Corresponding Body Language
When friendly cats meet, they often greet each other not only by trilling, but also with a little nose kiss, that is to say they bump their noses or foreheads together.
Another gesture commonly used in greeting consists of one cat softly poking its head into the side of the other and then proceeding to nuzzle the length of the other cat. Anal inspection—bum sniffing—also belongs to the gestures associated with trilling. As we humans are significantly larger than our cats, the only interactions of these that take place with us are rubbing their cheek, body or tail against our legs. As I have already described, they leave behind scent signals on our pant legs, skirts or socks in the process. It is a kind of scent stamp marking us as “their human.”
Trilling can take place while sitting, standing or while moving. Kompis often sits in front of the kitchen window and trills, as though to say “I would like a treat now.” Our Donna can trill happily while she runs like lightning through the house, simply because she has noticed that I have stood up from my desk and am following her to the toy basket.
Turbo can even trill while he sleeps in his basket. It’s as though the spot triggers this reaction in him. It seems more important to him than body language or movement.
I have observed my cats very carefully in the situations in which they trill in order to better understand this sound. Low-pitched grunting often occurs when approaching, as a sound of friendly greeting and as a confirmation (as though they were saying thank you). High-pitched chirruping sometimes functions, in contrast, as a request for attention. “Please get up and get me something to eat.”
Phonetic Categorization (Sound Type, Melody)
Trilling is probably always produced with a closed mouth. The vocal folds (vocal cords) vibrate in the process, but we still know very little about the position of the tongue. Because the mouth is closed, the air escapes through the nose; it is a nasal sound.
Phonetic Description and Transcription
Trilling sounds are voiced, usually nasal sounds that often resemble an apical r or a rolled rear guttural r. A coo, murmur or a mixture of a mew and a trill also occurs from time to time—a long [m:] without trilling. Among the typical phonetic transcriptions are [mr̃ːh], [mːr̃ːt], [m̰:] and [bʀ̃ː]. Trill-meow sounds are complex, such as [mhʀ̃iaʊw] or [br̃ːiau]. The squiggle above the r, called a tilde, means that the air is expelled through the nose and not through the mouth.
TIP: The phonetic symbols are described in the tables.
Voice and Melody
Trilling sounds are very soft, voiced sounds. The more high-pitched chirrup often has a rising melody, the more low-pitched grunting, and the murmuring or cooing, is usually rather monotone, but there are exceptions. A trill can also have a declining melody, or a melody that first rises and then declines. The frequency is around 350 Hz (a little higher, around 600 Hz, for trill-meows), while the entire spectrum of frequencies ranges from around 100 to about 1000 Hz.
“Grrrrrr, Hsssshh, Get Away!”
Antipathy, Rejection, Deterrence
Picture this: it is four o’clock in the morning. My husband and I are sound asleep. Suddenly, I hear a terrible sound, almost like a small child in horrible pain, crying out heartrendingly for their mother. After the initial shock passes, it becomes clear—it is just Kompis, explaining to a rival outside in the garden that there is nothing to see here, and that the interloper should very well be on his way, or else. It is the same drama every spring! This time, the interloper does not surrender so quickly—they give as good as they get, and so the howling gives way to growling. They are locked in a howling, growling duel, with no end in sight. After a while, the interloper admits defeat and creeps dejectedly away. The victorious Kompis has defended his kingdom and begins to clean himself, licking his imaginary wounds.
I assume many of you are familiar with this kind of situation, too. I have observed a great number of similar occurrences in my neighborhood (when I go walking or jogging in the morning, for example), and I have managed to record some growling and howling sounds with my video camera. Frequently, two cats howl together as though in a duet. The dominant voice leads the melody up and down, and the other voice accompanies with weaker, brighter (with acoustically high resonances) tones. It is not just male cats who moan at their adversaries like this. Females, too, can howl and growl at each other for several minutes if they do not like each other. Cats rarely engage in physical violence with each other; they seem to be able to defuse tensions through these concertos of howls, a kind of diplomacy before things go bad. Frequently (though not always), the winner is the one who can howl the deepest, loudest and longest. There are different reasons for this, and some of them are anatomical. An animal with a larger body also has a larger apparatus for making sounds—larger lungs, voice box and vocal folds (vocal cords). So big dominant cats can produce the deepest, loudest tones. Or the other way around: cats howling in the most low-pitched, loud voices appear to be big and dangerous (although they may very well be bluffing). The loser cowers and creeps ever so slowly away, as though in slow motion.
Sometimes, however, there is simply no option but a physical confrontation. When that happens, the howling culminates in terrible shrilling and very loud snarling, shrieking and crying sounds. It is enough to freeze your blood. Luckily, this kind of confrontation usually does not last long.
Description of the Sounds
The aggressive and defensive (agonistic) cat sounds belong to varying phonetic categories, and are almost all produced with the mouth tense and more or less open. Howling constitutes an exception, as it is produced by first opening, then closing the mouth. There are numerous subcategories, both voiceless (hissing, spitting) and voiced (growling, howling/yowling, snarling/crying/screaming/shrieking). They can sound very different, although they are all used in situations where the cat feels threatened or a fight is at hand. I have defined the relevant phonetic categories as follows:
Growling (sometimes called snarling or gnarling) is easily recognizable through its guttural, raw tonal qualities, as well as through its regular, pulsing rhythm. A growl is a very low-pitched and deep, extended sound that is produced as air is slowly and stably expelled through a scarcely open mouth. It sounds like grrr, or like a very deep and gnarly vowel [ʌ̰ː] or an r-like sound, [ɹ̰ː]. Occasionally, a grumbly [m̰] begins the sound, so that it sounds like mrrr. Sometimes this sound is also called snarling, and there is an even deeper, rougher and stronger (louder) version of growling which may be called gnarling or grumbling. All growling sounds signal danger, and they appear threatening in order to warn or scare off the opponent. Growling is often combined or merged with howling in long sequences where the pitch (melody) and loudness slowly rise and fall.
The Howl or Yowl
Howling or yowling is a long and frequently repeated vocal (acoustic) warning or threat signal, which sometimes sounds like aaaoooouuuu or yyyyyooooouuuw. These sounds are usually produced with a slowly first opening and then closing mouth. The melody can repeatedly rise and fall in the process, and the sound is sometimes short, but often very long. Howling is typically shorter than yowling. Especially when two cats meet at one’s garden watch post, long concerts of howls and yowls are not unusual. In a threatening situation these sounds are often combined with growling in long sequences, with slowly rising and falling melody and loudness.
One variant of howling is growl-howling or howl-growling, in which a growl repeatedly transforms into a howl during a rising melody and then back into a growl as the melody falls. The consonants of the growl and the vowel of the howl are combined in long sequences, such as [ɡɹ̰ːawɪjɑoʀː].
Hissing is a warning signal that can hardly be misunderstood. The upper lip is often raised to reveal the teeth, the tongue is arched and a hard puff of air is expelled. The result is a sharp hssshhh or fffhhh, which clearly means “Enough!”, “Do not come any closer or I will attack!” It is similar to the sound produced by an aggressive snake. Maybe all cats are instinctively afraid of snakes and adapted their sound as a means of scaring away adversaries. However, not only aggressive or angry cats hiss. Cats who become surprised or are insecure also use it as a warning signal.
One can hear a mother cat hiss when she wants to tell her kittens to stop doing something, or when she warns them of danger. Hissing can be an involuntary reaction produced when a cat is surprised by a threat, either real or apparent. The cat then quickly changes position, exhaling quickly in the process. The air is expelled forcefully through a narrow, scarcely open mouth. This produces a sound like [fːhː] or [çː], which then usually stops abruptly.
Spitting is an intensification of hissing: a strong exhalation where air is expelled forcefully through a scarcely opened mouth: kshhht! [kʃːt]. It is a powerful, intense and hostile-sounding noise that resembles the sound made by a spitting human, tshhh! The cat sometimes stomps the ground with her front paws in the process and sometimes also expels a little saliva. It is not only domesticated cats who spit. Wild cats such as cheetahs also spit. Robert Eklund investigated these sounds in wild cats using examples recorded on video and concluded that cheetahs also stomp the ground with their front paws and expel saliva. As the owner of domestic cats, I am amazed by the many similarities between the big wild cats and my little “house tigers.” Hissing and spitting can occur simultaneously or sequentially in similar dangerous situations.
The Snarl or Cry
Snarling, crying, shrieking or screaming often sounds like a short, bright, very loud and often rough or hoarse scream. These sounds are often produced before or during a physical attack—out of rage, or as the final warning intended to scare or chase the opponent away. Cats who are tortured or injured and in great pain can also be heard to snarl or shriek. A female cat can also be heard to cry in pain when the male removes his penis from the vagina at the end of the coupling process.
The most terrible sound that I have ever heard was when our cat Vincent was very old and sick. His bladder had to be emptied by the vet, as he could no longer urinate on his own. This desperate cry of pain still gives me nightmares today. The sound energy of snarling or crying lies in frequency bands to which we humans are very sensitive because our babies cry and scream at the same frequencies. That is why we are so often woken up by the howling and snarling of cats who battle over backyards.
Before Vimsan came to live with us, I had hardly ever heard howling or growling from our cats. Donna occasionally hissed at her brothers if they got too close, but otherwise we heard only friendly or attention-seeking sounds. But when we wanted to introduce our black beloveds to their new roommate, the small tabby Vimsan, they all started to growl, howl and hiss at each other.
For eight days, I followed Vimsan through our house and recorded her—mainly aggressive—interactions with Donna, Rocky and Turbo. Rocky and Turbo mostly avoided the newcomer or lay on a table or shelf and growled while they watched her investigate her new home. In contrast, Donna was not at all interested in a new relationship and followed Vimsan around, howling, growling, hissing and spitting. Luckily, this aggressive behavior began to subside after eight to ten days, leading to a ceasefire of sorts. Many of my examples of aggressive sounds come from this period.
Vimsan demonstrated her command of aggressive sounds impressively when Kompis arrived in our garden as a young unfixed tomcat. Kompis followed her around our garden and climbed the apple tree after her. He seemed very insulted to only ever be greeted by howls, growls and spits. Sometimes there was also a short fight, though Vimsan snarled and shrieked so loudly and shrilly that Kompis in the end gave up his attempts to get closer.
TIP: Listen for yourself and be impressed! At the end of the book you’ll find links to samples of growling, hissing, howling and snarling in the appendix.
Corresponding Body Language
I have often observed two rival cats in our own or a neighbor’s garden, where the cats are sitting down a couple of meters apart staring at each other. They often sit like that without moving for a long time, and when they do occasionally move, it is usually in slow motion. The cat who seems to be at a disadvantage looks as though he’d really like to make a quick exit, but he seldom does. Cats seem to know that if they don’t move very slowly, but try to run away quickly, they might be seen as prey. They would run the risk of being hunted and captured, or at least of becoming the subject of a serious physical assault.
In such situations, the ears of the cat are often laid back, the tail whips back and forth, and the fur is puffed up. If the cats cannot prevent a brawl with their sounds, then the worst happens. During the fight, the cats (or sometimes just one of them) snarl and shriek in order to frighten their opponent.
The distance between the cats seems to be important, as does uninterrupted eye contact. My experience and studies have shown that the sounds employed depend on the distance between cats, as depicted in the following diagram.
The relationship between the sounds normally uttered by cats in an aggressive or defensive situation and the distance between the cats.
Phonetic Categorization (Type of Sound, Melody)
Articulation of Growling
Growling is produced using a slow and steady exhalation. The lips are stiff, tense and slightly open, as is the mouth. The vocal folds vibrate slowly, producing a very low-pitched and regularly pulsating sound.
Phonetic Description of Growling
Growling almost sounds like a very low-pitched sustained voiced trill. We might transcribe it as [ɡʀː] with a vocalic rhotic [ʀː] or as a really low-pitched, creaky vowel [ʌ̰ː] or rhotic (r-like sound) [ɹ̰ː]. Occasionally, growling begins with a creaky [m̰], as in mrrr… Gnarling or grumbling is sometimes described as a rawer, deeper and louder and even more low-pitched variant of growling.
Voice and Melody of Growling
Growling is a voiced sound that often has a raw, deep, rasping or trilled quality. Gnarling is deeper yet—next to purring it is the deepest sound in the cat’s repertoire. The melody has a fundamental frequency (pitch contour or melody) of between 70 and 100 Hz, though falsetto growls at around 200 Hz have also been observed. Growling and gnarling are often interspersed with howling.
Articulation of Howling
Howling is a prolonged vocalic sound normally produced with an opening-closing mouth. When two rival cats meet, they often howl a duet; one seems to follow the melody of the other. Especially when they meet on the backyard beat of one of the cats, a long howling concert is not uncommon. In threatening situations these sounds are often combined with growling in long dynamic sequences, with a repeated increase and decrease of the pitch and loudness.
Phonetic Description and Transcription of Howling
Howling consists of a combination of vowels and semivowels, such as [ɪ], [ɨ], [j.], [j] or [ɤ]. The sound produced is something like [awɔɪɛʊː], [jɪɨɛɑʊw] or [ɪːaʊaʊaʊaʊawawaw]. Dipthongs such as [aʊ], [ɛʊ], [ɑʊ], [ɔɪ] and [ɑɔ] are also very common.
Howling and growling are frequently interspersed in long sequences. In the process the pitch and loudness rise and fall repeatedly and slowly. Cats howl in the same range of frequency as human babies cry, which is why human adults are so sensitive to it.
Voice and Melody in Howling
Howling is voiced and can be very loud, though the volume (acoustic sound level pressure or intensity) goes up and down. The pitch rises and falls in repeated, often irregular patterns and can be of different lengths (durations), though it is frequently quite long. So the melody goes up and down between approximately 100 and 900 Hz. Sometimes a howl is shorter than a second, but longer yowls of up to ten seconds are also not uncommon.
Articulation of Hissing/Spitting
Hissing is produced using a narrow passage inside the mouth, which produces a turbulent noise or fricative sound, when the air is expelled from the lungs. Hissing is probably produced by narrowing the passage between the tongue and the roof of the mouth (palate), so that a rushing sound, also called a fricative, is produced when the airstream from the lungs is expelled. Depending on where the passage is located, the sound can be either dark (with acoustically low resonances) and dull, resembling a powerful hhhh (which occurs when the passage is at the back of the mouth). It can also be brighter and more hissing, like a sh, such as in shoe [ʃː]/[ʂː] or an English careful and noisy pronunciation of the initial h in Hugh (or the German ch, such as in Milch [milk]) [çː] (the narrow passage is farther forward in the mouth).
Spitting is more explosive and can have a short consonant sound [k] or [t] at the beginning of the sound, like in [t͡ ʂ ː] or [k͡ ʃː].
Phonetic Description and Transcription of Hissing and Spitting
Hissing is not a combination of vowels and/or consonants. Instead, it often consists of a single voiceless sound. Frequently, this is either a dark fricative produced at the back of the mouth, such as [h:], or a bright hissing sound produced at the front of the throat, such as [çː], [ʃː] or [ʂː]. Occasionally, hissing may also start with a sound similar to f, such as [fːhː]. Spitting is more explosive and powerful and can begin with a brief plosive or stop consonant, such as [k] or [t], though it quickly gives way to a hissing, rushing or fricative sound: [t͡ sː].
It is a typical warning sound, and we humans may—if we are very careful—use it with our cats when we want to warn them of dangers or to prevent undesirable behavior.
TIP: The phonetic symbols used in the text are described in more detail in the tables at the end of the book.
Voice and Melody in Hissing and Spitting
As hissing and spitting are unvoiced sounds, they do not have a melody.
Articulation in Snarling, Screaming and Shrieking
Snarling, screaming and shrieking are typically produced with a wide-open mouth and sound like a short, bright, loud and often raw or hoarse scream. Just as with howling, snarling, screaming and shrieking often have their sound energies in the same frequency range as the screams and cries of a human baby, so we react strongly to these sounds.
Phonetic Description and Transcription of Snarling, Screaming and Shrieking
Snarling, screaming (or crying) and shrieking typically consist of short vowel sounds (as far as I know, consonants are rare), usually [a] or [æ], though dipthongs such as [aʊ] or [ɛʊ] are also sometimes present in these sounds. If there is even a difference between snarling and screaming or shrieking it probably lies in the tone of voice. Snarls are darker and more low-pitched than screams and shrieks, which are often quite high-pitched. Moreover, there may be a difference between snarls and shrieks on one hand, and screams and cries on the other; it probably consists of the length of the sound. Intense pain often causes long screams, whereas snarls or shrieks usually are shorter.
Voice and Melody in Snarling, Screaming and Shrieking
Snarling and shrieking are short, loud, voiced and often hoarse or rough sounds. The melody is often monotone (often around 300–550 Hz) and sometimes declines slightly at the end. Screaming can be longer in duration, and often has a higher fundamental frequency.