Cat vocalizations
June 14, 2008 1:40 PM   Subscribe

My cat often communicates with me through these short vocalizations made while his mouth is closed. They sound like muffled, abbreviated meows and remind me of a broken telephone (old school telephone -- the kind with the bell).

He does it whenever he's lurking around me but usually when I glance in his direction. And he does it all the time.

I have owned many cats, but never one who vocalized so much in such a funny way. Is this actually common? Is it limited to any specific breeds (he's a short hair black cat), or just to certain personality types? Do feline behaviorists have a word for it?
posted by christopherious to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Both of mine do it. Seems normal to me for vocal cats.
posted by loiseau at 1:44 PM on June 14, 2008

I had a cat who did that when it was killing something/about to kill something. Also short haired black cat.
posted by sondrialiac at 1:45 PM on June 14, 2008

I had a short-haired black cat, and she was talkative too. I always thought it was just because she had some Siamese in her.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 1:46 PM on June 14, 2008

Response by poster:
Both of mine do it. Seems normal to me for vocal cats.
Yet I've owned and known many vocal cats who didn't subvocalize like this (I know, that's not quite the word for it).
posted by christopherious at 1:59 PM on June 14, 2008

Response by poster:
I had a cat who did that when it was killing something/about to kill something. Also short haired black cat.
Mine also does this when he's stalking/hunting. But it's usually less abbreviated and so I think these might be different classes of sounds.
posted by christopherious at 2:01 PM on June 14, 2008

Response by poster:
I had a short-haired black cat, and she was talkative too. I always thought it was just because she had some Siamese in her.
I've often been told that the black cats have unique behavioral traits such as this one due to their Siamese heritage, but I still don't know where this idea originally came from.
posted by christopherious at 2:03 PM on June 14, 2008

Are you talking about the abbreviated trilling sound? I have one cat that does it all the time, one that rarely does, and one that never does. For the one that does it all the time, it seems to be an "answer" because she usually does it when I say something conversational to her, like "What are you doing?" or "Where are you going?"
posted by amyms at 2:14 PM on June 14, 2008

One of my black DSH cats does this, though it sounds more like a squeak. The other one (also a black DSH) meows/howls. Search for "chirp" on this page, it has a lot of interesting info.

Also, from this page:
Chirping Sound
With un-altered females, a chirping type of cat vocalization is a signal she's in heat (ovulating and ready for a mate.) They may also howl mournfully, if they are isolated from males. Another possible reason for a cat's chirping, is if it's excited by the prospect of a kill.
posted by desjardins at 2:18 PM on June 14, 2008

When I was a kid we had a tuxedo cat who did that when he was 'stalking' the pigeons outside the window. We called it his "I'm a pigeon, don't notice me" noise, because it sounded kind of like he was trying to imitate the pigeons cooing.
posted by lovecrafty at 2:35 PM on June 14, 2008

My old cat Qu'Appelle, a buff tabby/Tonkinese mix, would talk like this all the time. She was a very vocal cat.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:42 PM on June 14, 2008

My cat Scarlet was also very talkative. She'd mostly go a high pitch "hmmmm", but would also meow back at me, especially when I immitated her own meow. I got to learn her language, I can say. The vet always said siamese cats are very vocal (she was half siamese).
posted by neblina_matinal at 2:47 PM on June 14, 2008

My cats have always done this, though each one sounds a little different. My Maine Coon will look at me when he's sleepy and tilt his chin at me and "chirp" like "what? what are you looking at?" Then roll over and go back to sleep. My little white shorthair barely does it at all, but every so often... And as far as I can remember, all the cats I had growing up did it too.

Maybe it's the human equivalent of a close-mouthed "Hmm?"
posted by GardenGal at 2:52 PM on June 14, 2008

Best answer: Prusten?
posted by brain cloud at 3:34 PM on June 14, 2008

I think cats become more vocal the more they trust you. Our cat had a dicey background and was very scared and silent for a long time. It took years, but now she's fat and sleek and old and happy, and talks a whole lot, to let us know (I imagine) that she could have done worse than us.
posted by frosty_hut at 3:42 PM on June 14, 2008

I believe it's called chittering.
posted by wafaa at 3:55 PM on June 14, 2008

I had three sibling cats for many years, burmese crosses (only one is still alive). They all made a large variety of noises which didn't completely overlap. One of them made noises just like you're describing and another made other noises which were similar (but higher pitched and with a trill), the other didn't really make those noises at all. So it couldn't have been strictly inherited or strictly learned (since they were siblings that grew up together) and individual personality obviously played large part in what they said.

Some things are inherited though. Oriental background cats tend to be more vocal overall and there are breed specific trends to the type of vocalisation too. Burmese are chatty like siamese but less high pitched and yowly. I have a part siamese cat now and she can bust out a huge 'mouw' noise unlike any noises the burmese crosses made. So the inclination to make noise and the types of noises able to be made is probably inherited, but how it comes out can be quite individual.

Some of it is learned too. I read in an academically researched cat behaviour book that domestic cats become more vocal in time as they respond to our talking to them. When left to themselves cats don't rely on vocal interactions as much as their body language, scent marking, etc, so they don't 'talk' as much. However humans use voice to communicate, with each other and with the cats, so pet cats learn to do the same. This is why they often become more chatty as they get older and more integrated into the family. I think its a combination of training (we respond to the noises) and copying (they see us making the noises) but I could be making that part up.

So the use of this little noise to communicate is probably partially due to genetic background (since a black short hair is likely to have an oriental background somewhere), partially due to learning (since you probably give him attention when he does it), and largely due to individual personality. That particular cat just has that particular noise as part of his repertoire. Personally I'd be pretty happy if I could swap out my little black cat's yowl for the telephone churp, fortunately she's excruciatingly cute otherwise.
posted by shelleycat at 4:31 PM on June 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

I have a brown Burmese who makes a raspy, closed mouth "Mmmmpth!!" sound when he's confused, curious or upset (see: this afternoon's bath). He sounds remarkably like Marge Simpson.
posted by maudlin at 4:37 PM on June 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

My kitty's also a short haired black cat, and he makes the same funny noises when I look his way. It's like he's asking. "whatcha lookin' at?" :)
posted by yeoja at 5:00 PM on June 14, 2008

Maybe it's the human equivalent of a close-mouthed "Hmm?"

Sounds exactly like that. My roommate's cat (short-haired tabby mix) does this all the time, especially when you say her name or look at her. She clearly thinks she's communicating.

It's adorable.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:21 PM on June 14, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, lots of great info here. Yes, trilling, chirping, chittering, churp, saying "hmmm?" are all exactly what I'm talking about. The closest to something scientific that I've seen here, so far, is is the Prusten reference, only there's no real tone in the sound clip linked on Wikipedia. It would be great to hear a natural example of this (or even a big cat that lives in captivity doing it). But I do feel like I'm starting to get it.
posted by christopherious at 5:54 PM on June 14, 2008

Best answer: As a professional keeper of lions and tigers i agree that the prusten sound (in the zoo society we usually use the term chuffing) is one of pleasure and greeting. And a tiger cub making the sound is quite possibly one of the most sweet/happy/fill me with joy sounds I have ever heard. And they use more of their voice when doing it as opposed to an adult who uses mostly air and vibrations. I would put it in the category of the chirrping of domestic cats. A mother chuffs at her cubs and they chuff back, it is an all is well greeting. Our tigers would chuff at us all the time when good stuff was happening like we were coming in the morning or they had just awoken from a nap. Lions on the other hand don't really chuff but instead do more of the maow sound like a Siamese would, except much much lower. I have recorded this just for my own pleasure with my cellphone I wouldn't know the first thing about putting that on the internet though. I will try and find some good examples online. I bet a zoodatabase has something somewhere. In the meantime try googling Chuffing Sound maybe?
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet at 6:11 PM on June 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

on review the sound that is up on wikipedia is a very good captured "typical" chuff - adult tigers don't really make a sound when they chuff.. I guess it does sound closer to purring than chirrping but they don't just sit and chuff like a cat sits and purrs. They use it when your cat would choose to use the chirrping sound.
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet at 6:14 PM on June 14, 2008

This video shows lots of it.
posted by loiseau at 7:27 PM on June 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks guys! Very interesting stuff.
posted by christopherious at 7:33 PM on June 14, 2008

Best answer: The info about tigers is all very nice but you don't actually have a tiger living in your house. Instead you have a felis catus, or domestic cat, which has a very different anatomy and vocal structures than a tiger (reference). All that stuff about chuffing isn't really relevant to your actual question.

Looking at the scientific literature (what I can access of it today anyway), what I wrote above is basically correct. The number of vocalisations available to felis catus is fairly broad with a number of sounds possible (reference), not all of which are displayed by any individual cat. Which noises are used by each cat is a combination of inheritance and learned and largely comes down to the individual make up of each cat.

As others have mentioned the noise you are talking about is a closed mouth noise that isn't purring (chirriping or murmuring, there are several names) and it's generally used as a greeting or similar. However, humans are pretty good at reading more into animal vocalisations than might be there (reference) so I'm always wary of claims to fully understand what a cat is supposed to be saying.

A couple of articles about felis catus vocalisation: The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour" (Chapter 5, I had some problems with the google books preview so I hope it works) and Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. They're both a little broad but there are some good references.

Keep in mind that this stuff really isn't fully understood yet and the scientific literature is often somewhat vague or inconclusive. There is no absolute answer about what your cat means when he does that one thing or why he does it and my cat doesn't, frustrating as that is as an answer.
posted by shelleycat at 8:41 PM on June 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

My (altered, female, black & white shorthair) cat makes this noise when birds use the feeder suction-cupped to the window. It seems to mean THEY ARE INCHES AWAY I AM UNCONTROLLABLY EXCITED. YMMV.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:51 PM on June 14, 2008

Response by poster: Shelleycat, you've done some marvelous data collecting there. And I love that there is fair amount of ambiguity about the precise meaning of these sounds. Looking forward to diving into these documents.
posted by christopherious at 9:59 PM on June 14, 2008

Best answer: The relevancy of chuffing is awesome. I saw once they figured out that the cats actually share vocalizations across species. The lion (with which I'm personally acquainted, to my joy) says the same thing your cat says, just much lower in pitch. Fogonlittlecatfeet is spot-on.

(I had a strange lion once greet me by chuffing, in a zoo. He chuffed some more when I reached in and scratched his ears. Cats is cats, but nothing bigger than a cheetah will purr. Having a cheetah purr to you in gratitude for attention will make you do crazy stuff, like reaching in to lion cages to scratch his ears!)
posted by Goofyy at 1:26 PM on June 16, 2008

Response by poster: fantabulous timewaster: I think that sound is something else. Mine does that too, but only when he's hunting. The trilling is more abbreviated and conversational in both tone and context.
posted by christopherious at 9:05 PM on August 2, 2008

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