One of the primary ways cats communicate is through body language, but they also express themselves vocally. Cats have a wide range of vocal expressions, and “meow” is only one of them.


The “meow” sound is usually used as an alert sound. Kittens meow more frequently than adult cats. The soft “mew” sound is used by kittens to alert the mother that they need attention. “Meow” is also used to communicate with people. It can mean “pet me,” “feed me,” or just “pay attention to me.” Most cat guardians eventually learn to distinguish the meaning of the various “meow” sounds their cats make.


Even though cats do purr when they’re content, purring can also be a sign of stress. Cats also purr when frightened or injured. In these situations, purring appears to function as a self-soothing mechanism. Researchers found that the frequency of a cat’s purr occurs at the same frequencies that aid in bone growth and fracture healing, wound healing and pain relief. It appears that with the purr, nature has provided cats with a built-in self-healing mechanism.


Cats use a chirping sound, similar to a “brrp,” which falls somewhere between a meow and a purr, to greet each other and humans. The sound is quite endearing.


Cats make a chattering noise when they’re watching birds or squirrels outside a window. The origin of this noise is not clear, and may communicate either excitement or frustration.


Growling is a warning sound. Cats will growl at each other or at humans as a warning to back off.


Cats hiss when they’re angry or scared. Hissing is sometimes preceded by a growl, and is considered an escalation over the growl.


Yowling, wailing or screaming are usually precursors to aggression. These vocalizations are usually the final warning before a fight begins, and can also be heard during a fight. Rarely does screaming indicate pain, as cats tend to not vocalize when they’re in pain.

While all cats share basic vocal expressions, they can also be individualized. Once you get to know your cat, you will most likely gain a thorough understanding of her unique communication style.

This article was previously published on and is republished with permission.

11 Comments on Cat Sounds: What Do Your Cat’s Vocal Expressions Mean?

  1. I love the idea of decoding cat’s meows and purrs to work out what cats are thinking! I know we all have our own theories and I saw in a documentary that cats have their own meows for their owners and owners will recognise and understand those meows, but not the meows of stranger cats!

  2. Shadow, my black DSH, is going through a very rough period. He is pulling out his hair, does not seem to be too sure of himself when trying to jump up or down, and is not as social anymore. I have taken him to the vet several times, and even went to an eye specialist. He has gotten 2 Prednisolone shots and one antibiotic shot over the last 6 weeks. He has had all the lab tests too. I altered his diet as the vet recommended but now he turns his nose up to the special food. He eats one serving of wet food in the morning. Later in the day he meows quite loudly and stands in the kitchen until I can figure out if he wants more wet food or a few snacks. His meow tone has changed, it is apparent he is not feeling good. He did let me rub him last night for about 10 minutes which was unusual. Next visit is a dermatologist. Any other thoughts or suggestions?

        • Any recent stressors? Changes in environment? Hold old is your cat? Not jumping up as much and changes in appetite can be signs of arthritis in older cats.

          • I brought this same concern up to our vet. No recent stressors. He has always been the cat who goes with the flow. I believe the Prednisolone helped but he is 10 years old and they were afraid more cortisone would send him into Diabetes.

  3. Cats WILL occasionally scream in pain, but it has to be pretty severe. I had one that woke me up with her screaming, regular howls, one right after the other — turned out she had a saddle embolus, easy to tell when I picked her up off the floor and her hind legs would not work. I have her a double dose of buprenorphine and within a few minutes the screaming stopped but she still moaned. I had her at the vet within 15 minutes and he agreed with my diagnosis and she was over the rainbow bridge in minutes, releasing her from all her pain. I’m so glad I was home at the time and she didn’t have to endure it for long. Obviously it still rattles me.

    • I’m so sorry, Kaia – saddle thrombus is such an awful thing and it’s so traumatic for both cat and human. And you’re absolutely right, saddle thrombus is one of the few conditions that will have cats screaming in pain.

  4. I have several rescue/foster cats that until recently since beginning this in 1975, have generally gotten along quite well, but there seems to be one main instigator and an apprentice instigator. Otherwise most of my cats since 1975 have been very quiet and use more body language or touch to communicate. From that, it has taken me longer to learn each of their voices when heard from another area within the house where I cannot physically see them. Some have very unique voices and styles, while others seem to be more ‘generic’. I’ve only had one “yodeler”; he was a hoot.

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