“Wouldn’t it be amazing if cats could talk?” It’s something my mom always says when she can’t understand what her cat, Walker, is saying. I agree with my mom, it would be really cool if cats could talk to us in our native language! Though that being said, cats are actually fairly communicative in other ways and some of these ways become fairly obvious when we take the time to notice their patterns and behaviours.
In the past, I’ve covered other forms of communication like when your cat silently stares at you, why cats chew on our fingers, why cats bite and lick us and the reasons cats may meow excessively. But today I want to cover all of the reasons your cat may growl at you or their surroundings.
Do growls always mean that a cat is upset? Does it ever mean that your cat is scared? Do cats ever growl for reasons that aren’t negative? Are there ever positive reasons a cat may growl?
I’M ANNOYED OR ANGRY
Alright, alright. I’ll admit that I’m not always the best pet parent and I like to bother my cats every so often. Prime case being my mom’s cat, Walker, who for some reason has a grudge with me. How do I know? Well, every time I pick him up he begins letting out a very deep, resonant growl. My assumption is that Walker doesn’t like it when I hold him because I’m the primary person who cuts his nails. So… he associates me holding him with his nails being cut, which he hates!
That being said, many cats will express that they are annoyed or bothered by your actions by growling. This can be caused by overstimulation, aggressive behaviour (petting too rough, brushing too rough, tugging on tails, etc), or in Walker’s case holding a cat who doesn’t want to be held.
I DON’T TRUST YOU & THAT SCARES ME
It can take years for a cat to fully trust their pet parent or their pet parents friends. I remember when I first introduced my significant other to Beau, my significant other tried his very best to get Beau to like him. Prior to meeting Beau, my significant other looked up ways to get a cat to like you, stumbling on a “don’t make eye contact with a cat or they will feel like you are a threat.” It was adorable because my partner refused to look at Beau for what felt like hours and even though I encouraged him to pet and pick up Beau (since Beau is extremely docile and cuddly) he wanted to make sure that there were no chances Beau wouldn’t trust him.
All that to say, when my partner and I moved in together there was still a bit of a transition period for Beau. Beau would sleep with my partner and sit in his lap, but since Beau wasn’t used to him being around all of the time there would be moments where Beau would growl at him or even hiss. Now, this happened to me too quite a bit, especially when I would catch Beau off guard or sleeping.
The most common reason why cats growl when they do not trust someone is because of sudden movements. If you catch either of my cats off guard or begin moving too quickly towards them they will immediately start to growl. Beau will actually run away, turn around, growl and hiss, dart at you, then growl again. It’s best to try to calmly approach a cat or let them know that you’re on your way verbally, especially if they are blind.
Some of the floorboards in our apartment are extremely creaky, so we are constantly scaring Kalista, who is also the biggest scardy cat you’ll ever meet. Every so often Kalista will be sleeping in the sunroom, which is the creakiest, and will get startled and begin hissing upon us entering. We’ve since stopped scaring her by saying her name before entering, even if we don’t know if she’s there.
I’M STRESSED OUT
It feels like almost everything can come down to stress, for both humans and cats. Sometimes when cats get stressed out they begin to growl, even if it seems like nothing has changed.
Cats, being the small and perceptive creatures that they are, are much more susceptible to minor changes in life. Some of these can be as small as your diet change (which will cause your body odour to change and may confuse the cat), a new animal in the building (that you may not hear or even be aware of), a change in the home (like furniture being moved around or someone moving in), or noises that they aren’t used to. While these aren’t the only reasons a cat may be stressed out, it is to say that almost anything can trigger a cat’s stress and it’s our duty to keep an eye out on them.
Here’s an example of our cats stressing each other out. Kalista is a very playful cat and while she usually plays by herself, sometimes she really wants her brother to play with her too. So, Kalista will run around the house batting at springs, jumping on her brother every so often to see if he wants to join along. For a while, it would stress Beau out when Kalista would play because there was just so much energy in what used to be a quiet and peaceful apartment. So, what happened? Beau began growling every time Kalista would run sporadically around the apartment. He wouldn’t hit Kalista, he wouldn’t even look at her, he would just growl to himself while half sleeping until she calmed down a bit. Weird eh?
At first, we thought this may be a dominance behaviour, but since Beau didn’t make any moves on Kalista and would join her in playtime other times we chalked it down to stress. Another example was when we first brought Kalista home.
When dealing with stress it’s important to remove the factor that’s stressing your cat out. If the factor is something that you can’t get rid of (like an animal next door, or construction going on outside) you need to find ways of masking it. For construction/ambient noise we use calming music which has worked really well for both of our cats, for scents I’ve had friends use a product called Feliway (which is meant to replicate a mother cat’s pheromones while nursing), you can also build your cat a safe space out of cardboard boxes or purchase a cat cave to provide them with a tight area they can call their own. Some vets may even recommend a diet change as some foods are made with ingredients to help calm a cat down in stressful situations, however, I always recommend speaking to a vet before using calming treats or changing their diet.
THIS IS MY… FOOD, TOY, HUMAN… MINE MINE MINE!
Something I find odd about cats is when they growl when they are given food. Now, I’m aware that this is usually a territorial thing where they are trying to let animals around them know that they will be attacked if they come near or try to steal their food, but some cats will do this even if there are no other animals around.
Funny enough, Beau used to do this whenever we gave him salmon treats and honestly… only salmon treats. We once gave him cat safe salmon skin and he began growling and hissing anytime we came near him as if he was a feral cat. Beau also does this with tissue papers (since he has Pica). He knows he’s not supposed to eat tissue papers, but like a ninja, he will jump up onto the table we’re using to eat, grab the napkin or tissue we’ve used to clean our mouths and will make us chase him around the apartment until he lets it go. The whole time Beau will growl and you won’t want to pick him up because he will 100% bite you. #MyCatIsCrazy, ammiright?
Every so often Kalista will do this with her toys, especially Da Bird! For some reason, she gets extremely territorial with it, probably because she treats it as if it was a real bird, and won’t let us take it away from her until she’s absolutely done with it. Kalista will growl and hit us letting us know… hey daddies… stop taking my toys away from me!
Cats who growl in these situations aren’t trying to let you know that they hate you, they’re just instinctually expressing that objects or foods are theirs. Cats who are jealous for their humans may also do this, ie. if someone moves in too close to their human while they are sitting on their lap. This behaviour is not usually something that’s worth training your cat out of, though if the cat is too aggressive or hurts someone it’s definitely something that needs to be managed.
I’M SICK OR HURT
Sometimes we would know Beau had a urinary tract infection before he was blocked because he would be hissing and growling at us without showing signs of blockage. Honestly, it’s’ one of the most heartbreaking parts of having a sick cat because all you want to do is hold them and comfort them, but showing them any signs of affection in a time like this may cause them to become even more upset.
Cats do a great job of hiding when they are hurt or when they are sick, but as things progress or if they are in pain they will be the first to growl at you to let you know everything is going wrong. Some illnesses/ailments that commonly come alongside growling include urinary tract infections, liver/kidney failure, constipation, and poisoning. If your cat begins growling out of nowhere and doesn’t show signs of stopping, I highly recommend taking your cat to the vet as they may have an underlying or chronic condition you weren’t aware of that may end up taking their life.
As for being hurt, cats are also great at hiding their pain. Your cat may have a cut, scratch, lesion or infection that you aren’t aware of until you come close to them. If you notice your cat licking an area of their body more constantly than usual, chances are something is going on in that area of the body. While cats have healing properties in their saliva, sometimes mother nature needs a pharmaceutical hand with disinfectants, antibiotics or even a simple vet wrap. Make sure to approach your cat slowly and take a closer look at the affected area to see if anything is going on. If you can’t see anything, there is a chance that there is an issue under the skin such as mites, worms or again a chronic illness. If growling becomes consistent or constant make sure to take your cat to the vet immediately.
In most cases, growling doesn’t mean that your cat hates you, however, does usually mean that your cat is being provoked in some way shape or form.
Whether your cat is stressed out, feeling extra dominant or territorial or even feeling sick you’re going to want to make sure that you track and log your cat’s actions to see what the exact cause for their growling is. If your cat is ever growling because of the way you’re treating them or the way that you’re handling them, make sure to put your cat down and leave them alone. Overstimulation will make your cat begin to resent you and giving them treats after they have growled will teach them that it is okay to growl because they will be rewarded for it.
In all cases, cats are letting you know that something is up when they growl and if the cause of the growling is not obvious or may be confusing always reach out to a vet for extra help.
On that note, I’m curious how many of your cats growl? What did you find out the cause was? Let me know in the comments below!