Experts explain the magic behind this universal cat-attractant sound, plus other sounds cats like and dislike
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Watch and you’ll likely see your cat’s ear twitch in response to the subtlest sound from the other room. Pay attention and you may see your cat freeze in advance of the knock at the front door that heralds someone’s arrival, reminding you that feline hearing is much better than yours. But how much better, you may not be aware.
“As a whole, a cat’s sense of hearing is phenomenal, with one of the widest ranges of hearing across all mammals in the animal kingdom,” says Ingrid Johnson, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at FundamentallyFeline.com.
Cats can hear over a range of 10.5 octaves, among the broadest for any mammal, including dogs. By contrast, humans hear about 9.3 octaves. Cats can hear both higher and lower frequencies than humans can. “Their sense of hearing is so sensitive, primarily because it helps them find prey,” says Dr. Mikel Delgado, animal behaviourist with Feline Minds Cat Behavior Consulting. “Cats can also move the pinnae—or external part—of their ears to better localize sound.”
Animals in the wild—cats included—“are simply more heightened and constantly aware, utilizing all of their senses to what seems like a much fuller extent than their domesticated counterparts,” Johnson says. But our pets’ senses still are more sensitive than ours. “They are only challenged at hearing low octaves. On the other end of the spectrum, they hear high-pitched sounds exceptionally well.” Cats can hear sounds as high as 64,000Hz, says Johnson, whereas humans can only hear 20,000Hz. “It is suggested that cats can hear these frequencies better than some breeds of dogs as well,” she says.
Sounds Cats Make
With the ability to make over 100 different vocalizations, cats communicate with their humans and other cats through sound. If your cat is meowing, she’s talking to you. “The ‘meow’ has been developed since domestication and is a sound cats use almost exclusively for interacting with humans,” Johnson says. Vocalizations used for inter-cat communication include chirps, trills, and murmurs.
Sounds Cats Like
With few studies about cats’ responses to sounds, it is difficult to definitively say what they prefer, says Delgado, an expert in pet-human relationships who authored Play with Your Cat! and co-authored Total Cat Mojo. Delgado notes that a cat’s response may be because it is biologically relevant; for example, it sounds like prey or something threatening. She notes their response does not automatically mean the cat actually likes the sound.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Cats can hear middle frequencies particularly well. If your cat is staring at the wall, they are probably hearing something moving inside it.
• Cats can hear sounds up to 64,000 Hz, about three times higher than humans.
Generally speaking, a quiet home is typically best, especially if a cat is timid, fearful, or senior. “Opportunities to minimize noise, loud voices, loud music, barking dogs, etc. should all be taken into consideration,” says Johnson. Having music, the radio or television playing softly in the background is acceptable. “[One] study of cats who were under anesthesia for spay/neuter surgery had lower respiratory rates and less pupil dilation when Classical music was played than when pop or heavy metal were played,” says Delgado.
Research also shows that cats favour music with frequencies and tempos similar to that of the purr, which can also be found in Classical music. Other options include jazz—Johnson prefers to leave “smooth jazz playing for my cats” if she needs background noise. Anita Kelsey, a UK-based feline behaviourist and author of 2020’s Let’s Talk About Cats: Conversations on Feline Behaviour, suggests David Teie’s Music For Cats, which she says “has specific tones that some cats respond well to.”
Why Your Cat Goes Wild When You Say “Pspspsps”
While music and white noise work to soothe cats, other sounds, specifically those from the natural environment, can get their attention. A high-pitch “pspsps” sound—which Johnson says mimics that of prey rustling in dried leaves or a cricket chirping—is attractive to cats. So much so that Johnson uses this sound as a “come” command. Kelsey agrees. Cats like certain sounds because of the associations connected with them, she says, giving the example of a tin can opener, which signals the cat will soon receive food.
How Cats Show They Like a Sound
Because cats can’t tell you what they like, cat guardians need to learn to read their cat’s body language. “If a cat is relaxed (eyes closed, body stretched out), engaging in healthy, typical behaviours such as resting, playing, cuddling, or sleeping, then they probably aren’t bothered by a sound,” says Delgado. “This doesn’t mean that they like a sound, but they don’t find it stressful.”
A cat’s seeming indifference can also show that it likes a sound, says Johnson. (Ah, cats.) But if your cat is simply not reacting to any noise—that is, there is no ear movement—you should have a vet test for deafness.
As hearing deteriorates with age, cats may become far less reactive to sounds that previously used to perturb or even scare them, Johnson says. “This can be a plus for shy, timid cats,” she adds. “I had a cat that went deaf around the age of 17. [It] gave her a whole new lease on life. She was a much more outgoing cat after losing her hearing. I could vacuum around her, and she wouldn’t even move.”
Cat-cophony: Sounds that Cats Dislike
Most cats hate the look and sound of a vacuum and aerosol spray, which sounds like hissing, Kelsey says. “They also dislike loud, harsh tones as this would startle them, frighten them, or appear to be some form of aggression.” For that reason, cat guardians should be careful when watching TV shows that depict animals in distress or fighting, Johnson says.
“A cat can hear a mouse squeaking in tall grass in a space the size of football field, pinpoint it and kill it, so how loud is that baby crying from their perspective?” asks Johnson. “If we think about how loud our televisions are, the music in the car on the way to the vet, the children’s toys that makes a constant annoying beeping sound… most people do not take into consideration how incredibly ear-piercing these everyday sounds are to our cats. We all need to vacuum, but we do not need to walk around with our cell on speaker.”
The ideal environment, says Delgado, is relatively quiet, predictable, and provides safe spaces where a cat can get away from any unpleasant or disruptive sounds.
“A cat can hear a mouse squeaking in tall grass in a space the size of football field, pinpoint it and kill it, so how loud is that baby crying from their perspective?”
How Cats Show They Dislike a Sound
Some cats may adapt to predictable noises. For others, it leads to chronic stress, says Delgado. Less predictable, loud noises such as fireworks or construction could cause a cat to be fearful and hide in response.
When a cat perceives that another animal is being aggressive, it may respond by hissing back, running away, or by freezing, the latter of which happens when it is unsure of what is happening, says Kelsey.
If your cat runs and hides when it hears a sound, or seems otherwise stressed—lots of ear movement, hissing, etc.—then it finds that sound upsetting. It may be the sound itself or an experience associated with the sound, says Delgado, “a learned fear, such as the doorbell predicting scary visitors.”
The Sound of Your Voice
Most cat owners talk to their pets, and in fact, reading or speaking to a pet is a recommended technique for helping a new or shy cat acclimate to its new people while still confined to their safe room, Johnson says. Cats typically prefer a high-pitched voice, but Delgado doubts that the voice alone would be enough to determine whether a cat likes or dislikes someone. “In general, cats like people who are gentle, predictable, and respectful of how they approach cats,” she says, [but the voice] could possibly stack the deck.”
Even if your voice isn’t especially soothing, worry not. “Your cat has built a relationship with you and so recognizes your usual calm tone when being spoken to,” says Kelsey. As for what to say, she busts the myth that cats don’t like to be “spoken down” to. “There’s no harm in the typical baby talk we give cats,” she says, “and cats do respond in kind, with the meow, to us talking to them.”