CAT VOICES: WHAT DOES A MEOW OR PURR MEAN?
Hiss: This is fear and ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛ. The cat is saying, “Back off.” Depending on how confident the cat feels or whether it is in its own territory, it may fight or run. You can use the hiss to tell your cat to stop doing something—this will get its attention and usually stop the behavior.
Meow: Cats tend to use meows more with humans than with other cats, though there are exceptions. To communicate with each other, they use a range of vocal signals, and some cats will use meows in this case, too. Kittens mew loudly when they’re hungry or ꜰʀɪɢʜᴛᴇɴᴇᴅ, but once they’ve stopped being dependent on their mother, they also stop this kind of calling behavior. When you hear your cat meowing, it is generally talking to you—so pay attention!
Purr: The jury is still out on precisely how the purr is produced. It may be a vocalization, or it may be produced by some other means. However it’s produced, this is a multipurpose sound. The purr usually indicates relaxation, trust, and well-being, and a cat may purr itself (and you!) to sleep. A nursing mother will purr while the kittens nurse, and they purr along with her. This seems to be a bonding and reassuring sound related to the later adult “relaxed” purr. Adult cats often purr while grooming each other.
Occasionally, a cat will insert a trilling sound into the purr. You usually hear this when you’re holding and petting the cat, not when the cat is simply purring to itself or another cat. This is referred to as “singing.”
Cats also purr over prey. There is a theory that the purr acts as a hypnotic on the prey animal and reduces its struggling.
Finally, an ɪɴᴊᴜʀᴇᴅ cat will sometimes purr, but the purr is deeper and raspier and quite loud. While the relaxed purr, the nursing purr, and the trill are accompanied by kneading, the prey purr and the ᴘᴀɪɴ purr usually are not.
Yowl: This is a step up from the hiss and is definitely a ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛ. The sound is “wow-wow-wow,” but modulated:
“woOOOowwwoooOOOoowwwooOOOoow,” with the middle of each “wow” rising both in pitch and volume. A cat making this sound is getting ready to fight and may scratch if you try to touch it. Use the yowl to move a strange cat off your property. Yowling can also indicate discomfort or emotional upset. A smothered or muffled yowl may indicate a hairball coming up.
Chirp: This is an abbreviated sound, “prrt” or “prrt?,” almost like a purr cut short. It usually happens as a greeting between cats that know each other well. Cats will also sometimes use the chirp to respond to a human voice. Some cats do a chattering sound, very soft and sometimes accompanied by a silent or almost-silent meow. They usually do this when they’re frustrated by seeing prey that they can’t get at, like that squirrel dancing in front of the window.
Finally, cats make a number of very communicative gestures.
Nose-rubbing: A cat that rubs its nose and cheek on you is marking you and indicating that you belong to it.
Grooming: Occasionally, cats will groom their people and may even bite gently. This is a variation on parent behavior, where an adult cat grooms a kitten and sometimes takes it gently by the nape to make it hold still. Cats will sometimes carry this affectionate behavior to the extent of rasping the skin away, so interrupt it before it gets to that point!
Arching: A cat that arches against you, sometimes even standing up on its hind feet, is asking for attention and wants to be petted or even picked up. A cat that flops against you is indicating trust.
Kneading: This is a holdover from kitten behavior. A nursing kitten kneads its mother’s belly to promote the flow of milk. An adult cat may knead a person who is holding it to indicate contentment. If the cat’s claws are sharp, this can be a ᴘᴀɪɴful experience! A contented cat will sometimes extend and curl its toes (and extrude and withdraw its claws) while it’s purring, even if there’s nothing to knead.
Head butting: If your cat butts the top of its head against you, this is affection, pure and simple.
This is not completely exhaustive, but by paying attention to the rudimentary vocal and gestural vocabulary of your cat, you’ll more easily be able to figure out what it is telling you—and you’ll be less likely to be scratched!