Why is my cat growling?
My daughter lives in an apartment in Boston with her exuberant Labrador, three roommates, and now a little gray cat named Ash. Ash is a one-year-old cat who has been passed around a few times in her short life, before landing in this loving home.
She sent me a video of little Ash, who is a bit too skinny, but was greedily munching from her overflowing food bowl, and simultaneously purring from all the petting she was getting from roommates who were so excited to meet their new housemate. And then Ash growled.
What would cause the switch to flip in Ash’s behavior from purring, cuddling and snacking, to growling? I watched the short video a few times, and thought I might have an answer. Little Ash was not directing her growls to the humans in the room, who were lavishing her with love and supper, but in the direction of the Labrador who was wisely locked behind a closed door.
Why do house cats growl?
There was an awesome study published last year in the Journal of Veterinary Science about the sounds that cats make. The researchers analyzed 21 different cat vocalizations, using audiograms – visual representations of sound – to be sure they were accurately telling them apart. They learned some really interesting things.
One of the things that they learned was that our domestic cats have a more complex repertoire of sounds than any other carnivorous animal, including wild cats. This surprised the scientists because they would have otherwise predicted that a small prey animal, like our house cats, would actually do less talking. Noisy prey animals usually end up as somebody else’s supper.
But the flip side of the vocal flexibility required to make so many different sounds is that our house cats can actually communicate rather effectively with their people. We cat-loving humans just need to learn how to interpret what our feline friends are saying.
One thing that scientists know for certain is that the part of the cat brain that controls vocalizations is very connected to the part of the brain that controls a cat’s emotions. So, what the cat is “saying” is absolutely an insight into how he is feeling. It’s kind of exciting to imagine that we can actually know what our cats are thinking, isn’t it?
What does a cat's growl sound like?
The growl is a harsh, guttural sound. The cat makes this noise with her mouth slightly opened, and the noise is produced as the cat slowly exhales. The escaping air causes her vocal folds to vibrate.
The growl is deep, almost rumbling. It can be a very long, drawn-out sound. One study measured single growls that were up to 11 seconds long.
A growl can change in intensity from beginning to end. It can also be mixed in with other sounds like howls, moans, yowls, and hisses.
Listen to a few cats making growling sounds in these videos:
When do cats growl?
In most mammals, the growl is Level 1 aggression. It’s a warning of sorts, an indication that the animal has bigger guns that they they’re not using. Yet.
Cats use the growl in a variety of situations. This is a short list of common occasions when cats growl, and it is by no means exhaustive. Any cat who is feeling afraid, unhappy, scared, frustrated, confused, or irritated, may use a growl to express her feelings.
In the presence of other cats or dogs.
When being petted.
When they are feeling protective about their food or toys.
When a cat feels pain.
When a cat is afraid.
Does your cat only growl at the veterinarian? Growling is your cat’s way of indicating that she is feeling stressed or fearful.
What should you do when your cat growls?
If your cat is growling at you, heed the growl, for your sake and for his. For your sake, do not let the growl intensify into hissing, spitting, scratching, biting. You’ve been warned. Now take the hint.
For her sake, listen when she speaks. Your house cat is mostly powerless. She controls almost nothing about her environment and life. But she might be trying to tell you that there is something that you’re doing that is making her uncomfortable, fearful, or insecure. Give her space if you can. Leave her alone if you suspect you might be giving her more physical affection than she may enjoy.
If the growling is between a cat and a dog in the same household, ask yourself whether you've chosen the right pets to live together, whether you've set up your home to keep both animals safe, and whether you've properly introduced your pets to each other. For more information, read this blog post:
If the growling is only between the cats in your household it’s not OK to just let the cats “fight it out.” If the growling is between an existing cat and a cat who is new to the household, growling is a sign that they have not been properly introduced. Read this guide on introducing your cats:
If the growling occurs between cats who have always gotten along, evaluate your household. Ask yourself, what has changed? What is causing stress? Be sure there are enough resources (food dishes, water bowls, litter boxes, and toys) in different areas of the house so that the cats don’t have to share. Be sure there are enough “escape hatches,” especially vertical space, that can provide an exit for a cat who isn’t really looking to intensify a conflict, but just wants out.
If the growling is between two cats who have never gotten along, separate them and consult a professional for help. Contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. A professional can help you identify and resolve the conflict in your household before it escalates.
 Brudzynski, Stefan M. “Medial Cholinoceptive Vocalization Strip in the Cat and Rat Brains: Initiation of Defensive Vocalizations.” Handbook of Behavioral Neuroscience, Elsevier, 13 Jan. 2010, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1569733910700370.
 Johnson, Dan H. “MISCELLANEOUS SMALL MAMMAL BEHAVIOR.” Exotic Pet Behavior, W.B. Saunders, 15 May 2009, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9781416000099500141.
 “Handbook of Behavioral Neuroscience.” Handbook of Behavioral Neuroscience | ScienceDirect.com by Elsevier, 2020, www.sciencedirect.com/handbook/handbook-of-behavioral-neuroscience.
 Crowell-Davis, Sharon L. “Feline Behavioral Disorders.” Handbook of Small Animal Practice (Fifth Edition), W.B. Saunders, 15 May 2009, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9781416039495501230.
 Kelly, Cait Rohan. “Let's Talk Cat Growling - Why Does Your Cat Growl and How Should You React?” Catster, 19 Jan. 2020, www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-growling-why-does-your-cat-growl-how-should-you-react.
 “Aggression Between Cats in Your Household.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/aggression-between-cats-your-household.