It happens every day. I get home and I’m greeted with a “rrroooowe, brrring, brupppp, brupppp!” or some variation of similar noises. No, I don’t have an old-fashioned telephone or my iPhone set to some nostalgic ring. This cat sound — commonly known as cat trilling — is coming from my small calico kitty, Merritt, as she excitedly greets me and seems to chat me up about her day.
My other cat, Gabby, is excited to see me but remains silent as Merritt trills away. Maybe he’ll give me a soft purr as he cranes his head up for a head pet but that’s about it. So, why does only one of my kitties do this cat trilling noise? And why does cat trilling happen in the first place?
Why do cats trill?
I had a hunch that cat trilling was a positive sound. Not only does Merritt trill when I get home, she trills when she sees or hears her treat bag or food. To be sure, I confirmed with Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “Trilling is a high-pitched, chirp-like noise made by cats as a greeting to people or other cats. It is associated with a positive, welcoming vibe,” she says.
But what about other times that cats trill?
According to The Humane Society of the United States, cat trilling is how mama cats get their kittens to pay attention or follow them. Merritt is one sassy diva of a cat who loves the spotlight and being around others. How dare any guest not admire her or let her rub their leg in greeting! If I sit down and Merritt is in the general vicinity, I know I should plan on staying put for the next 20 minutes. She will be in my lap, trilling, head-butting and purring away for all of the attention!
So, it makes sense that she would trill, especially in situations where she’s telling us humans to pay attention (!!!). The treat trills I previously mentioned are great examples of the “follow me” (“Hey human, I’m right over here!”) and “pay attention” (“Do NOT feed the treat to my brother first — even though he is silently waiting like a complete angel!”) commands.
How is cat trilling different from cat meowing?
But why cat trilling and not other cat sounds? Why wouldn’t cats just meow for attention or to say hello? Gabby, my cat who is a bit quieter and doesn’t trill, meows for attention, but the sort of attention he wants is usually negative. Case in point: Gabby will sit by our closed basement door and meow until I come to him. He’s not supposed to be in our basement but he’s escaped down there a few times. And — naughty and smart as he is — he wants to go back.
“Meowing is done with the mouth open, whereas trilling noises are made with the mouth closed,” Dr. Gibbons explains. “Trilling is almost always a positive noise, whereas meowing can have positive or negative connotations.”
For those who haven’t heard it, what does cat trilling sound like?
If my rotary phone-esque “brrring” and the common “rrroooowe” descriptions don’t do cat trilling justice, think of cat trilling as a lot of high-pitched, rolled, Spanish-style “Rs.” For a really good demonstration of cat trilling, let’s talk to Merritt herself!*
*please excuse my cat Christmas socks in these videos.
How do our kitties make that cat trilling sound, anyway?
As all cat lovers know, cat anatomy is a fascinating thing. So, what exactly happens when cats make that odd cat trilling sound?
“The trill is a high-pitched sound because it is made by cats pushing air through their ‘voice box’ with their mouths closed so the air is not being expelled,” Dr. Gibbons says.
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Why do some cats trill and others don’t?
“The amount of trilling varies with personality,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Some cats are shy or apprehensive so they do not trill.”
This aligns perfectly with my two cats. Gabby is a quiet, older kitty who shies away from too much attention, whereas Merritt is a younger cat who loves to be the center of attention.
Am I only the one who trills back at my cat — and can she understand me?
I can’t be the only cat lady who has conversations “in cat” with my kitty — see the video above. Since Merritt is so chatty, I started to make similar cat trilling noises back to her. Sometimes, I’ll ask her a question and she will promptly respond in the exact tone of the answer I’d expect.
Me: “Merritt, do you like your new toy?”
Merritt: :::Happy trilling sound:::
Me: “Merritt, where’s Gabby?”
Merritt: :::Confused trilling sound that I take to mean ‘I dunno’:::
Before you think I’m nutty, here’s a doctor’s opinion confirming that she understands my imitations of cat trilling and questions — sort of! “Trilling can be used for cats to communicate with other cats or with people,” Dr. Gibbons says. “She can definitely understand your tone and that you are great pals!”