What Does it Mean When a Cat Chatters?

Cats have a repertoire of sounds they make. Cats may meow, growl, hiss, trill, caterwaul, or chatter. These are just a few of the sounds that a cat can make. Each sound a cat makes can have a different meaning and intent.

What is Cat Chatter?

If you have ever seen a cat at a window staring at a bird, you might hear that cat start to chatter. Chatter is a sound of excitement and sometimes frustration that a cat makes. Chattering is a staccato and low sound and a cat’s jaw visibly vibrates when they make this sound.

Chattering is an acoustic displacement activity. This means the activity of a cat chattering is done when the cat is unable to follow through with a desired activity.

Cat chattering is also known as chirping or twittering.

An orange tabby's reflection in a window.
Cats may chatter in frustration when seeing a bird through a window.. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Why Do Cats Chatter?

While researchers aren’t quite sure why cats chatter, many hypothesize that chattering is a form of frustrated excitement that a cat expresses at seeing prey like birds and squirrels that they can’t reach. Often cats will chatter when sitting at a window to a bird that is just outside. Or cats may chatter when looking up at a squirrel perched high up in a tree.

Other researchers have suggested that chattering is a form of preparing for a kill. The act of chattering is intended to prepare the cat for hunting prey.

In other words, chattering serves as a form of warm-up for the cat’s jaw in preparation for the “kill bite”. During a “kill bite”, a cat will bit the neck of the animal and vibrate the jaw in order to sever the spinal cord and disable their prey.

Wild Cats Can Also Chatter

Lynx (Lynx lynx) in captivity have also been observed chattering to prey just out of reach, making a sound similar to the domestic cat.

Read next: Why Do Adult Cats Meow Only to People?

References

Bernstein, P. L. (2006). Behavior of single cats and groups in the home. Consultations in feline internal medicine, 675.doi: 10.1016/B0-72-160423-4/50074-3

Peters, G. (1987). Acoustic communication in the genus Lynx (Mammalia: Felidae)—comparative survey and phylogenetic interpretation. Bonner zoologische Beiträge38, 315-330. https://zoologicalbulletin.de/BzB_Volumes/Volume_38_4/315_330_BZB38_4_Perters_Gustav.pdf

Schötz, S. (2013). A phonetic pilot study of chirp, chatter, tweet and tweedle in three domestic cats. In Fonetik 2013 (pp. 65-68). Linköping University. https://lucris.lub.lu.se/ws/portalfiles/portal/5454179/4252044.pdf

Tavernier, C., Ahmed, S., Houpt, K. A., & Yeon, S. C. (2020). Feline vocal communication. Journal of veterinary science21(1).  https://doi.org/10.4142/jvs.2020.21.e18 

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