Cats are always trying to tell us something in what sounds like a kitty version of the language from The Sims. Animal behaviorists tell Inverse there’s a big distinction between a cat’s chirp — the pleasant trill they exude when jumping around a studio apartment, for example — and a more angry-sounding “chatter.”
We all learn from infancy that dogs go “woof” and cats go “meow,” right? Sadly, like most things in childhood, this is a bald-faced lie. Cats make innumerable bizarre noises, and the “chirp” they do around family and familiar people is actually one of the more pleasant ones.
“Cats make lots of fun sounds and the chirp or trill is sort of an expression of happiness,” animal behavior consultant Amy Shojai tells Inverse. “The joy just bubbles out of them! Chirping and trills come when around people they like.”
Chattering or “chittering” is similar to chirping, but a bit more guttural and staccato. According to animal behaviorist Frania Shelley-Grielen, chattering is a cat’s way of saying it’s pissed off about something, usually involving prey and/or food.
“While individual cats may have their own reasons or thoughts on why they do it, we typically see it around a prey species that excites them like birds,” Grielen explains to Inverse. “The sounds may actually be directed at the object of the cat’s attention.”
Shojai agrees, and compares it to “swearing” in kittyspeak.
“Cats chatter (curse?) the squirrels out the window they can’t reach,” she says. “My cat used to chatter before she did something she wasn’t supposed to do, like jumping on the TV. She told on herself.”
While chattering is usually pretty innocuous, it’s important to make sure your cat isn’t salivating and doing it often. This could indicate a health issue, so be sure to check with your vet if your cat’s chattering its teeth a lot.
So although chirping and chattering are equally amusing, the two similar sounds mean very different things. In most cases, a happy or frustrated cat will just stare at you longingly until you feed it, like this:
Sometimes they’ll just go for it:
No matter what noise your cat’s making, they’re probably asking for food or angry about the food they can’t get. The moral of the story here is that cats love food, and it’s our job to give it to them. Or else.