Human to Cat— How Communication Succeeds
By now, you have read a lot about the various cat sounds, how they can be described and which phonetic features they demonstrate. Many cat fanciers who hear about my research into cat sounds ask me whether I have already cracked the cat code and can understand everything they say. Of course I haven’t, but with a little practice, any cat lover can learn to understand the vocal (acoustic) signals used by cats better, and then improve their human-to-cat communication. In the following section, I have compiled some examples that reveal where I met with success, combined with some practical tips to help you better understand your cat.
How to Better Understand the Sounds
Made by Your Cat
Sometimes, the simplest of phonetic methods can help you to better understand a sound made by your cat. Try to listen precisely to how a sound is formed. Maybe you will discover the individual vowels or consonants contained in the sound. Try to imitate the sound yourself so that you can better understand how it was produced—with a closed, open or opening-closing mouth. Listen very carefully for changes in the melody, how short or long the sound is and so on.
Try to describe the sound, either with phonetic symbols (you can use the tables that you will find at the end of the book) or with a brief note about what you have heard, for example, “a long and strange sound that resembled a meow, though the mouth seemed to be closed most of the time. Proper vowel sounds were only observed at the end of the sound (a and u)” or “repeated very short k-like sound.” You need not be a phonetician to describe a sound well. The main thing is that you describe the sounds clearly, so that you can understand them later. You should also describe the situation in which the sound was uttered—whether it was morning or night, in the kitchen or in the garden, whether you were playing with your cat, or your cat had just entered the room. Try to find out whether your cat uses similar sounds in similar situations. It will be terrific if it works, as you will be able to understand a sound much better if you can associate it with a particular situation.
But there are certainly some situations in which you simply do not know and cannot figure out why your animal reacts in a certain way or behaves so strangely. I would like to use this chapter to address some problem areas that cat fanciers have presented to me.
Why Does My Cat Not Say Anything?
Sometimes cat owners ask me whether I know why their cats scarcely meow or make other sounds. In return, I always ask them whether or how often they speak with their cats. Frequently, the answer is either “rarely,” or “well, she seldom meows, but whenever she does, I always quickly say, ‘be quiet.’” I have confirmed it countless times, if we speak to our cats frequently, then they “speak” to us a lot as well. If you want to have a quiet cat, who prefers to communicate with visual signals, try not to speak with her too much. Use visual signals and touch instead.
Why Does My Cat Make Such Funny Noises?
When people ask me to interpret the sounds made by their cats, they sometimes say in advance that the sounds are very strange or unusual. Some cats can imitate sounds made by other animals, or even by their people, up to a point. It can be something like a lamp that makes a little clicking sound after it is turned off, which the cat interprets as the sound of an animal of prey and therefore answers with chattering. As already mentioned, our Turbo chirps at the darts when they fly through the air. Some cats also try to imitate the voices of their humans.
A little while ago, I received a question from a woman in the United States who wanted to know why her cat meowed with such a wonderfully and unusually deep voice that it almost sounded like a dog barking. I asked her to make a video recording of her cat, which she proceeded to do. She sent it to me a few days later. On the film, which her husband had shot, the woman could be seen as she was feeding her cat. She spoke to her cat as she did so: “Right, here we go, here we go,” “Yes, here’s the can, it’s just a can,” and “Yes, you’re the one who wanted it, yes, dear.” My phonetician’s ears immediately perceived that the woman spoke with an unusually hoarse and rough voice. I wrote back that it was possible that her cat was imitating her voice, and that is why it barked so roughly and hoarsely. She wrote back right away and said thank you. She had not thought of it herself, but found it fascinating that cats could imitate the voices of their humans so effectively. If your cat makes sounds using a strange or unusual voice, it is possible that they are imitating either your voice or the voice of another person around them or in their family.
Why Does My Cat Answer When I Speak to Her, and What Is It Supposed to Mean?
Cats make specific sounds in specific situations. Sometimes they meow at us without any recognizable reason though. Meowing is a vocal signal that often catches our attention. Although we do not always understand exactly what they want from us, we often catch on faster if we conduct a dialogue with them. When you are talking to your cat and get an answer that you do not really understand, try this simple method: answer with a similar sound. Try to imitate the cat sound using the same melody, and see what happens.
If the cat meows again, then answer and observe the visual signals (posture and movement) they produce. Your cat might show more exactly what they want. Maybe they will look at the door to the garden, will run to their empty food bowl or will simply sit on the floor, looking at us with wide eyes. If we repeat such dialogues with our cats often enough and pay attention both to the visual signals and to the nuances in the meow-sounds, we can learn more about the various sounds that are preferred in different situations, and will be better able to interpret the sounds our cats make in the future. However…it is possible that cats are just bored sometimes and just want to have a conversation with us.
How to Communicate Better with Your Cat
Do not misunderstand me. I do not think that we should communicate with our cats solely using cat sounds. As a rule, they also understand our human speech very well. But from time to time a situation arises in which it is better, faster or easier to communicate using cat sounds. I would like to demonstrate with a few examples.
When we see that our cat is involved in a physical confrontation with another cat, our first impulse may be to try to rescue them and avoid the worst.
I would not necessarily recommend that we humans get involved and try to bodily separate the contestants. It is very likely that we will just end up injured as well, bitten or scratched on the hands or arms. Then we will be in a much worse position to help our cats. Cat behavior guides sometimes recommend trying to scare the animals so that they will stop fighting and run away. Common suggestions include clapping your hands, loudly yelling no or throwing a pillow near (but not directly at) the squabblers. I have tried every variant of these suggestions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The most successful method I have tried is the acoustic approach: namely, by hissing. I stand one or two meters away from the cats and hiss loudly at them—that is to say, I imitate the hissing of a cat. Sometimes it works right away, and sometimes I have to hiss two or three times, but up until now it has always worked. The cats react to the hissing and startle, they separate, and either one or both cats run away quickly—often it is the opponent who retreats, as my cats recognize me and stick around.
Do you also have a special “greeting ritual” that you have developed and that you use with your cats in the morning or when you first see your cats after getting home at night? A way of maintaining your relationship or of showing each other how much you have missed one another? When you encounter a strange cat, or one you just do not know very well, they can be better greeted by imitating the typical movements that cats use in greeting. Get down on your haunches or sit down, so as to make yourself smaller. Do not turn toward the cat, but sit at its side instead. Do not look at it directly. Try to imitate a friendly cat tail with your arm and hand by bending your elbow, raising you lower arm and shaping you hand like an arch or question mark. With a soft, small voice, you can then try to speak to them. The frequency code comes into play again here: high-pitched and bright (with acoustically high resonances) voices and sounds count as friendly, dark (with acoustically low resonances) and deep voices as aggressive. Sometimes I try to imitate a soft, bright trill, a chirrup, with a rising melody, “Brrrrrriuh.” Many of the cats I greet this way approach me, so that I can very slowly extend a hand and allow them to take a sniff. I might even have a treat with me that the cat can then have.
No, That Is Not Allowed!
Sometimes cats do things that are dangerous or that we, for whatever reason, do not like. A soft “No, darling, I already told you that is not allowed” will not do much. It is more effective to growl long and deep, grrr, hiss sharply, hsssshhh!, or spit, kshhht!!, with the corresponding body language (make yourself large). That works much better for me. I even have a sound for “no” (a hissing sound), and another for “go away” or “come in!” I then follow behind my cats, almost like a sheep dog, and make a special clacking sound (by clicking the tongue). My cats figured out very quickly that they should go away, or come inside, when they hear this sound. I would like to emphasize that I have tried this only around my own cats in my own space. There might be problems if I were to hiss with other cats. Hissing should be carefully considered. It would be best to speak to your vet, cat psychologist or therapist before employing aggressive cat sounds!
Although many humans find it difficult to imitate purring, I have determined that my cats are less stressed when I try to purr—they lie down, stay down and close their eyes. I sit next to them, pet them slowly, and practice my purr as softly and as slowly as I can. I might have gotten a little bit better, but I still find it difficult to imitate this sound. But when you speak in your own voice with soft, low tones, it can be just as effective.