It’s the feline equivalent of Kryptonite — and no, we’re not talking about catnip. We’re talking about the odd, high-pitched noise of “pspspsps.” If a human dares whisper this strange sound, a cat is likely to perk up and rush to their attention, or, alternatively, flee for their lives.
But why does “pspspsps” trigger such a deep-seated reaction in cats? Well, there isn’t exactly a wealth of peer-reviewed research on this topic, but pet experts have a few guesses up their sleeves. Let’s dive into the weird science behind this high-pitched sound.
“There's been no research on the pspspsps sound response in cats, and we can't ask cats directly why most seem to respond to it,” Mikel Delgado, a cat expert at Feline Minds, tells Inverse.
Why Do Cats React to “Pspspsps?”
Delgado offers two plausible explanations behind cats’ interest in “pspspsps.”
First: The noise vibrates at a frequency that naturally attracts felines. Second: It’s similar to “naturally relevant” sounds to a cat such as a mouse in rustling leaves or a bird taking flight.
“The pspspspsps sound has a lot of reasons why it attracts cats. It piques their curiosity, may sound familiar as it’s similar to a purring sound, and it’s at a frequency that makes it very easy for them to hear,” Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian at PetKeen, tells Inverse.
“They may answer with a high-pitched meow of their own or rub on you while you speak it,” Bonk adds.
Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training specialist who runs the nonprofit Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse that high-frequency noises mimic the chatter of rats, so these sounds naturally draw the attention of felines.
“Cats can hear sound frequencies three times higher than we can — presumably so they can find prey more easily,” DeVoss says.
Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Inverse that the letter “s” has a higher frequency than most other human noises, potentially explaining why cats gravitate toward — or away from — “pspsps.”
“This higher frequency sound paired with a consonant that interrupts that sounds create a staccato sound that is abrupt and attention-grabbing,” Pankratz says.
In short: there’s a good chance “pspsps” isn’t just a weird buzzword to cats, but a noise that triggers a deeply rooted evolutionary response. Evolutionarily speaking, cats are both predator and prey and must be vigilant for noise at all times.
“They will have a better chance of survival to alert to sudden abrupt noises to assess whether or not it is a threat instead of ignoring a noise,” Pankratz explains.
How Do Cats Respond to “Pspspsps?”
Cats’ will react to “pspspsps” in “any number of ways” depending on the tone used and how they’ve been conditioned by their owners, according to DeVoss.
“If an adult cat has never heard the sound before, he might respond in alarm to the unfamiliar noise,” DeVoss says.
On the flip side: If humans used the noise around their pets when they were kittens — followed by petting or cuddling — then the cat will learn to associate the sound with a positive outcome.
“They may have learned that their human will also make this sound and when they respond they get attention or pets,” Delgado says.
“Once they determine that it may be coming from you, they can get excited for interaction and may perk up their ears and tail and arch their back to rub against you,” Bonk adds.
According to Pankratz, typical emotional reactions to “pspspsps” can range from fearful to inquisitive to anticipation of pleasure and even no response at all. To figure out whether your cat is responding in a positive or negative way to “pspspsps,” look to their body language.
Common signs of fear in cats include:
- Tense, unmoving muscles
- Ears pinned back
- Crouched posture
- Tail held tightly against the body
- Retreating away
If your cat is pleased to hear you say “pspspsps,” they’ll probably react with more positive body language such as:
- Tail held up loosely
- Head facing up and ears forward
Other body language patterns may be more ambiguous and you’ll need to use the context to judge whether your pet is amused or threatened.
“Cat’s pupils can be dilated when they have big emotions — arousal — both when fearful and when stimulated such as in anticipation of play,” Pankratz says.
Is Something Wrong if My Cat Doesn’t React to “Pspspsps?”
In a word: no. Experts say you shouldn’t worry if your cat pays no heed to your frantic “pspspsps” whisperings.
“Assuming their hearing is intact, a cat may have learned that the ‘pspspsps’ does not signal anything of interest to them, neither a threat nor something worth investigating and so they may ignore that sound,” Pankratz says.
Further, cats may have learned over time that their humans make that noise for largely no reason, and, therefore, it’s a sound they can safely ignore without consequence. Delgado explains that cats “may have learned that the ‘pspspsps’ sounds means ‘my human is bothering me and there are no treats involved!’”
Finally, there may be a simpler explanation as to why your pet doesn’t care about “pspsps”: it’s simply being lazy.
“They may also be in the middle of a good nap or rest and not want to get up,” Bonk says.
But if your cat is routinely failing to respond to various calls, you may want to get their hearing checked out by a veterinarian. Bonk says owners should pay attention to signs of poor hearing in their pets like:
- Not flinching when there’s a loud noise
- Not coming when owners pour food in their bowl
- Not responding when you talk to them
What Other Weird Noises Do Cats Like?
If you want to take your cat’s photo but can’t get their attention, you might try making any high-pitched noise — not just “pspspsps.” They’re also attracted to noises that sound like rodents scurrying, such as scratching a paper bag or fabric. Some cats may respond to whistling.
Animals —including cats — often respond to so-called “distress cries” in both their peers and in animals of other species. Think of a pet reacting to the sound of a human baby crying. But there are also conditions more unique to cats that seem to trigger a neurological response to peculiar noises — like felines gagging when someone flicks the tooth of a comb. Delgado says cats did not evolve around these weird noises and may, therefore, react in seemingly unusual ways.
“Cats also can experience a condition called audiogenic reflex seizures — some cats are especially sensitive to some sounds, such as the tapping of a keyboard and the crinkling of foil,” Delgado says.
The Inverse analysis — Veterinary behaviorists state cats' reaction to noises like “pspspsps” is partly a learned response to repeated interactions with their human owners — a sort of Pavlovian conditioning if you will.
“Many cats have learned to hear the sound of a can opening or [the] crinkle of a bag to be associated with delicious canned food or treats so they may come running and begging at those sounds,” Pankratz says.
So if you say “pspspsps” enough times, can you condition your cat to respond accordingly? It’s worth a try, though always remember that cats are individuals with their own personalities, and therefore, can be unpredictable in their ways — just like humans.