It happens every day. I come home and go with a “rrroooowe, brrring, brupppp, brupppp!” Welcomed. or a variation of similar sounds. No, I didn’t set an old fashioned phone or my iPhone to a nostalgic ringtone. This cat sound – commonly known as the trill of cats – comes from my little calico kitten, Merritt, as she greets me excitedly and seems to chat me about her day.
My other cat, Gabby, is looking forward to me, but is silent when Merritt trills about it. Maybe he purrs at me softly while he pokes his head for a pet, but that’s about it. So why is only one of my kittens making that cat trill sound? And why does the cat trill even happen?
Why do cats trill?
I suspected that the trilling of cats was a positive sound. Merritt not only trills when I come home, she also trills when she sees or hears her bag of delicacies or her food. Of course, I confirmed this with Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “Trilling is a high-pitched, chirping sound that cats make as a greeting to people or other cats. It’s associated with a positive, welcoming mood, ”she says.
But what about other times when cats trill?
According to the United States’ Humane Society, cat trilling is the way mom cats get their kittens to pay attention or follow them. Merritt is a naughty cat diva who loves the spotlight and is with others. How dare a guest not admire them or have their leg rubbed in greeting! If I sit down and Merritt is around, I know I should plan to stay there for the next 20 minutes. She’ll be in my lap, trilling, bumping her head and purring away for all the attention!
So it makes sense for her to trill, especially in situations where she tells us humans to be careful (!!!). The treats I mentioned earlier are great examples of “follow me” (“Hey man, I’ll be right here!”) And “Watch out” (“DO NOT feed the treat to my brother first – although he’s waiting quietly like a complete angel! ”) commands.
How is cat trilling different from cat meowing?
But why do cats trill and not other cat noises? Why don’t cats just meow to get attention or to say hello? Gabby, my cat, who is a little quieter and doesn’t trill, meows for attention, but the kind of attention he wants is usually negative. Case in point: Gabby will sit by our closed cellar door and meow until I get to him. He’s not supposed to be in our basement, but he’s escaped down there a couple of times. And – cheeky and smart as he is – he wants to go back.
“Miaowing is done with the mouth open, while trills are made with the mouth closed,” explains Dr. Gibbons. “Trilling is almost always a positive sound, while meowing can have positive or negative connotations.”
How does cat trilling sound to those who haven’t heard?
If my telephone “brrring” and the usual “rrroooowe” descriptions don’t do justice to cats’ trills, think of cats trills as a bunch of high, rolled, Spanish-style “Rs”. Let’s talk to Merritt herself for a really good demonstration of the cat trill! *
* Please excuse my cat Christmas socks in these videos.
How do our kittens even make that cat’s trill sound?
As all cat lovers know, cat anatomy is a fascinating thing. So what exactly happens when cats make that strange cat trill sound?
“The trill is a high pitched sound because it is made by cats who, with their mouths closed, push air through their ‘voice box’ so the air is not expelled,” says Dr. Gibbons.
Why do some cats trill and others not?
“The amount of trill varies with personality,” says Dr. Gibbons. “Some cats are shy or worried so they don’t trill.”
That goes perfectly with my two cats. Gabby is a calm, older cat who shuns too much attention, while Merritt is a younger cat who loves to be the center of attention.
Am I just the one bumping into my cat – and can she understand me?
I can’t be the only cat lady who has conversations with my cat “in cat” – see the video above. Since Merritt is so talkative, I started making cat noises similar to her. Sometimes I ask her a question and she will promptly respond in the exact tone of the answer I would expect.
Me: “Merritt, do you like your new toy?”
Merritt: ::: Happy Trilling Sound :::
Me: “Merritt, where is Gabby?”
Merritt: ::: Confused trill sound, which I understand as “I don’t know” :::
Before you think I’m crazy, here is a doctor’s opinion that confirms that she understands my trill-trilling imitations and questions – kind of! “Trilling can be used for cats to communicate with other cats or with people,” says Dr. Gibbons. “She definitely can understand your tone and that you are great friends!”
So, trill away, cat ladies and gentlemen. It may be the next thing we need to talk to our cats now!
Tell us: Do you have a cat that trills? How does cat trilling sound to you? When does your cat trill?
Thumbnail: Photography by annadarzy / Thinkstock.
This piece was originally released in 2017.
About the author
Cait Rohan Kelly is a digital writer, editor, and marketer with over a decade of experience working with sports stars and various types of cheese. She is currently Marketing Manager for Digital Content at Catster and Dogster. Cait is a lifelong animal lover and cat lady. She lives in Connecticut with her husband (a self-proclaimed cat pal), son (his first word will likely be one of her cats’ names), and their two rescue cats – Gabby, an orange tabby and avid sleeper, and Merritt. a cheeky calico.