Cats make a variety of noises, as cat parents are well aware. Merritt, my little calico lady, like trilling, whereas Gabby, my big orange tabby guy, enjoys the huff (an irritated, airy snort – does anyone else’s cat do this?). and growling. Given that Gabby was an older cat who had been abandoned and whose past was unknown when we rescued him, it makes natural that he has some behavioural problems and is more likely to vocalise his displeasure. However, I’ve also heard Merritt snarl quite a bit (she recently displayed feline non-recognition hostility, which made her growl away!).
What precisely does a cat growl mean, and how should you respond to one? Let’s look at this:
What sounds do cats make when they growl?
To me, cat growling sound like a low brrrrrroooooooooooowwww. Gabby sometimes makes what I call a pre-growl or warning growl, which sounds like a creaking door — a slow and low precursor to the full-on growl. “Growling is a deep, rumbling noise that comes from passage of air through vocal folds,” explains Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “[It] can sound very similar to a dog growl.”
If Gabby is especially not pleased, he will follow his growl with a big hiss. For those who still don’t know what cat growling sounds like (lucky you!), check out the video of this poor little ticked-off guy above.
What causes a cat to growl?
Cat growling can be caused by a number of things, like toy aggression. Although Gabby is more reserved than my outgoing lap cat Merritt, he is truly a big, lovable baby around an exclusive, privileged few and, since he had a rough start at life, it’s even more of a triumph when Gabby chooses to curl up next to us, groom us, or lavish us with headbutts and purrs. He does not growl all the time, but he does growl more than other cats because he is more nervous than most cats. Gabby growls mostly when strangers enter our house and especially when strangers try to approach him without properly introducing themselves. I get it — I’d growl too if some weirdo entered my home and immediately thought they were entitled to the same physical contact (in Gabby’s case, head pets, in mine, hugs) I reserve for family and friends.
“Growling is a warning noise,” Dr. Gibbons affirms. “It implies unhappiness from annoyance, anger, aggression or fear. It is a signal to back off. Growling can occur from a variety of triggers. Some cats can be food or toy aggressive and growl to show possession. If a cat is annoyed from physical contact, he or she may growl.”
What about when cats growl at each other? When Merritt was growling at Gabby after he returned from the vet, it was because she simply didn’t recognize her kitty sibling! He smelled like the vet (Shots! A sterile environment! Riding in the car! Other cats!) instead of his usual odor (usually a mix of cat food and rolling around in his dad’s hockey gear). “Cats can also growl in the presence of other cats or dogs in order to establish dominance or signify they are not interested in interacting with the other animal,” Dr. Gibbons explains.
Is a cat’s growl a sign of discomfort?
Careful — a growl might mean your cat is in pain. Yes — cat growling is sometimes a reaction to pain. “Pain due to physical ailments, including: urinary tract infections, dental disease, trauma, arthritis and some metabolic diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, can cause cat growling. So, a thorough exam should be performed to rule out any underlying medical conditions,” says Dr. Jenny Kistler, owner and medical director at Brandermill Animal Hospital in Midlothian, Virginia. “If a cat’s growling is a consistent problem, the cause behind it should be determined, if possible, so that appropriate medical or behavioral protocols can be instituted to make you cat happier or more comfortable.”
The first time we took Gabby to a cats-only vet, they found that he needed six (!!!) teeth pulled (his unknown past seems to have had less-than-nutritious things on the menu, unfortunately). For a minute, we thought we had found the answer to why he was a bit of a curmudgeon! Maybe all those growls were just a reaction to the pain he was in! Maybe the surgery would take away his pain! Although Gabby definitely felt better after his decaying teeth were out, this did not stop him from growling.
How should people react when a cat growls?
We’ve already established that cat growling is a warning noise, which means — you guessed it — leave your cat alone. Do not try to comfort him or, worse, “do not try to scold or reprimand the cat, especially with physical contact or hand gestures,” advises Dr. Gibbons. “This may be misinterpreted as aggression and the situation could escalate from a warning to physical contact.”
Is cat growling ever just your cat being “all talk”?
Is your cat growling because he’s overdramatic? I know Gabby has behavioral issues. As much as I instruct guests in my home to please approach him appropriately or leave him alone, there will be people who ignore me and he will growl because he is confused, frustrated and scared. But there are also times when he growls just out of sheer annoyance.
Four years into being his mom, I’m pretty attuned to what growls mean he’s really angry or when he’s being all talk (read: overdramatic). He’s a very vocal cat in the first place, so I understand the difference between a half-hearted growl that means he’s displeased but I can still (cautiously) walk past him or pick him up. And I know when he needs to be left alone to cool off.
“Cats can growl for a variety of reasons and from a long list of triggers,” explains Dr. Gibbons. “It can be difficult to determine which cat growls are simply vocalizing, and which cats would react physically following vocalization, so it is always best to work with a professional (veterinarian or animal behavioralist) if you have concerns with your cat growling.”