Cats go meow, dogs go roof, chickens go cluck…
Wait a second…cats also trill, chirp, chirrup, and even chatter! Of course, those other animals have some variety in the sounds they make as well, but we’re here to talk about cat sounds. More specifically, we’re going to explore the mysterious feline chatter.
It’s a combination of both a mouth movement and sound all wrapped up into one feline mystery.
So why do cats chatter?
While no one is 100% certain why cat chattering occurs, the most likely explanation is that cats are excited and frustrated by potential prey that’s just out of reach. The chatter may mimic the killing bite that a cat would make or it could simply be a way of expressing their excitement and frustration.
But those are far from the only theories and some of the explanations can actually get a little…out there.
We’ll be diving deeper into each and every one to explore this cute but confusing cat behavior. However, before we get started, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with exactly what a chattering cat is since there are so many different feline sounds.
What Is Cat Chattering?
The chattering sound can sometimes get confused with a chirp. Chirps are much more sing-songy and usually occur when cats are feeling happy. Cats can chirp when their mouth is closed or only slightly open.
A chatter, on the other hand, is usually a longer sound and made when your cat rapidly opens and closes their mouth while letting out a sort of meowing sound. But the easiest why to make sure you’re seeing a chatter is just to compare what your cat is doing to this video:
Each of these cats has their own chattering style, but one thing is clear: they’re all very focused on something.
I know that when my cat is in chatter mode, she doesn’t even want to be pet. She’ll duck and dodge my hand just to stay focused on the target of her chattering!
Which brings us to another important distinction between chattering and other cat sounds. Chattering is almost always directed at a specific prey and usually one that’s just out of reach for your cat.
Now that we’re on the same page with what a chatter looks like, let’s dive into the possible explanations for this unusual feline behavior.
Reason 1: Excitement
Watching birds taps into your cat’s most primal instincts. While it might be hard to imagine our soft felines as apex predators, they really are, and watching birds seems to set something off in our cats that we can’t fully understand.
Just one look at your cat’s body language will confirm that your chattering cat is very excited. Their pupils will dilate, tails start to twitch and their body postures become tense. Most of these changes are the same that your cat would experience right before they pounce on potential prey.
But why the chattering then?
When cats are forced to watch prey just out of reach, they can’t contain their excitement and chattering could be an expression of this eagerness and anticipation. There may be an evolutionary reason for the chatter (which we’ll look at below) but it could also be the same as children that jump with excitement or when people clap at a funny joke. It’s a sort of excitement overload release valve.
The possible shortfall of the excitement-only explanation is that it leads us to ask why don’t cats chatter in more scenarios?
For example, when they hear the can of cat food open but it remains just out of reach on the countertop? We know that our cats excited about this but it doesn’t typically trigger a chatter.
It’s possible that cats just don’t see their prepared cat food the same way they see live prey, which makes sense. Our cats get excited about toys, but they still know they’re not the real thing and there’s a big difference between a toy mouse and a real one.
The same could be true for a can of cat food and a blue jay outside. In fact, I will often see my cat chatter at real birds but when I play a video of birds that’s specifically made for cats, she doesn’t chatter.
She’s very interested but still knows something isn’t quite right.
The difference between the real thing and imitation could explain why chattering is reserved for only the most exciting prey-related experiences. However, I don’t think it’s excitement alone that leads cats to chatter.
Instead, I think there’s a strong case to be made that cats are not only pumped to see the bird but also a little pissed off that they can’t catch it which leads us to our next possible explanation.
Reason 2: Frustration
Have you ever seen a cat hunt a bird or a mouse?
They typically get right to the point. Sure, there can be some theatrics when it comes to wiggling their butt for what feels like a really long time but besides that cats are focused on staying stealthy, silent, and speedy.
In other words, there’s no pre-pounce chatter.
But when cats don’t have a clear path to their prey and they’re stuck behind a window, they’ll chatter away. Just check out a search for “cat chattering” on YouTube and you can tell by the thumbnails that most of these cats are stuck behind a window.
That suggests that cat chattering isn’t only about excitement but also plenty of frustration mixed in since cats know that they can’t quite reach their prey. It doesn’t have to be a window, however, and you may see cats chatter at birds in trees or any other prey that’s out of reach. While there’s not exactly a barrier blocking them, these birds are still out of reach and the experience could still be frustrating for cats.
So that cute chattering sound could actually be little kitty curse words spewing out of your cat’s mouth as they express their frustration!
Reason 3: Preparing For The Kill Bite
It’s easy to forget that our cats are highly efficient hunters. Many of their behaviors seem goofy, silly, and downright unintimidating.
But when it comes to hunting and killing prey, our cats are anything but silly.
If you’ve ever seen big cats hunting on television, you’ll notice that they always go for the throat and neck. It’s harder to tell on the small game that the domestic cat hunts, but their technique is very similar and the folks at BasePaws explain, “Cats kill by biting the neck where the skull joins the spine, severing the vertebrae with the dagger-like canine teeth. They grasp the neck and use a ‘chattering’ movement to position their bite accurately.”
That chattering at the window could be a way for cats to practice or warm-up for the killing bite. In order to successfully perform the killing bite, cats have to carefully position their canines between the spinal column in order to severe the spinal cord.
I know, that’s a little graphic but it does highlight the precision required for this movement. So it’s not hard to imagine that cats may need to warm up a bit to pull this off.
Even more likely, however, is that it’s a way for cats to act out the killing bite on prey that they can’t actually reach. It could be a bit like feline role play as cats imagine what they’d if they caught the bird.
In many ways, this is an extension of our previous two explanations.
Cats are excited about the potential prey but also extremely frustrated that they can’t reach it. In order to try to manage some of this excitement, they act out the physical actions they’d take if they could reach the bird. This could act as a way to both blow off steam and stay ready in case they do get the chance to catch their prey.
Reason 4: Are Cats Trying To Mimic Their Prey?
This explanation is growing in popularity and the idea is that cats are trying to make the same sound as their prey in order to draw them in.
I know, it might sound like a bit of stretch…and I’d agree.
But this explanation didn’t just come of thin air and scientists have discovered a cat in the Amazon rainforest that actually tries to lure in monkeys, which are prey to these wild cats, by making the same sound as them. I wasn’t able to find the sound, but apparently, the monkeys were at least a little convinced.
According to the folks at Live Science, the wild cat was mimicking the sound of a baby monkey, and “monkeys were clearly confounded by these familiar vocalizations, choosing to investigate rather than flee.” After climbing down to figure out what was happening, the wild cat called emerged to make their move.
Live Science goes on to say that the monkeys quickly figured out what was happening and “realizing the ruse, the sentinel [monkey] screamed an alarm and sent the other tamarins fleeing.”
As ambush predators, cats rely on stealth and surprise to capture their prey. In most cases, that also means silence as cats have dozens of evolutionary adaptations for moving quickly and quietly. But this mimicry tactic actually makes sense for ambush predators since as we say in the wild cat example, the goal is to lure the prey closer to you before pouncing.
So does this explain the feline chatter?
Well, I suppose the chattering sound does resemble a chipping bird but it’s still not exactly convincing. It’s also worth noting that just because we see a behavior in our cat’s wild cousin doesn’t mean our house cats do the same thing.
But still, it does make at least a little sense that cats would do this when the prey is out of reach and not at times when they can actually pounce. It could be a cat’s last resort effort in trying to get the bird to come to them. It’s also supported by the anecdotal evidence that cats are most likely to chatter at birds compared to other animals like mice.
However, the biggest reason why I think this explanation is hard to latch onto is the fact that I’ve never seen or heard of this tactic working. Cats are legendary for their ability to catch birds and I’ve never once heard of a cat successfully hunting a bird by luring them in via cat chatter.
At least with the wild cat example, there’s documentation of the tactic actually working as the wild cat was put in a better position to catch their prey. But until I see or hear of a bird being hypnotized by a cat’s wild chatter, I’ll remain unconvinced.
It Could Be (And Probably Is) A Little Of Everything
Humans don’t like grey area.
We like to know exactly why something is the way it is or why our cats do the things they do.
But unfortunately, our cats aren’t always willing and ready to share all their feline secrets.
In other words, there probably isn’t just one reason that explains why cats chatter. There are likely several factors that contribute to the behavior and rather than saying definitively what it is, it may be easier to say what it isn’t.
So let’s cover a few explanations that just don’t hold up.
It Probably Isn’t Part Of Group Hunting
In researching the feline chatter, I found some folks suggest that it could be part of a group hunting tactic where cats will alert other felines that prey is nearby.
While this certainly happens in a home with multiple cats or even in a feral colony, it’s hard to argue that it’s the primary reason behind cat’s chattering. Or really even a secondary reason.
Of course, if you live with several cats and one is aggressively chattering while staring out the window, his feline roommates are probably going to take notice. But the chattering cat would have done the same thing with or without his feline friends too!
The most compelling evidence against this idea that cats chatter to alert others, is the evolutionary history of cats. Our feline friends are often pegged as being completely asocial, which just isn’t the case. Lions are usually thought to be the only social cats but when resources are plentiful feral cats will live in colonies or social groups as well.
But what they don’t do is hunt in groups. In the wild where resources are much more scarce, cats live alone and control a large area of territory. As iCat Care explains, “As cats have developed largely as solitary hunters without the need for complex social interactions, they appear to have relatively limited ability for complex visual signaling that occurs in many other animals that do exist in social groups.”
That doesn’t mean cats can’t communicate with each other, and they certainly do, but they don’t have the social communication skills to coordinate something as complex as a joint hunt. As a result, it’s unlikely that chattering has anything to do with alerting other cats about a potential meal.
Probably Not Communication With Kittens
Others have suggested that a cat’s chatter may be related to communication with kittens but this probably isn’t the case either.
Cat moms do communicate with their kittens and they’ll often use a trill or chip to get their attention or ask them to follow them. When cats chatter, it may sound slightly similar to a trill or chirp but the movement of the mouth is completely different.
If this all sounds like a foreign language to you, check out this video to see an adorable cat momma talking to her kittens within the first few seconds:
The trilling or chirping sound is a little similar to chattering but the big difference is that the cat’s mouth is closed or only partially open. Not to mention a big difference in body language as trilling or chirping is usually done with cats who are calm, relaxed, and sometimes even half asleep!
Overall, the context just doesn’t make sense for this explanation!
What If Your Cat Chatters At You?
Don’t take it personally! Your cat probably isn’t planning on eating you!
It’s likely that your cat isn’t chattering directly at you but instead at something near your that they think is prey. The most obvious explanation is that it’s a cat toy but it could also be anything that moves similarly to a bird.
Should You Ever Be Worried About Cat Chattering?
We’ve talked a lot about just how cute cat chattering is but are there any scenarios where you should worry about it? Can cat chattering ever be bad?
As long as cat chattering occurs in response to potential prey it’s normal behavior and there’s typically nothing to worry about. However, if cat chattering is occurring outside this context, like after a meal it could be related to dental or oral pain and a cause for concern.
Cats will chatter as a response to significant dental pain but typically only when the tooth is examined or irritated. In other cases, cat chattering could be part of several strange mouth movements that cats make when they’re uncomfortable or even have something stuck in their mouth.
Again, it’s all about context and if your cat is chattering when prey is around, there’s no cause for concern.
Can Cats Get Too Frustrated?
We’ve made a pretty strong case that chattering is a response to prey that cats can’t reach. Even though it’s a normal response for cats, should we be concerned that cats are getting too frustrated?
It’s possible that if the only interaction cats have with prey is through a window that they may get a little too frustrated. It’s the same problem with laser pointers in that cats get to experience the wind-up and excitement of the hunt but never the satisfaction of actually capturing the prey.
But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your cat seeing prey they can’t catch and it would be a very common experience for your cat’s wild ancestors.
In general, you shouldn’t worry too much about your cat’s frustration levels as long as you’re already playing with your cat regularly.
Interactive play is always important and it’s a good idea to work in a play session where your cat gets to capture “prey” (AKA a toy) after your cat spends some time chattering at the window. That way your cat gets the mental stimulation of watching the out-of-reach birds and the satisfaction of a successful hunt!
You can also try adding a nice scratching post or even a little food puzzle to let cats blow off some steam after an intense bird-watching session!
How To Get Your Cat To Chatter
You’ve seen the videos of adorable cats eagerly chattering away. You now know why cats chatter but maybe your feline friend just isn’t showing off their cute chatter!
Don’t worry, you’ve got a lot of options for encouraging the feline chatter!
Let’s look at a few of them!
Pick Up A Bird Feeder
The number one scenario that leads to cats chattering is watching birds. This makes sense when you consider that cats have been chattering at out-of-reach prey long before they spent most of their time behind a window.
It’s also fair to guess that the most common out-of-reach prey are the ones that can fly!
There are plenty of options for bird feeders, especially if you have windows with a tree. Even if you don’t have trees, you can pick up a simple stand like this one on Amazon. That’s the same one I use and while some determined squirrels have figured out how to climb it I consider that all part of the fun for my cat.
Check Out A Window Perch
Depending on the layout of your home, cats may have a hard time getting to the best window for birds. Picking up a cat tree is always a good option, but you can go even smaller and pick up a window perch like this one. That will securely stick to the window using suction cups. That means more birds for your cat and less drilling in the wall for you.
Pick Up Da Bird
No, that’s not a typo or my attempt to sound cool!
While there’s nothing quite like the real thing, you can still get most cats to chatter at toys.
But they need to be the right toys and throwing your standard mouse toy down the hall might get a cat excited…but it won’t get a chatter.
Instead, you want something that’s flying so it’s extra interesting and out of reach. I recommend the Da Bird wand toy which despite the silly name is a serious cat toy.
Da Bird is a familiar-looking wand toy but the feathers on the end make an almost irresistible fluttering motion when it’s moving through the air. Most cats completely lose their mind for this thing and once you get the hang of it, there’s a good chance you can get your cat to chatter.
Even better, is that you can let your cat actually capture Da Bird from time to time! You can check out the latest price on Amazon by clicking here.
What About A Laser Pointer?
Laser pointers are almost sure to make cats chatter but that doesn’t make these toys a good option.
Remember, that one of the big reasons cats chatter is a result of frustration and because cats can never actually catch that elusive red dot laser pointers are extremely frustrating for cats.
Some frustration is good as a toy flies around out of reach but in the end, cats should be allowed to capture their “prey”. Frustration with every play session from a laser pointer can lead to a stressed-out cat!
So skip the laser pointer, even if it leads to adorable chattering, in favor of a toy that cats can catch from time to time.
Cat chattering is cute- there’s no double about that.
But amazingly, there is doubt about why cats do it.
Despite millions of cat videos on the internet and more than 10,000 years of domestication, there’s still a lot we don’t know about cats. We at least have a good idea why cats chatter and it’s probably related to a combination of frustration, excitement, and anticipation about the potential prey.
What do you think? What explanation makes the most sense for your feline friend?