What Does It Mean When a Cat Yowls?

If you have a cat companion you may be familiar with this sound: a low, sustained noise that resembles something between a growl and a scream. Yowling, as it's known, is, like many noises that they make, a form of cat communication, and is used to express messages to both humans and other felines.

Kitten crying for food
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Sometimes, yowling can be an indicator that your cat is ready to undergo the miracle of cat childbirth, letting male cats, you, and probably all of your neighbors know, loudly and frequently, well into the early hours of the morning. While we know that a cat's yowl is definitely their way of saying something, attempting to understand exactly what they're trying to communicate will likely require you to consider a few additional details, like their environment, and overall health.

Understanding cat language

Like people, cats communicate to each other in a number of ways. Body language is one of the most common means of relaying their needs, wants, and warnings to those around them. Physical behaviors like lying their ears flat against their head as a warning to others that they're feeling defensive is a common one, as is the stiff-straight tail pointing up toward the sky in a moment of happiness, are some of the most common and easy to identify cues we get from cats. In addition to the use of their bodies to share messages, cats also use vocal communication to express themselves, with each mew, chirp, trill, and yowl meaning their own, unique thing.

According to The Humane Society, cat vocalization can be classified by three main categories: contentment, discontentment, and attention. The sounds of a contented cat are probably pretty familiar to many — a low, soft purr while they knead a soft blanket or enjoy a nice scratch behind the ears from their favorite person. A chattering sound while she's fixated on something of interest, like a bird perched atop a feeder on the other side of a window, indicates excitement. Alternatively, a discontented cat's noises are quite different, and hopefully easy for most people to recognize, as they can be used as a warning. Hisses, growls, and even some meows (usually combined with defensive or irritated body language, like a twitching tail) usually mean "keep your distance or else."

Then, there are the seemingly random assortment of chirps, meows, and chatter that cats used to have more specific needs met. Generally, cats chirp when they want to be followed. This is something that mother cats do to signal their kittens to follow, and a trait some carry on into adult life, usually used to let their devoted human counterpart they need to follow them into the kitchen and prepare them a snack to enjoy. Meowing is the most common cat sound, and is to express any number of things, from "hello" to "I need food." Understanding these terms will depend on your cat, and is usually something that can be figured out over time by witnessing when and where she expresses herself in this way.

angry hissing gray cat
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What does yowling mean?

Yowling is a highly specific form of communication that often indicates trouble either within or around your four-legged friend. Often, yowling is done when cats are either in distress, or feeling physically unwell and in pain. A distressed cat could mean something as simple as being stuck under a piece of furniture, or stuck somewhere that requires a more detailed level of assistance, like up in a tree or in the crawlspace of a home.

A cat in pain will also, oftentimes, yowl or cry out, which is why yowling should be taken seriously, even if you can't recognize symptoms of physical pain, like a scratch or an injured leg. VCA Hospitals lists internal illnesses like diseases of the thyroid, kidney malfunction, stomach aches, and arthritis or other joint pain as common reasons for "caterwauling," or yowling in cats. Anxiety can also lead some cats to yowl, as will cognitive dysfunction, which is a common occurrence among many older cats.

Additionally, yowling occurs when cats are mating with one another, or looking for other cats to mate with, according to the ASPCA. When they are in heat and looking to procreate, female cats will yowl loudly and repeatedly to attract male cats to mate with, which could be why your otherwise healthy female cat is yowling. The only way to stop this behavior is to spay your cat, especially if she has access to the outdoors. Not only will this spare your eardrums of incessant yowling throughout the day and night, it will prevent unwanted litters from being formed, which can reduce the number of homeless cats left either to the streets or area shelters to take responsibility for.

Ginger-and-white cat yowling in garden
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Signs of a stressed cat

If you notice that your cat is yowling, especially if he's doing so excessively, paying attention to certain signs and symptoms of stress can give you a better understanding of what your feline friend may need. Obvious physical signs of distress like limping, favoring a certain limb, stiffness, or difficulty moving accompanied with yowling should be met with rest, movement restriction, when possible, and a visit to your veterinarian. Excessive thirst and hunger, irritability and restless behavior in cats can be a sign of disease, and should be taken seriously. Pacing, forgetfulness, and stumbling, and yowling at night are all common symptoms of cognitive dysfunction in cats, so if your feline is displaying any or all of these symptoms, close attention and a visit to your veterinarian is in order to discuss the proper treatment plan.