“Meeeooowww, I Want You!” Calling, Courtship, Seduction
Like humans, cats can be burdened by the desire for physical love. Once, Vimsan rubbed up against my legs, looked at me imploringly and unhappily, then rolled back and forth across my feet, trilling and meowing a few times before looking longingly out the window. I said, “Sorry, my love, I am not letting you out. You have not been spayed yet and we do not want any kittens around here.” Vimsan sang the whole night through. She combined loud meowing with rather plaintive singing and soft trilling. What luck that we have an appointment at the vet next week, I thought.
By now, Vimsan has been spayed and does not make such sounds. For about a week, I recorded video of Vimsan in heat, including her other sounds (e.g. soft mewing, trilling, cooing), but forgot to record her loud, desirous meowing—her mating call or cry—at night.
What is a mating call, actually? Is it only female cats who call, or do males do it as well? Up until now, I have not collected any evidence to indicate that there is a special category of sound that cats use only when they are trying to attract a sexual partner. Most people know the typical traits of these sounds, which ring out every spring. However, if we pay closer attention, we will quickly realize that the calls of seduction and the sounds used to frighten others away can be very similar.
Maybe it is just a louder, more melodic and sustained meowing when love is at stake, whereas it is a plaintive howling when territory is being defended or an opponent is being chased away. Further studies will clarify the issue.
One can certainly say that it’s usually female cats in heat who use mating calls to try to attract a future sexual partner. Unneutered male cats don’t go into heat. Instead, they react to the scents and sounds of females who are in heat.
Description of the Sound
Mating calls or mating cries are long lamenting sequences that consist of meow, trill-meow and howl sounds. They are often produced with an opening-closing mouth. There is a lot of variation—some sounds are short, others are longer. What they have in common is that they are repeated over a long period of time—sometimes hours. Some suggest that it almost sounds like a baby crying, or like a small child whimpering for their mother. Perhaps that is why we humans react so strongly when we hear this sound. We are startled and think that we must help our darlings immediately—it sounds so wretched!
But sexual desire can also be signaled with other sounds. Cats who are in heat trill, purr and emit soft meows when they rub up against us, bump their head against us, or lift up and turn their rear ends toward us. A further variant is the loud lamenting calling that can persist for hours or days. The need to call seems to be especially profound at night. Many people are woken on a spring morning by cats who are calling for a mate either at home or in the garden.
As I said above, male cats do not go into heat, they simply respond to the strong scent and sound signals of females who are in heat. The tomcats set out on their trail and can then also call back with meows and other similar sounds. Furthermore, combative sounds like howling, growling and snarling or screaming are also among them, as other males are also enticed and the rivals must spar among themselves to figure out who gets to mate with the female. It can therefore be difficult to determine whether one is hearing “real” mating calls or whether it is simply defensive and aggressive (agonistic) sounds.
Tomcats who have been neutered (especially if they were older when the operation took place) can also respond to the signals of females and sing as if to say “I hear you, I am here and I am ready for you.” When a male cat clears up territorial issues with sound signals, it often sounds more like howling.
Mating calls are used to attract a partner, and the frequency code, that is to say the specific highs and lows of the sound, indicate that it is intended to be friendly and inviting, as the melody often rises at the end (see the heading “Additional Phonetic Characteristics: Prosody” in Chapter 9). As the frequency code is universal, that is to say that it is valid for all mammals, we humans often do the same—when we ask a friendly question the melody of our speech also rises.
In our family we have heard the sounds of love from only Vimsan so far. Since Donna is one of three cats from the same litter, neither we nor the vet wanted to risk one of her brothers getting her pregnant (we had noticed them sniffing around her bottom with increasing regularity), so the triplets were fixed as soon as they were old enough.
When Vimsan came to live with us, we didn’t know how old she was. Moreover, she was seriously injured and her large wound was infected. We decided to wait for her wounds to heal and let her go into heat once before we had her spayed—much to her displeasure, as she had to stay indoors at the time. For a week, I recorded her trilling and soft mewing, as well as other signs of her heat, such as her coaxing, escape attempts, rolling around on the floor and such. Unfortunately, I do not have any recordings of her nocturnal concertos of sounds. To compensate, I included similar examples from other websites—these can be heard on the website in the category “Mating Call (And Other Sounds by Cats in the Mating Season)” under the keywords “Female cat mating call 1” and “Female cat mating call 2.”
The beautiful neighborhood tomcat Red seemed to always be stalking females. A couple of times I filmed him wandering through our garden and recorded some nice sounds as he marked our fence and plants. Many of his sounds are very similar to meows; sometimes he also produces trill-meows.
When Kompis, the big guy among our cats, first came to us, he was still young, thin and virile. Because he had sustained serious wounds on his cheeks, which, to make matters worse, produced an allergic reaction which prevented the wounds from healing, he had to be treated with antibiotics, cortisone and daily cleansing of his wounds for a long time. Only when his infection had truly healed did we get the vet’s go-ahead to have him neutered. In the meantime, it was not a pretty picture: the young skinny tomcat with large wounds on his cheeks paced back and forth in our garden, calling for our females. And what a voice! He did not care about his injuries. He seemed completely dedicated to enticing one or both of our females with “cat concerts” that lasted for hours. Longing trilling soon transitioned to expectant trill-meowing and plaintive meowing whenever he encountered Donna or Vimsan in the garden. The poor lad did not know that both our females had been fixed already. And even if his wooing never led to an actual encounter with Vimsan or Donna, the desire and calling persisted.
TIP: In the appendix you will find some links to examples of the beautiful calls of love-crazed cats.
Corresponding Body Language
It is easy to recognize a female cat in heat on the basis of her body language and of her vocalizations. Her natural instinct drives her—she wants to mate and lets the world know about it through
- Continuously seeking attention—rubbing against furniture and other objects, against fellow pets and against humans (especially against their legs or feet);
- Regularly pacing back and forth; frequently rolling on the floor; and
- Assuming the mating position (when she is petted by her humans, for example)—lifting her rear end, sticking her tail up and padding restlessly in place.
Some females also mark walls and doors with a vaginal secretion or a pungent urine that contains estrogen and is supposed to attract tomcats. They also frequently lick their genitals, which are usually swollen when in heat. Cats who are confined to the house will attempt to escape and—if they do not succeed—will scratch the windowsills or drapes in frustration.
Unneutered toms who recognize these signals will generally become restless and answer with regular urination and with aggressive territorial patrolling behavior. They frequently wander around restlessly, marking every bush and fence (as well as a few cars), meowing and calling incessantly. Moreover, they also attempt to track down the female who is in heat. Often, they are not the only ones to have noticed the signals of the female. The competition does not sleep. Rivalries, fights, screaming and howling are preprogrammed. To the victor goes the princess, as well as the whole territory.
(Sound Type, Melody)
Mating calls or mating cries have many similarities to meowing and to howling, but some typical phonetic characteristics can be distinguished as well.
Just like meowing and howling, mating calls (or mating cries) are produced with a repeatedly opening-closing mouth. The articulation (position or movement of the mouth) of mating calls is often somewhat slower than meowing and howling, and is sometimes merged and mixed with extended trilling and somewhat longer vowel sounds.
Phonetic Description and Transcription
Mating calls or mating cries consist primarily of long emphasized vowel sounds such as [aː], [uː], [a͡ʊ], [ɔ͡aʊ] and [ɪːa͡uː]. They are often preceded by a [w] or a trilled nasal consonant such as [ʀ̃ː] or [r̃ː], producing a sound like [wa͡ːuw] or [rːɪːa͡ʊː]. Trill-meows such as [mhr̃ːwaːoːuːɪː] or [ʀ̃ːwːuːa:u] are especially prolonged.
Voice and Melody
Mating calls (or mating cries) are voiced and are produced with a loud voice in long penetrating sequences. The melody varies, but often rises at the end. Soft trilling, mewing and cooing have also been observed in cats who are in heat. Mating calls can take place over multiple hours at night.