Trilling Cats: The Sound of “Hello”
Our needy Van cat, Mr. Miles O’ Brien, doesn’t purr, he trills. It’s a guttural noise that rolls through his throat. It sounds a bit like an old rotary telephone (if you even know what I’m talking about!).
A better image might be the sound of rolling the letter “R” on your tongue, a necessary skill for speaking proper Spanish (and Latin!)—which is immensely satisfying when I pull it off.
For Miles it might as well be the sound of his voice. He trills while nudging us to get out of bed; he trills when we get home from work; and starts trilling while holding a staring contest about an hour before it’s time to eat.
What does the trill mean?
When your cat trills at you it’s not so you can enjoy the music they’re making. Your cat wants attention. That explains Miles’ evil eye.
Miles sits in front of my keyboard, rubbing his face against my face, and trilling away until I give in to his demands.
Often when he trills he says, “Follow me! I need you now,” and then he prances off to his food bowl. It’s a habit he learned…
Mother Cats and their Kittens
Mother cats will trill, or chirp, to tell their kittens to follow them, or to let their kittens know that they’re entering the nest. It’s a friendly, “Hello, I’m here,” or a “Hey, let’s go!” Clearly, kitties pick up on this behavior and use it in their later life.
A mother cat’s trills are distinct, or at least research has suggested as much*. Kittens pick out their mothers rolling R’s even when other mother kitties are doing the same. Although, more research is needed to establish this voice-pattern recognition as a fact.
Trilling Vs. Meowing
So then what gives? Why do cats have multiple ways of communication? (Have you ever asked why you have multiple modes of communication?)
The answer to the former (and latter) is, “I have no idea.” But don’t worry we’re not giving up. We can make some distinctions between meowing and trilling.
A meow uses a cat’s entire mouth. They stretch it wide to let out that all-too familiar sound—as Persephone does every single morning for about 30 minutes.
Now here’s the major difference. Meowing’s use is universal. A cat may meow because they need you to drop everything you’re doing right now and play, or they may need to do your duty and clean up that filthy litter box so they can use it.
Whereas trilling tends to be used for some type of positive expectation: food, a scratch behind the ear, a cuddle. Trilling is almost always friendly.
Do all Cats Trill?
Persephone has never trilled at us. She’ll purr away when her ears are being rubbed, or let out a vicious chittering when she spots a bird, but no trills.
In a way trilling is a personality marker, like that college roommate who started every morning singing in the shower.
Some cats are more trill-talkative than others. Miles trills as soon as we make eye contact. Meanwhile Persephone silently waits to see who blinks first.
Maybe trilling is not just an inherited behavior but a deeper personality mark. Miles is a gregarious cat who would warm up to a polar bear, if allowed. He’s constantly seeking attention, even when he’s sleeping. Whereas Persephone is far shyer, and far more likely to hide in the closet when she’s not comfortable.
One Part of Cat Communication
Trilling is just one vocalization in a cat’s toolbox, besides meowing, purring, chirping and a host of other body language responses that are often overlooked.
Some cats are chatty; others are so silent they seem to be practicing for an ascetic life. Regardless your cats are communicating with you in their own distinct way. Just like we have our own voices, cats have their voices too.
Do your cats trill? Or, stare you down and speak with you?
*Mother–offspring recognition in the domestic cat: Kittens recognize their own mother’s call: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/dev.21402