Have you ever seen your cat chatter and wondered what was going on?
Have you ever heard a cat chatter and wondered what was going on? If you're used to meows and purrs, the chatter is an unexpected and strange vocalization.
What does a cat's chatter look and sound like?
It’s also strange to watch. A chattering cat’s upper lips and whiskers may twitch, and its lower jaw may shudder. The cat will make a tiny staccato noise that, depending upon the individual cat or the moment, may sound a little like human teeth chattering, or a small woodland creature squeaking, or even a chirping bird. The cat may pause between episodes to swallow pointedly, or to lick its lips, but it remains intensely focused on this activity.
Those who’ve had the opportunity to witness a cat’s chattering may notice that a cat is fixated at the time the chattering begins. They’re often looking pointedly out a window – at a bird on a branch, or squirrel in the yard – in other words, at prey animals. Their gaze is very intense and the cat is often difficult to distract. A tail may swish in excitement.
Some theories about why cats chatter
Since we can’t ask a cat directly, veterinarians and animal behaviorists have come up with some interesting theories about why cats chatter.
One thought is that cats chatter because of their vomeronasal organs. This is a specialized scent gland that is situated at the roof of a cat’s mouth, just behind her nose. It is possible that the chattering is a way of moving air across this scent gland (sometimes abbreviated as VNO). Maybe the cat isn’t getting a good view of her potential prey through the window and wants a little more information about the animal’s scent or pheromones that the VNO can provide.
Support for this theory is that a chattering cat may pause with his mouth open for a short while. This open-mouthed pause is called the “flehmen response,” and lots of mammals do it. Many, especially horses, bare their upper teeth while flehmening, which is how the behavior got its name: “flemmen” means “to look spiteful” in German.
Others theorize that a chattering cat is performing a behavior leftover from kittenhood. Watch a mother cat and her kittens and you may hear the youngsters making a chirping sound. They may be practicing their communication skills, or giving their voices a little workout, but they are often just letting mama and siblings know where they are and how they’re feeling at the moment. Sometimes a mother cat will chirrup at her offspring, as if to say “pay attention!” or “follow me now!” but these sounds are somewhat different than the true chattering we’re discussing here.
Still others wonder if a chattering cat is simply bored or frustrated. If you watch a chattering cat gazing almost trance-like out the window at potential prey it would be easy to come to this conclusion as well. Of course they want to catch that scurrying vole, or that flitting chickadee! They are chattering from the stress of being unable to hunt, say some experts. Or perhaps, it’s not boredom or frustration afterall, but predatory excitement. A chattering cat could be just titillated by the prospect of a bunny munching away on the front lawn. A rodent in the yard is the best cat TV on the planet.
Can science explain why cats chatter?
But are any of these theories correct about why cats chatter?
Science, as it turns out, would probably answer, “no.”
Unfounded theories about cat chattering abounded (see above) until 2009 when researchers in the Amazonian rainforest got an unexpected insight into this strange behavior. The scientists were studying the margay, a reclusive spotted wildcat, when they came upon a group of pied tamarin monkeys feeding in a fig tree. The monkeys were going about their monkey business, unaware that the margay was nearby.
And then, incredibly, the margay began chattering, exactly like our domestic felines. The chattering margay produced a noise that so precisely mimicked the sounds made by monkey babies that he fooled the “lookout monkey” on duty. He and some of his closest pied tamarin friends climbed out of the fig tree to see why the “monkey baby” was crying and were nearly fooled into becoming the cat’s supper.
Cats may chatter as a hunting strategy
Although this particular cat’s hunt was unsuccessful, his display was a boon to animal researchers who have been puzzling over the purpose of chattering for eons. After watching the margay in action, the researchers concluded that feline chattering is first and foremost a hunting strategy that employs imitation as a tool. The margay impersonates its prey – in this case a monkey – to lure it out into the open and into a better position for attack.
Researchers now believe that our chattering house cats are really little margays at heart. They are cheeping like the purple finch at the feeder or chirping like the chipmunk on the sill in the hopes that they will fool their prey into thinking a friend is calling. The disarmed bird or rodent may step out into the open a bit more, comforted by the thought that one of his kind is nearby, only to pounced upon by the cat.
If only the window wasn’t in the way.
How can you help your chattering cat?
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Chances are, you can’t (or shouldn’t) give your cat what she really wants, which is a romp in the yard to go on a hunting spree. (If you want to know why you should keep your cat indoors, read this article: “10 Reasons to Have an Indoor-Only Cat.”) But you can help satisfy her predatory need to hunt, ambush, and capture prey through play.
One of the best hunting games you can play with your cat requires a fishing pole toy with feather or toy at the end. Drag the dangling toy away from your little hunter, flicking it slightly, in a way that mimics the motion of a prey animal. To keep your cat from getting overly frustrated, making sure you let him catch it periodically. At the end of a vigorous play session, start to slow down a bit, the way an exhausted prey animal might behave toward the end of a hunt.
There are many excellent fishing pole toys on the market. The EcoCity Cat Wand Set is an excellent choice because the feathers at the end of the pole are a cat favorite, and it comes with four “refills” when the feathers detach or become too damaged to enjoy (I guarantee you will require refills no matter which product you purchase.)
The Go Cat Teaser is a favorite of the cats at the shelter where I volunteer. This one comes with an all-natural “mouse” at the end of the pole which cats love. Chances are your cat will want to carry her conquered “prey” around a bit if you let her catch it.
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 Fabiano de Oliveira Calleia, Fabio Rohe, Marcelo Gordo 2009. Hunting Strategy of the Margay (Leopardus wiedii) to Attract the Wild Pied Tamarin (Saguinus bicolor). Neotropical Primates, 16(1):32-34 (2009)