Why Do Cats Trill, Chirp and Chirrup?


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cat happily trilling or chirping by a blue chair

When you were a kid, you were probably told that cats go meow.

And well…that was the end of the story for the most part.

But that’s really just the beginning of all the sounds that cats make! Not only are there huge variations between each individual meow, but there’s also a long list of other adorable noises that cats can make to express how they’re feeling.

My absolute favorite is the trill which is also called the chirp and sometimes even the chirrup. For the most part, these all describe the same happy rolling “r” sound that cats make.

But why do cats trill, chirp, or chirrup?

Unlike many other cat sounds, which can have very different meanings based on context, the trill, chirp, or chirrup is almost universally a sound of contentment and happiness for cats. Mom cats will trill or chirp at their kittens to get their attention and adults will often do it to communicate with their owners. 

We’re going to take a closer look at the trill, along with all the possible explanations for why cats do it, and everything else you could ever want to know about this cute cat sound!

Let’s get started by making sure we’re on the same page with what a trill actually is!

What Is A Cat Trill?

A cat trill is when cats make a high-pitched rolling sound usually with a closed mouth but it can also be done with the mouth slightly open. The trill has a rolling “r” sound and a rising intonation the same way that the pitch of our voice often rises when we ask a question. 

But the best way to really understand what a trill sounds like is to see it in action. Check out this complication of cute cats trilling and see if it lines up with the sound your cat is making:

That video also highlights one of my favorite scenarios when cats trill and that’s during naptime. Cats are often in a state of partial rest and the trill is almost like our cats asking “Yes, how can I help you?”

What’s The Difference Between A Chirp, Trill, and Chirrup?

This is where things can get confusing but I’m of the opinion that all these sounds are actually describing the same thing… at least for the most part. I’m in good company with cat expert Jackson Galaxy who also suggests that these all describe the same sound.

However, some studies have actually broken down and defined the chirp, trill and chirrup sounds with individual descriptions and while I don’t disagree with the assessments made I think the real difference is simply the length of time that the sound is held.

For most cat owners, this distinction isn’t going to matter and most folks will use these terms interchangeably.

The musical definition of a trill is a rolling warbling sound. By definition, that requires some time to produce since it’s composed of several warbling notes. A chirp, on the other hand,  is a short simple sound. Feline researchers define a chirp as “a short, high-pitched call described as similar to a bird chirping. Sequence of chirps are labeled chirrups.”

Again, the actual sound and the way it’s made are similar between all three but there is a difference in how long the sound is made.

Then, things are further complicated by the fact that different cats have their own style of trilling. So much so that one cat’s trill may sound very different from another and will naturally lead to some people calling these sounds by different names.

Unless you’re conducting scientific research, there’s not much value in trying to pinpoint each and every trilling variant, it makes more sense to consider these all the same sound or at least very similar. For the rest of the article, I’ll primarily use trill to describe these sounds.

My Cat Sounds Like A Pigeon…Is That A Trill?

Yes! That’s most likely a trill!

Some cats really take their trilling seriously and let out long almost cooing sounds but these are still considered the cat trill sound. Check out this orange cat really showing off his trilling power!

Why Do Cats Trill?

The great thing about the trill is that it’s almost exclusively a sound of happiness. Even the classic purr can mean different things based on the context of the behavior but when it comes it trilling it’s almost always good!

Let’s look at the 6 most likely explanations to explain the feline trill!

Reason 1: Saying Hello!

Most folks have probably first heard the trill when they come home after a long day.

While many cats will choose to flop down in front of you, others will pick the trill as their favorite way of saying hello! If you’re lucky, you may even be treated to both!

But cats also meow to say hello…so how is the context of trilling different?

It comes down to what your cat wants! Meowing can mean all kinds of things from a simple greeting to a demand for more food or to open a closed door.

Trilling, on the other hand, doesn’t typically represent a demand and instead could simply be your cat’s way of saying hello and expressing their excitement.

Reason 2: Communication With Kittens

Mom cats will trill, chirp and chirrup as a way to get the attention of their kittens and let them know to pay attention. It could be that the mom cat wants their kittens to follow them, that it’s time for a meal, or just about anything else.

It also seems that some cat moms will trill at their babies as a sort of affectionate baby talk. You can see this cute orange cat mom doing that here:

With kittens that young, she may also just be reminding them to stay close as one brave kitten towards the right seems to be heading in the wrong direction!

It also appears that mom cats will trill when they approach the nest which lets her kittens know that the noises they’re hearing are safe. Again, trilling communicates good things!

Reason 3: The Feline Equivalent Of Saying “Huh?”

The trill already has the rising intonation of a question and sometimes it really does seem like our cats use the sound to ask what’s going on.

The most common scenario for this is when cats are napping and you go to give them a pet. Before you worry that cats may be trilling because they’re being startled, realize that most of the time cats aren’t sleeping in quite the same way as humans. Veterinarian Georgina Ushi-Phillips explains, “Compared to humans, cats are much more alert while they sleep. You’ve probably noticed your cat relaxing and sleeping with their eyes partially open. This goes back to their wild instinct which requires them to stay alert!”

In other words, your cat was probably still mostly alert when they trilled and so you’re not exactly waking them up. Not to mention that they’re usually quite happy to get the attention!

Reason 4: To Talk To Other Cats

We’ve already mentioned that mom cats will meow at their kittens as a form of affection and to get their attention but the same appears to be true for adult cats as well!

In one of the most famous cat videos ever, you can see two felines using a mix of trills and meows to have a conversation. The cat on the right seems to prefer using the trill and will often punctuate it with a very cute meow!

Check it out:

Reason 5: Asking You To Follow Them

Just as cats use the trill to ask their kittens to follow them, they may use the same tactic on humans. Of course, some petting is almost always welcome but your cat may be attempting you bring you to a different part of the house (probably near the food bowl) or just somewhere else that you can pet them.

The trill is a great way to get your attention and ask you to come along.

Reason 6: To Attract A Mate

Female cats in heat will make all kinds of sounds in an effort to attract a male cat including the occasional long trill. Female cats in heat are also more vocal overall and may trill more towards their owners as well.

This is really the only time that trilling isn’t a mostly straightforward sound of happiness. That’s not to say cats in heat aren’t happy but they’re typically experiencing quite the range of emotions all at once including some frustration.

How Do Cats Make The Trilling Sound?

Like humans, cats have vocal folds that help make different noises. Cats even have an extra fold, called the ventricular cords, that allow them to purr. To make the trilling sound, cats push air through their vocal cords, located within the voicebox. But part of what gives the trill its unique sound is that cats will keep their mouth completely closed or just slightly open when they make the noise

Of course, there’s the rolling sound which is achieved by the breath but the closed mouth aspect is really what helps set the trill apart from other sounds like meowing.

Why Do Some Cats Trill More Than Others?

Every cat has their own unique personality. Some cats meow more, others cats love laps, and still others choose to trill.

There aren’t any breeds that specifically trill more than others but especially vocal breeds like the Siamese may be more likely to trill simply because they love to talk so much!

While I wasn’t able to find any study to confirm it, most folks seem to agree that female cats are more likely to trill compared to others. That makes perfect sense when you consider that the trill is a natural part of a mom cat’s vocabulary.

That doesn’t mean that affection male cats don’t trill as well just that female cats may be slightly more likely to make this sound.

Should I Trill Back At My Cat?

If you think you can pull it off, then more power to you!

I have a very hard time creating the rolling sound that seems so easy for our cats!

But will your cat like to be trilled at?

There’s a good chance your cat will be happy with whatever high-pitched sounds you make at them…within reason of course! Your cat probably isn’t going to think you’re one of their long lost feline friends but like many animals, they’ll appreciate the tone of your voice.

Understanding The Difference Between Trilling and Chattering

The trill, chirp or chirrup are pretty distinct from most cat sounds, and the difference between a trill and a meow are easy to spot.

But there’s one sound that often gets confused with the trill and that’s the chatter. This sound is made when cats rapidly move their lower jaw while letting out a quiet vocalization. It doesn’t always have the same rising intonation of a trill but because of the rapid jaw movement, it does have the same rolling sound that a trill does. Some folks may confuse the chatter with a chirp because of this.

However, the context of these two sounds are very different.

Chattering is almost exclusively directed towards potential prey that cats can’t quite reach. While no one knows with 100% certainty why cats make this noise, it’s thought to be an expression of excitement and frustration related to prey that’s just out of reach.

That’s very different from trilling, which with the exception of a heat cycle, is a sign of contentment and happiness.

Should I Ever Be Worried About Cat Trilling?

As I’ve already mentioned, most cat behaviors require quite a bit of context to fully understand. In many cases, there’s a potential for a meaning other than what you’d expect.

But in the case of the feline trill, you’ll be happy to know that this sound is almost universally an expression of happiness in cats! That means if your cat is trilling then you also have reason to be happy!

The only possible exception would be cats in heat which may trill too. That’s not to say that cats in heat aren’t happy, but it also appears they’re going through just about every emotion at the same time.

If your cat is supposed to be spayed and starts trilling much more than usual, then there may be some cause for concern. In rare cases, this could be a sign that an ovarian remnant remains and your cat is not completely spayed.

However, there are several much more clear signs of a cat in heat besides trilling so even an increase in trilling alone shouldn’t be too worrisome.

Closing Thoughts

Turns out that cats do a lot more than just meow!

For the most part, trilling, chattering, and chirping are all the same sound but done over different lengths of time. And that’s just a fraction of all the sounds cats can make. There’s also hissing, yowling, growling, and an almost endless variation of individual meows on top of it all!

Out of all those sounds, the trill is my absolute favorite. Not only because it’s cute, but also because it’s almost universally a sign of friendliness, happiness, and affection! The world of cat sounds can be pretty confusing and context usually plays a big part in figuring out what our cats are trying to say.

But the cat trill simplifies all that and simply lets that world know that your feline friend is feeling fine!

What do you think? When does your cat trill the most?

Logan M.

Logan has always loved everything about cats! Growing up with a family full of pets and a lifelong passion for animals he pursued work in the veterinary industry. After 10 years, he started BetterWithCats.net to help cat owners learn more about their feline friends.

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