What’s That Noise!? The Thrilling Trilling Cat

Our cats usually trill as a form of a friendly greeting or to grab some humans attention.

What is trilling? 

Well, it sounds a bit like when us humans roll our “R” sound (except much cuter).

Why do cats make this adorable little noise?

Listen to a sweet little kitten trilling in the video below: 

Now that we know what trilling is, you likely have some questions:

  • Why do cats trill?
  • What does it mean?
  • Is it good or bad?
  • What do I do if my cat is making this noise?

Read on to find out!

First, a story from our lead Cat Veteran, Toki:

My cat, Foo Foo, has the broadest vocabulary of any cat I have ever had the privilege to live with.

From little chirps to the loudest purr motor to ever emit from a six-pound cat, she rarely is silent when interacting with anyone or anything (from his boisterous brother, Boomer, to lounging by the sunny window where the sparrows congregate.)

Among the chirps, clicks, growls and other assorted sounds, Foo Foo is an active triller.

For a long time, I thought this was an extension of his contented purr (which is actually what a lot of people think) – but according to researchers and cat behaviorists, purrs and trills are not the same things.

orange kitten happy meow

So – how is a cat purr and a cat trill different?

Well…

If you listen closely, you can hear the difference, as the trill is a sound made in the mouth of your puss, where the purr is deeper and is formed in the vocal cords. 

So – let’s delve deeper into the trill and see what other thrilling things we can learn about our cats from this unique behavior.

Why Do Cats Trill?

Our kitties usually trill as a form of a friendly greeting or to grab someone’s attention.
This means it’s usually a good thing. 

When Foo Foo jumps up on Toki’s bed in the morning for his morning back scratching, there is usually a trill accompanied by a head butt if he thinks his human is taking too long to wake up and comply with his requests for attention.

orange cat face meowing cat trill

My young and rambunctious cat, Lucy, on the other hand….she usually trills when she’s caught some small rodent or bird to gift us with – a trill of accomplishment if you will. She comes into the house, meows at the window to alert of us our newest gift, hops onto her cat tree to survey her land (our yard) and starts trilling away.

How Do Cats Learn to Trill?

So now that we know what trilling is and why cats might do it…

The next question is:

How do they learn this?

Trills are taught from momma to kittens at a very early age as a way for mom to show affection to her little ones, as well as to get the attention of her overactive and often unmindful children.

Behaviorists state that kittens mimic this sound back to their mother and brothers and sisters as a form of greeting, or as a way of acknowledgment. [1]

As our cats get older, they often find new ways to use their trill.

As we become part of their lives, our cats often will use the same sounds as us as they used with their mommies. (Which I think it super cute). 

Many trillers will vocalize when they greet you first thing in the morning, and others will trill when they want a treat.

Some cats will trill, take a few steps away from you, and then turn to look at you.

If you don’t follow, they may bounce back over to you, trill again, rub up against you, and then walk away and repeat the process until you follow them.

cat trilling meow cat veteran

This behavior often means they think there is something you need to see, and they want you to follow them.

This behavior is most commonly employed in our household if the kibble bowl has come dangerously low on food or if their water fountain has even the slightest bit of dirt in it and needs immediate cleaning.

What Does It Mean When My Cat Trills?

When your cat trills at you or to another kitty, researchers say it’s one of the ways our kitties show us love.

In feline brain studies, scientists have been able to determine that the brain area activated during trilling comes from a positive area. [2]

Sure, sometimes it may mean little more than, “Hey, feed me!” but even then, that trill is full of happy connotations.

Your cat may trill at you, around you or even to your other pets…

Like in the video below, these two happy cats are seemingly having a little trilling conversation:

However…

There are some times when trilling should make us stop and assess our cat’s behavior, especially if there has been a change in the frequency or duration of the sound production.

Can Trilling Mean My Cat is Unhappy?

Well…

  • Aging or sick cats may also trill at inappropriate times, and this is a behavior that needs to be monitored and checked out by your vet.

Toki’s 19-year-old cat, Megan, was always very vocal, but when she became ill, she showed signs of “kitty dementia” like staring for hours at a time at a wall, or sometimes trilling, meowing or otherwise vocalizing at odd times, like in the middle of the night.

A vet checkup showed she was actually suffering from high blood pressure and hyperthyroidism, two conditions common in the older feline that can be acutely uncomfortable.

After getting her treatment and lowering her blood pressure and thyroid hormone levels, the nocturnal behavior stopped.

close up brown cat face cat veteran

According to veterinary endocrinologists, changes in behavior, no matter how small, can be early clues that something is off and should be investigated for medical reasons.

Changes In Your Cat’s Behaviour That Need Your Attention:

  • If your cat is meowing or trilling louder and infrequently (or at strange moments) there are two possible reasons for this:
    1. age-related dementia
    2. deteriorating eyesight.
  • If your cat is all of a sudden meowing and trilling louder it could also mean there is some hearing loss and your pet may not be able to understand how loud she is being. 

In any case, when there is a pronounced behavior change in your pet – a trip to the vet to make sure your cat isn’t ill or in pain is always a good idea.  [2]

Even though trilling is a positive behavior most of the time, sudden shifts in frequency and duration can also be used by our feline friends as an alert to us that they do not feel well.

Whatever the reason, cats trill for a purpose.

It’s always best to try to deduce what our feline friends are trying to communicate to us regardless of if it’s a “Help! Timmy’s in the well again!” or if it just means, “Hi, Mom, I love you.”

Check out the video below on understanding your cat’s language:

 

Do All Cats Trill?

Just like some people talk more than others, some cats are happy to trill all day long, and others are happy to live less-vocal lives.

Often the type of breed can have something to do with how vocal a particular puss may be.

Siamese and Maine Coon cats are famous for their wide vocabulary of sounds, so it’s not a stretch for us to imagine them at the top of the trilling breed list.

Many cat owners report having full “conversations” with their kitties simply by mimicking the noises their cat makes.

If a kitten was bottle fed or was born to a litter where momma was not a triller, it’s highly likely the puss will never trill, as they had no opportunity to learn it.

Many behaviorists see trilling as a learned behavior and not one instinctually ingrained, like purring or hissing.

As trilling seems to be mainly associated with happy greetings and positive attention-getting, it comes as no surprise that an unhappy kitty may not trill, even if the sound is one in its repertoire.

A frightened puss in a crowded shelter may never trill there, but once in their forever home and happily settled in maybe trilling up a storm.

Likewise, a formerly vocal kitty may become quiet and withdrawn with the addition of a new puppy or maybe moving into a new home.

Just like if your kitty were to suddenly stop using the litter box, a change in vocal habits is one that certainly merits trying to figure out sooner rather than later. 

Being able to “converse” with your kitty in their language is great fun, and most felines really enjoy the interaction and the attention, especially if you’ve been gone at work all day (you may find your cat more talkative right when you get home!)

Keeping our vocal noises light and chirpy and mimicking our feline friends shows them we love them just as much as they love us.

So next time your kitty starts a conversation with you, feel free to talk back…I’m sure your puss will love you even more for indulging them in some quality discussion.

Sources:

[1]  Catster – What is Cat Trilling?

[2] Humane Society – Understanding Your Cat’s Meow 

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