Pet parents of cats are witnessing a phenomenon. You’re sitting on the sofa with a warm, purring ball of soft fur on your lap. Her head is thrown back, her feet relaxed, and you’re rubbing her belly.
She’s making an odd clicking noise with her mouth. She makes guttural, stuttering sounds deep in her throat. You’ve noticed this when you see her at a window looking at birds. It sounds like she’s “talking” to them.
In a way, she is “talking” to them. Science has studied this cute phenomenon, coming up with several interesting conclusions.
Scientists and animal behaviorists think cats make these sounds out of instinct on the hunt, out of excitement, exasperation, or frustration, and possibly for medical reasons.
We’ll go into each of the reasons, but pet parents wondering what it’s all about should know that this behavior is part of a cat’s nature.
Large jungle cats like leopards and pumas make this stuttering sound as well. It’s mostly about the hunting instinct, but domestic cats make this noise when they’re playing, too.
Cats learn as babies the chattering sound. Their mothers use it to get them into line, so to speak, or to make them follow her.
The kittens recognize their mother’s voice and won’t follow another mother or a female cat’s voice. Kittens won’t use the chatter until they are adults themselves.
How do cats make this noise? Do they make the sounds only when they see a bird out the window? For that matter, how do their throats make the sounds?
The Anatomy Of A Cat’s Throat
We know it’s difficult to look at your cat’s furry, purry throat and see a circle. Inside that circle is an inverted V with flaps set aside like rolled-up shirt sleeves. This is called the glottis. All of this sits in front of the trachea.
As the cat breathes in and out, the glottis vibrates. The flaps move open and closed. This action produces a purr. The same mechanism makes the chattering sound, just in a different way.
The air passes through the glottis. The sound, however, is shaped by the cat moving its jaws. You’ll see her mouth moving as she’s making the sound.
Her tongue is not involved – just the jaws. It comes out sounding like a stuttering, juddering, chattering sound.
You Said It Was A Hunting Instinct
Pet parents see it every day. Their cat sits at a window staring at the birds. She looks hypnotized, her eyes staring, her tail swishing menacingly. She’s on the hunt.
Cats aren’t so far removed from primitive days that the wild DNA isn’t still in their systems. She may have a food bowl with her favorite cat food in it, but the lure of a fat, juicy bird or mouse still gets her blood up. She’ll slink into “hunt” mode at the drop of a tweet.
Another thing to understand about your cat is that no bird or mouse alive will believe your cat resembles a tree root, a rock, or anything else inanimate.
All your cat has at her disposal to catch her prey is sound. A cat will listen until she can get the sound just right, then she’ll make her “call.”
The prey, a bird or mouse, will recognize the call as one coming from another like themselves. They’ll relax and keep on doing what they were doing.
By that time, it’s much too late. Your cat has leaped from behind at the prey, teeth locked into the neck.
Domestic cats rarely eat their catch, Garfield notwithstanding. If she does, get her to the vet immediately. Wild birds have been known to carry rabies, and mice carry all sorts of nasty diseases. The feathers are troublesome, too.
A California study showed that cats prefer chattering at birds with whom they’re more familiar. If a strange bird shows up, cats don’t know their “language,” so to speak. They won’t chatter at a strange bird.
What Is There To Be Frustrated About?
Think about it. If a fat, juicy steak steaming from the grill was carried by your table at a restaurant, and you knew you couldn’t have it, wouldn’t you be frustrated?
There’s a pane of glass between your cat and a bird or a mouse. She’s irritated and frustrated that she can’t get to it.
Birds are different from mice or squirrels. They fly away at the least indication of threat. Mice, on the other hand, can’t fly.
While they move pretty quickly, they can still be caught by the stalking cat. Stalking, too, is part of the hunt.
If birds are all your cat sees out the window, then she’ll be frustrated that she can’t get to them. If the bird is close to the window for whatever reason, it will fly away if the cat leaps at the window. Enter frustration.
Also, remember that your ordinary house cat has never hunted anything. The instinct is there. When she sees an opportunity to hunt, she wants to make it happen. When she can’t, she’ll get frustrated.
Additionally, a cat’s mouth open in the chattering position contains something called Vomeronasal organs located at the roof of the mouth behind the nose.
In effect, it helps the cat smell her prey. When the cat is chattering at the window, it’s as if she’s saying “I know you’re there, but I can’t smell you.”
The irritation and frustration will build up inside your cat. She’ll lash out when she finally realizes that she isn’t going to get the bird.
Close the curtains, close the shutters, or lower the blinds, and give her a treat or a new toy. Her attention will be diverted, and her frustration will be soothed.
When Does Excitement Enter The Picture?
If you’re a hunter, then you know the excitement of waiting for a buck to appear. A fox, a rabbit, or a duck, or a goose engenders the same excitement. The silence in which you’re forced to wait renders your body tense and excited.
It builds until you see the thing you’re hunting appear. You take your shot, and there! Your body deflates as the manifestation of all that waiting and excitement happens. You have something to take home to put in the oven.
If you’re not a hunter, you still know all about excitement. There’s the excitement of waiting for the softball to fall into the sweet spot, so you can hit a home run.
You know the excitement of waiting until the exact last second to hit the buy button on eBay in order to get the item you’ve waited so patiently (or not.)
It’s no different for the cat planted in front of a window. The excitement of watching the bird for the right moment to pounce builds up in the cat. The adrenaline is pounding through her body. She’s on the hunt.
Are There Other Reasons A Cat Chatters?
The predatory instinct isn’t the only reason cats watch birds. Your cat could be bored. Looking out the window means movement.
It means people, cars, and squirrels at which to look and chatter. She just wants to see something different, something entertaining.
“Curiosity killed the cat” goes the old saw. Curiosity isn’t just a cat’s purview, though; humans and animals are all curious at times.
Your cat will watch out the window to see the baby rabbit chew a flower, or to see if the pizza delivery guy has something good in the hot bag. She’ll chatter as she watches.
Have you ever noticed your cat curled up on the sofa beside you watching TV? She’ll hear a bird tweet, a cat meow, or another animal making a recognizable noise, and she’ll suddenly tune in.
You’ll notice her making the chattering sound as she watches the cat on the TV, not realizing there’s a panel of glass between her and the other cat.
When was the last time you scolded your cat? Maybe she was walking on a table and knocked off something breakable.
She might have jumped onto the kitchen counter when she wasn’t supposed to. She looked at you as if you were interrupting her pleasure and chattered her head off at you. It might be a good idea to walk away.
Cats chatter when they’re playing. She might be excited at chasing the “red dot,” a toy held by her pet parents on a fishing line, or one of those toys that you push a button and it walks and talks.
She’ll chatter at it right before trying to destroy it, especially that blasted red dot!
You Mentioned Medical Reasons A Cat Chatters
Your cat has an extensive vocabulary, albeit it sounds. Meow in a certain tone of voice could mean hunger, thirst, boredom, or pain.
Combined with body posture, certain sounds she makes could mean she wants you to see something or she wants you to play with her.
However, cats will chatter when they have a medical problem. Dental pain is the number one reason cats chatter when they aren’t watching birds. They could have lesions on a tooth, which resemble cavities in human teeth.
Shooting pains from the root to the mouth happen when a cat grooms her face. In some instances, it is quite audible. Get her to a vet pronto, because her chattering means she’s in pain.
Cats will hide when they’re sick or in pain. It’s a self-preservation move left over from the wild. They will chatter, though, when purring doesn’t help the pain.
It might be something pet parents can’t see, such as growth or some other inner problem. Get her to a vet immediately.
Should I Stop My Cat Chattering?
Scientists and animal behaviorists tell us that chattering is a happy sound and an instinctive sound. It can be heard when the cat is “hunting” or when she’s playing. On the other hand, it can also be heard when she’s hurting.
This doesn’t happen very often like meowing incessantly or howling all night, but sometimes cats chatter all day and night.
When this happens, it’s perfectly normal to ask if you should stop here and how. Remember that chattering is a purely normal reaction in a cat, so you don’t want to hit her. She won’t understand why she’s being punished.
These are a few ideas to help both you and your cat ease into a more comfortable understanding:
- Give her the run of the house. She might just want to sleep or play in a low to no traffic area.
- Make sure her toys are easily located. Play with her a few times a day. She’ll love it.
- Give her treats and small meals throughout the day. She could be hungry.
- If her body posture is different and she’s hiding, she might be ill or in pain. Get her to a vet immediately.
If petting her, feeding her, and playing with her doesn’t do the trick, then you should take her to the vet or to an animal behaviorist.
Something might be going on that you simply can’t pick up on. You want your cat to be a happy cat, so there’s no shame in asking for help for her.
Cats have an interesting range of sounds, and each sound means something. All the sounds can either mean a happy thing or a painful thing.
For instance, cats purr when they’re happy being petted or when they’re about to be put down. It eases their pain. Chattering does the same thing.
It’s funny to see a cat chatter. It almost never dawns on pet parents that the sound is reminiscent of a cat’s wild nature. That’s only because cats not only chatter when they’re “on the hunt,” but while at play as well.
Understanding a cat’s sounds help pet parents communicate better with their cats. That understanding makes for a happy cat as well as happy pet parents.