What sounds do cats like and what sounds do they dislike?
Purr. Meow. Squeak. Hiss. Squeal. Yowl. Caterwaul. Chirp. Chatter.
Cats have a surprisingly broad vocabulary of sounds that they make to communicate their moods, preferences, and emotions to us and to other cats. Some of these noises (purring, for example) are extremely pleasing to their owners who will go to great lengths to elicit them from their cats. But there are other cat sounds most humans find to be disturbing, the feline equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. The yowl, for example, which is a kind of loud, long, drawn out meow, is especially disconcerting to most people.
Would it surprise you to learn that our cats feel the same way about the noises people make?
How sensitive is a cat’s hearing?
One of the reasons cats are so particular about sound is that a cat’s hearing is extremely sensitive. We hear noises in a range of 20-20,000 hertz. Cats can hear sounds from 45 to 60,000 hertz. That’s almost two octaves higher! Even though dogs are known for being able to hear a high-pitched “dog whistle,” cats can actually hear higher frequencies than dogs. There is a whole world of sounds that our cats can tune into that we (and our doggie friends) can’t even imagine.
Cats can also hear distant sounds better than we can. They can perceive sounds that are 4-5 times farther away than human ears can detect. And they can distinguish tiny, tiny differences in sound, too. This ability helps a hunting cat know the type and size of the prey animal making the noise.
A cat’s physiology contributes to their superior sense of hearing, too. A cat’s outer ear, called the pinna, stands up straight and is funnel-shaped to catch and amplify every passing sound wave. And thanks to 32 sets of muscles devoted just to ear movement, cats can rotate their cone-shaped ears 180 degrees like little satellite dishes so they don’t miss a thing. (For comparison, humans have only 6 sets of ear-moving muscles.) Cats' ears actually move independently of each other and can rotate in one direction while the cat’s body rotates in the other.
(Cats use the position of their ears to communicate their moods. Read more about it in this post, "Why do cats put their ears back?")
What sounds do cats hate?
What noises are offensive to cats? Given their ability to hear noises that are inaudible to humans, cats can be annoyed by sounds we don’t even know exist. Many of our electronic devices emit noises that are vexing to cats: our computers, televisions, smoke detectors, and even remote controls produce high-frequency sounds that we can’t necessarily hear but are extremely abrasive to cats.
What we don’t know is how this cacophony of electronic sounds affects our cats’ health. There are some clues. Jeremy G. Turner and his fellow researchers at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine studied the non-auditory effects of noise on lab mice (in this study: Hearing in Laboratory Animals: Strain Differences and Nonauditory Effects of Noise) and concluded that noise caused changes in the animals’ cardiovascular and endocrine systems, and affected their sleep, susceptibility to seizures, and social behavior.
A small study on Audiogenic Reflex Seizures in Cats aimed to identify a new epilepsy syndrome called FARS. In this syndrome, seizures in certain elderly cats seemed to be triggered by “sensory stimuli,” mostly sounds. This study is not conclusive evidence that environmental noises are not just annoying to cats, but might be downright harmful, but it is something to think about.
Sounds that mimic hissing are also bothersome to cats. It’s not surprising: cats employ hissing noises themselves to confront or scare off other cats. A mother cat may hiss at a cat approaching her kittens. A cat in pain might hiss to prevent another cat from coming near.
We can only speculate, of course, but it is possible that hissing sounds may evoke a feeling of being threatened in your cat. What kinds of things in the human world remind a cat of a hiss? A sprayed aerosol can, a “swishy” windbreaker, a rustling plastic bag can all be misconstrued by your cat to be an angry hiss.
For more information about hissing, read, "Why do cats hiss?"
Loud noises are extremely bothersome to cats and their sensitive ears. There are noises that are painful to our ears – a loud fire alarm, for example. But the threshold for “loud” is a lot lower for a cat. Our everyday loud noises, like a passing ambulance, a motorcycle, a running vacuum cleaner, or thunderclap, can be startling and painfully loud for your cat.
Cats have a special reflex to minimize exposure to sounds that are too loud. Tiny muscles in a cat’s middle ear can contract to protect the inner ear from loud noises. But sudden loud noises, like fireworks, happen too quickly for this reflex to take effect and provide protection.
What sounds do cats love?
There are sounds cats like, too. As it turns out, they actually like music – just not our music. A study published in Applied Animal Behavioral Science concluded that cats like sounds that sound, well, like other cats. (Download the whole study, Cats Prefer Species-Appropriate Music here.) The study referred to these sounds as “species-specific music” that reflected the tempo and frequency of cat vocalizations. Cats in the study enjoyed a song that was composed just for them: a fast-paced tune at 1380 beats per minute that mimicked purring and included tones from cat vocalizations. How did researchers know that the cats were enjoying their cat music? Cats listening to their new jam turned toward the music, purred, and rubbed themselves against the speakers.
A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin composed a number of songs to appeal to a cat's tastes. One of the most famous tunes is called Cosmo's Air. You can listen to it here:
Cat-toy sounds that mimic prey
For cats, play is serious business. They hone their hunting skills through play. Every opportunity they get to pounce, chase, and stalk is a chance for them to engage their natural instincts (and fine-tune their technique) in the important work of trapping and capturing prey.
The toy sounds they enjoy most are the ones that add a bit of realism to the mock-hunting adventure. The rustling sounds made by some crinkly foil balls might resemble the sound of a chipmunk scurrying through a pile of leaves. Toys that gently squeak when rolled, chewed, or batted might call to mind a captured mouse for your little hunter.
Not all cats are alike. Some cats like sounds that other cats hate.
Interestingly, every cat and every household is unique, and that's a factor when it comes to toy preferences. Some cats, for example, are stimulated by the tinkling sound of toys that contain little bells. But in a household where the family cats wear bells on their collars, bell sounds mean something else. A bell-containing toy might have less appeal for those cats. As always, every cat and every household is individual.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.