Cats have the ability to make a variety of different sounds. In fact, aside from birds, cats have the widest range of vocalizations of all domestic animals.
Everyone is familiar with the most common cat sounds which include a friendly meow, the purr of contentment, and a hiss to signal anger, but I think my favorite sound I hear from my cat is a chirp.
What Is a Chirp?
A chirp is also known as a trill, because it has a musical undertone, sometimes compared to the warble of a songbird. The sound is made when a cat pushes air across the vocal cords while keeping the mouth closed.
The short peep-like sound may be proceeded or followed by chattering of the jaw, giving the sound yet another name, chattering.
In the video below, Dr Sarah Wooten provides additional insight on why cats chirp.
How Do Cats Learn to Chirp?
Both wild and house cats learn to chirp in kittenhood. The queen (mother cat) chirps to tell her kittens to pay attention and follow her. The kittens quickly learn to mimic their mother and soon they will be chirping for the first time.
Some, but not all cats, will chirp into adulthood as a way to call out to their humans. More commonly, you will hear a cat chirping as he stares out the window, watching the birds, squirrels, and other creatures.
Why Do Cats Chirp?
It has been theorized that chirping is an evolutional advantage cats developed to use during hunting. Chirping sounds were thought to mimic songbirds so that the prey will feel at ease and let their guard down.
This seems unlikely for a couple of reasons: cats will also chirp when they see squirrels or rodents, not just birds, and the most successful feline hunters are very quiet and stealthy when they stalk their prey. Chirping draws attention to the cat and makes hunting more challenging.
A behavioral study done with a group of cats studied the different sounds cats made and classified them into different groups based on the sound pattern. The study found that, in most cases, a cat chirps because of feelings of anticipation or frustration. This would explain why a queen chirps at her kittens, as anyone who has tried to herd cats can understand what a frustrating endeavor this can be.
Why Is Your Cat Chirping?
Cats that have a strong prey drive can be found staring out the window and chirping at the birds and squirrels. I have even seen cats chirp in response to a video of songbirds at a bird feeder.
Based on what behaviorists know about chirping, when your cat’s hunting instinct is activated he chirps because he is either excited and anticipating a hunt and a pounce or frustrated that he is unable to hunt the prey that is right in front of him.
If your indoor cat isn’t much of a hunter, she may still chirp. She may chirp in anticipation of dinner when you pick up her food bowl. Or she may chirrup when the cat owner comes home after a long day at work telling them it’s time for a play session or some petting.
Chirping and Body Language
Your cat’s body language can help you understand why he is chirping. When he is feeling playful and chirping to get attention, you will notice his eyes are wide and bright, his tail up and swishing, and his ears up.
If the chirp is in anticipation of a hunt, his body language will be completely different. He may be crouched or stalking with is back arched. His ears are back and he is ready to pounce.
How Does a Chirp Differ From a Purr?
A purring cat is sometimes compared to a motor. It is a constant sound that a cat produces when air passes over the larynx as he breathes. Purring is usually a sign of contentment but some cats will also purr when they are nervous.
While purring is almost an involuntary noise that usually occurs when a cat is relaxed, chirping is more of a voluntary vocalization produced when he is excited.
How Does a Chirp Differ From a Yowl?
A yowl is also a voluntary noise but has a very different meaning than a chirp. Yowling is more of a way of cats communicating with each other. They may yowl to call for a mate or to tell other cats this is their territory.
Cats may also yowl if they are in pain or in times of extreme stress. I often hear about my feline patients crying and yowling the entire car ride to the vet. Senior cats may yowl out of confusion as their cognitive function declines.
While chirping is more of a positive noise in times of excitement, yowling tends to express more negative emotions.
Cats chirp for a number of other reasons, but chirping is rarely an indication that there is a health or behavior problem. Chirping, trilling, cats chatter, or whatever you choose to call it, is just another way cats communicate with us, and it’s usually quite adorable.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do cats chirp?
Mother cats chirp to gain their kittens’ attention and to lead them. Other cats chirp when they see a bird or a squirrel. This is thought to be frustration from seeing prey they can’t hunt.
Why does my cat chirp and not meow?
Cats make many types of vocalizations and each one conveys a different meaning. When a cat chirps, it is usually in response to something he is excited about, such as a bird outside or a bowl of food. Meowing sounds more generic and can be a greeting or a way to call attention to something, such as an empty food bowl.
What does it mean when a cat chirps?
If a cat is chirping at her kittens, it means “pay attention and follow me”. For other cats, it usually is due to excitement, frustration, or anticipation.
Why does my cat make little noises?
Your cat makes little noises as a way to communicate his or her feelings. Each noise has a different meaning. Part of the joy of having a cat is that we can learn what these sounds mean and understand them better.
Is cat chirping a good thing?
Yes, chirping is a good thing. It can be a way for your cat to communicate with you, to try gain your attention. Chirping may also indicate excitement or anticipation. Chirping is usually a positive noise. A cat does not chirp when in pain or if there is an underlying health problem, so a chirp is not a cause for concern. However, not all cats chirp. If your cat is not a chirper, even when excited, don't worry. He's just not one to show his emotions.