For many cat owners, one of the greatest joys of spending time with your feline friend is listening to all their funny noises. From chirping to purring to mewling loudly for food, cats are very vocal communicators and use their many noises to tell us different things.
One such noise that some cat owners are surprised to hear is a growl. We all know dogs growl, but cats do, too! Why do cats growl and what should you do when it happens?
Can Cats Growl?
Yes, absolutely! It might come as a surprise for some new cat owners, but cats are very proficient growlers. This sound is different from a purr, but it’s completed in the same way as many cat sounds: your cat is pushing air through his or her vocal folds to create a specific sound – in this case, a low, rumbling vibration.
What Is the Difference Between Growling and Purring?
It’s usually easy to differentiate growling from purring because of the circumstances. Growling is something cats do when they aren’t pleased, while purring is a behavior that is associated with pleasure and contentment in cats.
The Relationship Between Body Language and Growling
Your cat’s body language can help you understand the reason for their growling. It can also help you decipher between purring and growling if your cat’s two sounds tend to be very alike.
Growling is often accompanied by aggressive or nervous cat body language such as bristled fur on their tail and back, pinned back ears, and other furtive, anxious movements such as cowering. These are all ways that your cat is communicating their discomfort or displeasure with a certain situation. Growling can also be accompanied by other, more typical cat sounds of displeasure, such as hissing or spitting.
Why Do Cats Growl?
Cat growling may happen for many reasons, including:
- Illness or discomfort
- To assert dominance or protect territory
- Fear or stress
- As a warning sign
A Cat’s Growling May Indicate Discomfort
Sometimes, cats will growl if they are uncomfortable or feeling internal pain. Cats are very stoic creatures and masters at hiding physical pain. This can make it difficult to measure or even recognize their discomfort, so growling can sometimes be the only indication you have that your cat isn’t feeling right.
A cat may growl because they have a condition like a urinary tract infection or dental disease that is causing internal pain and discomfort. It can be hard to identify exactly what is causing your cat pain, so don’t hesitate to take them to the veterinarian if you think they’re growling from discomfort.
Cats Sometimes Growl to Navigate Hierarchy Among One Another
A cat might growl because they are trying to protect their territory from a strange human or another cat (or even the humans they love). Cats are territorial creatures, and growling as a warning is sometimes their way to tell someone to back off – from their cat tower, their favorite toy, or even themselves.
Cats are also navigating hierarchies in their daily lives, among themselves, and in their relationship with humans. A cat’s growl may be a way of showing dominance, which can help multi-cat households navigate social dynamics and maintain peace among the many pets in the house.
Cats Often Growl Out of Fear
Another common reason for your cat’s growling might be fear. If there is a new stimulus in the house – such as a visitor or a new animal, or even a change of routine or environment – your cat may be growling because they feel afraid.
Fear is a stressful emotion and cats are creatures of habit. If they are feeling stressed out or scared of something in their space, growling is one of several signs they’ll use to communicate their discomfort. It’s up to the cat owner to identify the source of stress or fear and remove it from the cat’s life.
Cat Growling Is Often a Warning
Cats who growl because of fear or dominance are often growling as a warning. Cats will make this sound to tell the people and other animals around them: “I am uncomfortable and, if you don’t listen and give me the space I need, I might hurt you.” It’s important to listen to these warning growls so you can prevent your cat from injuring themselves, another animal, or someone in your household. Growling is sometimes a precursor to biting or scratching, so try to avoid these physical altercations by addressing the reason for your cat’s growl.
What to Do If Your Cat Starts Growling
Depending on the context, there are some general best practices for how to respond to a growling cat:
- Give them space
- Don’t try to comfort them
- Don’t punish the cat for growling
Give a Growling Cat Plenty of Space
No matter what you’re doing when your cat starts growling, try to immediately give them some personal space. Often, all a growling cat needs is a little room to breathe and feel less intimidated or stressed. Even if you’re enjoying a nice petting session, the growling sound is an indicator that playtime is over and it’s time to back off. While this won’t always be possible – for example, if you’re putting them in a carrier – giving your growling cat space should always be the first step whenever possible.
A Growling Cat Doesn’t Want to Be Comforted
The instinct for a pet owner might be to soothe and comfort their growling kitty to calm their fears or discomfort. Unfortunately, this is rarely (if ever) what a growling cat wants or needs.
Never try to hold, pet, or even approach a growling cat. This is likely to trigger additional fear or discomfort and cause them to bite or scratch. They will often see your attempts at physical comfort as a threat or intimidation, and the result won’t be good.
Never Punish a Cat for Growling
Cat growling is a normal communicative behavior in felines, so it should never be punished. Cats are trying to talk to you when they growl and tell you what they need. Cat owners should listen to that communication and try to address their cat’s discomfort, rather than punish them for trying to communicate.
Furthermore, trying to scold your cat or move them to a different space is likely to result in a scratch or bite. Punishment is never the answer with a growling cat.
Address the Cause of Your Cat’s Growling to Keep Them Happy
If you can identify what’s making your cat growl – a visitor to the house, a new cat in the mix, or even a toy or a piece of furniture your cat doesn’t like – try to remove the stimulus for the growling. This isn’t always possible – for example, if your cat is growling at the new baby, you can’t remove that stimulus. But you can control your cat’s exposure to it and try to make them more comfortable.
You might have to adapt your cat’s environment to adjust to triggers that make them growl. That can sometimes be inconvenient, but it’s important to prioritize your cat’s comfort and calm whenever possible. Having a safe space where your cat can retreat, such as a cat condo or cat hammock, can be very useful for growling cats as well.