Cat sounds: what miaowing, purring and hissing really mean

Written by Bärbel Edel
Cat sounds

Miaow! This cat has a pressing issue – perhaps there isn't enough food in its bowl?

Cat sounds are varied and act as a tool to express feelings. The most well-known are miaowing, purring and hissing. This article translates the most important sounds into human speak.

Cat sounds and posture as expression

Cats use both their body language and their voice in order to make themselves understood. For instance, a high-raised tail signals trust. Dilated pupils can mean great joy, but also pain or fear. An arched back can express that the cat is feeling threatened.

Cats communicate between themselves via scent signals too. For example, they leave what are known as urine markings in order to show other cats where their territory lies.

In addition, cats have a broad repertoire of cat sounds at their disposal. The expert term for these utterances is vocalisation.

Every cat sound has a certain meaning, although cat speak is sometimes ambiguous. In order to truly understand your cat, the correct translation always depends on the situation in question.

Even deaf cats learn cat sounds

Whilst humans are reliant on their hearing for language learning, kittens born deaf can also learn different cat sounds. The ability to utter sounds is often congenital and is only refined over the course of life.

Miaow – a cat sound with many meanings

The famous “miaow” is the most common cat sound.

But what is your cat trying to say to you? Depending on the situation, a cat’s miaow can have different meanings. It is usually used when your cat wants something from you:

  • “Give me food!”
  • “Play with me!”
  • “I need help!”

The spectrum ranges from a light cheep (“me”) to a heart-wrenching “miaaaoooow”. Every cat has its own miaow dialect, with some miaowing more and others less. For instance, siamese cats are considered rather communicative.

There can be different causes of nocturnal miaowing: along with boredom or hunger, it can be a sign for an illness. If your cat’s misery is stopping you from sleeping every night, you should definitely see a vet.

Did you know? Adult cats rarely miaow sound amongst themselves. Miaowing is mainly reserved for infant cats. Hence, when cats miaow, they are speaking to their human family in baby speak.

Cat purring © denisval /
Cats purring can be a sign of wellbeing, but also stress or pain.

Purring – a sign of wellbeing

Cat purrs sound about the same as a gently humming engine. Cats purr when they feel good, such as when they are being stroked or there is tasty cat food. When encountering a fellow cat, purring means that they are in a peaceful mood.

Kittens are already able to purr from around one week of age. This is how they show their mother that everything is OK. When the mother cat returns from a trip to the nest, she purrs in order to ensure her babies that everything is fine.

Having a purring cat on our lap also has a relaxing effect on us humans. Experts have discovered that this particular cat noise reduces our blood pressure.

Purring when in pain

Caution: Cats also purr when they are very stressed, suffering from severe pain or dying in order to comfort themselves.


This is a combination of purring and miaowing when cats intersperse miaows in a special frequency when purring.

As the name suggests, our cats make this noise when they want something from us. It is the friendlier and politer version of miaowing.

How do cats purr?

Cats are able to purr at almost any stage of their life – for hours upon end if they wish: when inhaling, exhaling and even when eating, suckling or dozing.

How they produce this humming sound has yet to be fully clarified. Some experts assume that this cat sound comes from the larynx muscles, which expand and constrict the glottis.

Others believe that the hard, inflexible tongue bone that connects the tongue to the skull bones is responsible for a continuous purring sound. Another theory indicates that flaps of skin near the vocal cords play a role in producing purring.

Only domestic cats, lynxes, ocelots, pumas and cheetahs can purr properly.

Cooing like a dove

Does your cat sometimes sound like a dove? If it lets out a friendly “mrrp”, it is in a good mood and wants to talk to you in its own language. “Mrrp” means something like “oh hello, it’s you – great!” or “here I am” and sometimes “come with me!”.

Cooing can be understood as a greeting towards humans and fellow cats. Mother cats make tender cooing sounds when they return to the nest with their young. Some tomcats even attract the object of their affections with loving cooing.

Cat sounds: The song of tomcats

Cats often howl dreadfully when settling territorial or rank disputes. For humans, this so-called song of tomcats sounds similar to a screaming baby in severe distress.

This can last up to half an hour – either until a fight breaks out or one of the opponents leaves the field.

Tomcats also use their singing skills to serenade females in heat.

cat hissing © Evdoha /
Bearing teeth and hissing are an unmistakable sign of anger.

Hissing, spitting and snarling

A cat hisses if it is very annoyed or feels seriously threatened. It opens its mouth halfway, pulls its upper lip up and bares its teeth. It then bends its tongue upwards to the gums and exhales briefly and forcefully.

Along with the hissing cat sound and blast of air, this fierce facial expression quite clearly says to the counterpart: “Don’t come any closer than this!”.

If hissing has no effect, the cat will spit to try to get its opponent to flee. This is a sudden ejection of air accompanied by a frightening noise.

A cat also shows that it is truly annoyed by growling or groaning. Growling is definitely the final warning prior to a paw kick.

When cats cackle

Some domestic cats make a strange sound and cackle. Most cats start to cackle when they are sitting at the window and observing a bird. It sounds like chattering teeth.

What can we understand by this behaviour? One theory states that cats chatter their teeth in order to practise biting the neck, as they would normally do to kill their prey.

Another explanation could be frustration: After all, the prey is right in front of them but out of reach.

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Bärbel Edel
Profilbild von Magazin-Autorin Bärbel Edel

I am a journalist, love animals and have already researched the relationship between humans and dogs during my folklore studies. A few years ago I adopted a tomcat from the Munich animal shelter. Elvis was the reason to start my cat blog "Lieblingskatze" and also to deal with animals in a journalistic way. With my articles I would like to help people understand their pets better.

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