How do cats communicate? A study classifies 8 types of signals

Cat-human communication: classified the 8 types of signals that cats use to communicate. The Meowsic project has just begun.

Classified by Linnaeus as early as 1758, the felis catus, or domestic cat, has been living with us for more than 10,000 years and is one of the world's most common domestic animals - with more than 600 million individuals.

Susanne Schötz, a linguist at Lund University in Sweden, has spent her entire life as a researcher collecting, defining and classifying the different feline "vocalizations." Not only has this earned her a well-deserved IG nobel prize, but it has managed to shed light on how cats communicate with us, and how we perceive their way of communicating.

The Eight Types of Cat Vocalizations

Cats don't just meow, anyone who lives with a small feline knows that perfectly well: squeaks, rustles, chirps and warbles are part of a repertoire of vocalizations that cats have apparently developed to better communicate with their human friends.

According to Schötz, in fact, there is a "more extensive, variable and complex" vocal repertoire in domestic cats than in other members of the mammalian order. This can be explained by their social organization, but also by their close relationship with mother cats and humans.

The research begins with the sounds emitted with the mouth closed: those typical of the purr but also the warble between the chirp and the murmur that cats present when they approach a friend, feline or human. These are vocalizations that generally mean "I'm not a threat" or "Keep doing what you're doing."

They involve opening their mouths the meows, the quick squeak with which cats communicate with each other, and that typical whine of cats who want something, a sort of listless meow that usually calls for food or attention.

Not all meows are the same: to the assertive or friendly "meow" typical of feline conversation, there is a particular functional meow developed by cats essentially to communicate with humans, which can be recognized by the obvious "iau" sound, not always included in communications between felines.

Other sounds made by cats are generally related to attack or defense contexts: the growl, the hiss just preceding an attack, the whine, the singular chirp directed at prey, and that strange way of imitating prey that sounds like crazy chattering. Among the signals addressed to the preys, are also distinguished the screeches "similar to the ringing of a telephone" from the weaker ones, which imitate precisely the chirping of the prey par excellence.

The Miausica project

The research on the vocalizations of domestic cats is part of a larger research project, sponsored of course by Dr. Schötz, which bears the name of Meowsic - translated into Italian as "Miausica" or something like that.

The project, divided into two parts, aims to investigate "the prosodic characteristics of feline vocalizations and communication between human and cat". The first step of the project is precisely that which, over the years, has allowed us to categorize in a linguistic and phonetic sense all the most frequent expressions of domestic cats.

The study shows that "positive meows" are generally characterized by a short duration and an increasing intonation, while expressions of anger or frustration have longer durations and a certain decreasing tendency, in terms of melody.

The second part of the research, just begun, is aimed instead at investigating "how humans perceive the vocal signals of cats". After investigating how cats change the pitch of their vocalizations when they are addressing other cats and when they are communicating with humans, Schötz's team will look at how cats perceive human expressions directed at them.

The study will seek to uncover whether cats can recognize familiar voices from strangers, expressions directed at them from those directed at other humans, and whether they have a preferred pitch pattern.