I’m really happy to see you!”
  • Mid pitch, louder meow – “I’m hungry. Please feed me.”
  • A long drawn out “meeeeeeoooooooowwwwwwwwww “ – They are demanding, “NOW.”
  • Low pitched “mrrrrrrrrooooowwww” – Complaint, “I want my food and you haven’t given it to me.”
  • High pitched “RRROOOOWWW” – Anger or pain.

Cats quickly learn which type of meow triggers the best response, and in some cases this can develop into a type of nagging.

For example, if your cat meows for food and you respond every time by giving her food, the cat will continue to meow until you respond and give them food. Should you ignore them, this can become louder and increasingly more insistent until you give in. This can be prevented early on by not immediately responding with food every time that your cat “asks.”

Each cat has her own unique method of communication. When getting to know them you will soon gain insight into their way of chatting with you.

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*Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club