12 Cat Sounds and What They Mean

By: Annie Butler ShirreffsUpdated:

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12 Cat Sounds and What They Mean

Our feline friends are known for their meows, purrs, hisses and growls. These cat sounds reflect everything from contentment and calm to worry, fear and anger.

Sounds and cat body language communicate their emotional state of mind. If you listen closely, you’ll be able to understand what those seemingly random cat noises are all about and what your cat is saying to you.

Cat Meow

One of the most well-known and common of cat sounds, the meow sounds a lot like the name (who doesn’t love an onomatopoeia?). The type of meow can vary—a high-pitched meow, a short and sweet mew, several meows in a row or long and demanding. It really depends on the cat—and what they want from you.

Why Do Cats Meow?

Consider the meow an all-purpose cat sound. Cats meow:

  • As a greeting (“Hi, Human!)
  • To ask for something (“Where’s dinner?” or  “Play with me!”)
  • To express excitement or frustration (“I love my new toy!” or “Why aren’t you paying attention to me?!”)

And here’s a fun fact: “Meows are rarely used between cats,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Amy L. Pike, DACVB, IAABC-CDBC, owner of Animal Behavior Wellness Center, with locations in Fairfax and Richmond, Virginia. Adult cats save this sound for communicating with their people. Some cat breeds (like the Siamese) are known for being extra chatty.

Read more about why cats meow.


Cat Purr

Quite possibly one of the most relaxing sounds ever, the purr is a low, continuous, rhythmic sound that slightly resembles a rumble. Some purrs can be barely perceptible, and some you can practically hear from a mile away.

Why Do Cats Purr?

Another common cat sound, the purr usually occurs when cats are happy and relaxed and can be a sign of contentment. Purrs are a positive response to being petted or groomed, or just curled up in your lap. But purrs don’t always communicate contentment. Dr. Pike confirms that cats also use purring as a self-soothing method if they’re experiencing pain, illness, anxiety or fear. That being said, the purr is one of the most mysterious of cat sounds.

Read more about why cats purr.


Cat Trill

A mix between a meow and purr, the trill is often described as a friendly “mrrp” or “cat activation” sound. High-pitched and repetitive, it comes out in short bursts.

Why Do Cats Trill?

Cats make this sweet sound as a greeting to other cats or to people. It can also be used as a thank you if their human has given them a treat or a head scratch. One of the most amicable cat vocalizations, the trill gives off positive vibes.

Cat Chirrup

This sequence of short, high-pitched calls is similar to that of a bird. Cat chirrups (also known as cat chirps) are relatively quiet even if the cat feels excited.

Why Do Cats Chirrup?

Adult cats chirrup to get attention and to let other cats or people know their location—sort of like saying, “Hey! I’m over here!” Excitement and prey drive also play into this common cat sound. Your cat might let out a chirp when they see potential prey they can’t get to (like a squirrel outside the window), Dr. Pike says. Mother cats often chirrup to call their kittens to them.

Cat Chatter

One of the more interesting—and amusing—cat sounds, chattering is a low, smacking sound produced by rhythmic jaw movements. It usually comes in a rapid sequence, sometimes with chirps interspersed.

Why Do Cats Chatter?

A chattering cat is in hunting mode—whether they can get to their prey or not. If you’ve ever seen your cat doing this, chances are they spotted potential prey, and their hunting instincts have kicked in. It’s also thought that cats are mimicking prey (like birds) to attract the prey to them, Dr. Pike says.

Learn more about cat chattering and chirping.


Cat Hiss

This low, drawn-out sound resembles the hiss of a snake. It can be loud or soft, depending on the cat and the situation.

Why Do Cats Hiss?

Hissing can seem aggressive, but Dr. Pike says it’s actually a fear-based response. This sometimes involuntary reaction is used when a cat is surprised by a perceived threat or enemy—whether it’s the neighborhood stray cat or the veterinarian. A hissing cat is feeling vulnerable, insecure or threatened.

Cat Spit

This sudden, short explosive burst of noise sounds like a more intense variation of a hiss.

Why Do Cats Spit?

This is another fear-based reaction in response to a perceived threat or enemy. While this sound can actually be rather frightening the first time you hear it, it’s absolutely adorable watching kittens do it in an attempt to look tough.

Cat Snarl

Another sound that resembles a growl (as well as a hiss), a snarl is louder and higher-pitched.

Why Do Cats Snarl?

Like the hiss, the snarl is used when responding to a perceived threat. Dr. Pike says it’s common to hear this noise when two male cats are fighting. It can also be a sound of annoyance—if you’re touching an “off-limits” spot on the cat’s body, for example.


Learn how to pet a cat the right way.


Cat Growl

Deep and almost rumbling, the growl is harsh and guttural. It can be long and drawn out and can also grow in intensity from start to finish.

Why Do Cats Growl?

Growling is a warning noise that can be directed toward other cats and animals, as well as humans. A growling cat is annoyed, frightened or angry. Some cats use growling to show possession of a favored item—like a food bowl—if another cat dares to come near it.

The growl is a clear sign that the cat wants whoever is triggering them to back off.


Cat Yowl

This disconcerting sound is like a growl but much more intense. It’s like a long, violent meow that is loud and high-pitched.

Why Do Cats Yowl?

A yowl is like an intensified growl, signaling that the cat is getting more and more upset. Growls often turn into yowls if the situation intensifies.

Dr. Pike says that yowling can also be a sign of pain or illness. Cats are usually excellent at hiding their pain, so take that yowling seriously and get them to the veterinarian to check for any injuries or illness.


Cat Caterwaul

If you’ve ever dealt with stray, unspayed female cats in your neighborhood, you’ll recognize this long, loud whine that can eventually sound like a scream. It’s all part of mating behavior.

Why Do Cats Caterwaul?

Female cats in heat can display a variety of behavioral changes—including becoming extremely vocal. The melodramatic caterwaul is her way of making sure the local tomcats know she’s ready to mate.

Cat Distress Call

Also called mewling, this sound is usually made by kittens under 1 month of age and resembles a high-pitched, screeching meow.

Why Do Cats Distress Call?

This sound is usually made by kittens under 1 month of age to get the mother cat’s attention. Kittens might make this distress call if they’re hungry or have strayed away from their mother and the rest of the litter.

Cat Sounds Chart

Take a screenshot of this chart for easy access the next time your cat starts vocalizing.

Cat Sound
Possible Meaning(s)
Cat Sound

Meow

Possible Meaning(s)

Greeting, asking for something, excitement, frustration 

Cat Sound

Purr

Possible Meaning(s)

Happy, content or used for self soothing

Cat Sound

Trill

Possible Meaning(s)Thank you or greeting

Cat Sound

Chirrup

Possible Meaning(s)

“Hey! I’m here” or “Drat! I can’t get that bird!”

Cat Sound

Chatter

Possible Meaning(s)

On the hunt, “Come here, little birdy.”

Cat Sound

Hiss

Possible Meaning(s)

Surprised or threatened

Cat Sound

Snarl

Possible Meaning(s)

Threatened or annoyed

Cat Sound

Growl

Possible Meaning(s)

Annoyed, frightened or angry

Cat Sound

Yowl

Possible Meaning(s)

Very upset or in pain

Cat Sound

Spit

Possible Meaning(s)

Afraid, threatened

Cat Sound

Caterwaul

Possible Meaning(s)

Mating call made by females

Cat Sound

Distress Call

Possible Meaning(s)

Kittens make this sound when hungry or have wandered away from their mother or the rest of their litter

The bottom line is that the different sounds your cat makes—cute, silly or scary—are all a part of cat language. But when you know what those sounds mean, they make perfect sense and can help you communicate with your cat. Want to pounce on more cat behavior tips? Find out why cats knead.

Expert input provided by Amy Pike, DVM, DACVB, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Animal Behavior Wellness Center in Virginia.

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By: Annie Butler ShirreffsUpdated:

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