Cats have a variety of ways of communicating with people and each other. It's interesting to note that cats can make more than 100 sounds -- dogs can only make 10 -- and that they rarely meow at one another. Furthermore, the average cat will spend 10,950 hours purring.
The Cat's Meow
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Cats meow for a variety of reasons that change over the cat's lifetime. A kitten meows in order to find his mother, or so his mother can find him. Kittens meow out of hunger, fear or discomfort. Only a mother cat can tell the hungry kitten meow from the fearful or uncomfortable kitten meow. This is the only time a feline will use the meow to talk to another feline. Once they grow out of the kittenhood stage, cats will no longer meow to one another. Instead, they growl, hiss or yowl and employ body language when communicating with other cats.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
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Some people really enjoy the sound of a cat's meow. For them, the Siamese and other Oriental breeds are the best choice. For reasons still unclear, these cats love the sound of their own voices and talking to their owners. Furthermore, Siamese cats have a very distinctive meow, sort of like a "me-yooowl" that is instantly recognized. Many who have heard it say it sounds like the cry of a newborn baby. Non-Siamese cats meow, too -- it's an individual thing. Like people, some cats love to chat, some are naturally quiet. Cats meow because they don't feel well, are hungry, lonely, injured, thirsty, saying hello or looking for love. Intact cats will howl incessantly when they are in heat or on the prowl for a mate -- another in a long line of reasons why cats should be spayed or neutered.
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It's been said the purr should be a universal sound for peace. It is a pleasant, charming sound most cat lovers find irresistible. Little kids, upon hearing a cat purr, sometimes say "his motor's running." Scientists and researchers have spent many hours trying to decipher the meaning and purpose of the purr; and some don't even agree as to how cats purr. Some think the sound comes from the throat or diaphragm, others believe it is a function of the cardiovascular system. Why did it evolve with cats and what part does it play in their survival? These are some of the quintessential mysteries of the cat humans may never understand. Cats purr when they are happy, content or sleeping. They also purr when they are fearful and in great pain. Perhaps it has something to do with calming themselves, like people take in deep breaths or perform yoga stretches. Cats develop the ability to purr when they are about a week old. Purring occurs upon both inhalation and exhalation.
Purring in the Wild
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Lions and many of the other big cats do not have the ability to purr due to the anatomy of their larnyx and skull. Only housecats and the smaller of the big cats, such as the bobcat, ocelot and cougar, can purr. One theory posited by the National Wildlife Federation is that a mother cat's purring is meant to obscure the sound of her newborn kittens so nearby predators cannot hear them. Lions don't have that problem as not many in the jungle will attempt to kidnap the king's cubs.
- PetPlace: Cat Facts – How Much Do You Know About Cats? The Answers!
- Ask The Cat Doctor: Cat Sounds: What is Your Cat Telling You?
- Scientific American: Why Do Cats Purr?
- Pets Webmd: Cats and Excessive Meowing
- Pets Canada: Cat Communication
- National Wildlife Federation: Do Lions Purr?
- Readers Digest: 13 Things You Didn't Know About Cats
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.