Why Does My Cat Chatter?

Cats make a characteristic chattering sound when watching prey they cannot get to.

Your cat is intently focused on “prey” outside the window, such as a bird or squirrel.  Suddenly, he opens his mouth and makes a strange chattering sound, complete with gnashing of teeth.  This is frequently accompanied by excited tail-twitching.  Just what is going on?

This is common behavior for most cats, and seems to reflect his excitement at spotting such enticing prey, and/or frustration at being unable to capture the prey he is so intent upon.  Certainly, the twitching tail reflects either excitement or frustration.  Some animal behaviorists also suggest that the rapid jaw movements are an instinctual behavior reminiscent of the killing neck bite a cat would use in the wild.

British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris refers to this as a “vacuum activity,” that is, an instinctive behavior the cat is performing in the absence of the ability to perform the actual behavior.

Keep in mind that a cat may chatter his teeth due to dental pain.  If your cat chatters his jaws in the absence of visual stimulus, and without the characteristic chattering vocalizations, a dental check may be in order.

Have you ever heard a cat chattering?

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There are 7 comments

  • meercat19 says:

    Interesting, but i still don’t believe their reality can be compared to our own. They live in their own world, the cool part is they can learn to interact with us in intensely emotional ways….that part always trips me out.

    I have to disagree with British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris when he refers to this as a “vacuum activity,” that is, an instinctive behavior the cat is performing in the absence of the ability to perform the actual behavior.”

    I don’t have any formal animal behavioral training. But I do have 40 years of being surrounded by feline friends…Inside, outside, rescues, and more transients then I can remember. With all do respect I seen this behavior in outside cats with nothing preventing them from performing the “actual behavior”.

    Sometimes they are just being cats. Living in a reality we have no point of reference to describe.

  • Erik B says:

    I concur with Meercat19… My feline exhibits this same behavior with no restriction to her performing any hunt-type action towards her prey.

    Usually, when she chatters she will make an attempt to strike but I’d say about one third of the time she just stares and chatters.

    …and yes, if she is behind a window and unable to act, she would still chatter at those times too. I think it is just an overabundance of feline excitement from the hunter instinct.

  • Joanne Jannetta says:

    Cats seem to be very stealthy animals. When they “c hatter” when locked in on a prey animal it seems like making this sound would alert any animal to their presence. So, I’m wondering if it’s more of a sound to entice the prey. The same question can be asked of their tail whipping movement that they do at the same time. This makes more sense to me than being frustrated or excited.

  • Holly Maher says:

    My cat chattered when I sneezed. I sneezed 3 times and he chattered every time. I’m wondering why this happens because I’m not prey.

  • Jaya says:

    I think chattering is an instinctive behavior some cats do when they see something that excites the chasing urge. Some cats do not do it at all and others do it all the time. I had a cat that made the sound when I shined a flashlight on the wall. She instantly went “kuckoo” chattering away and trying to catch the light spot. On the other hand, in 20 years, I never heard my beloved Gilda make a sound when she watched birds through the window, but she did swish her tail.

  • Kittymama says:

    I have seem this for the first time after many years of having many feline friends. All my life I have had one cat. Recently we adopted 2 sister kittens, they both make this noise, I was thinking it was a way to alert a hunting buddy to help stalk the prey with a noise that could be mistaken by the prey as grass/ leaves/ branches rustling.

  • I also don’t believe the chattering is frustration at all. It’s more like excitement or nervous anticipation. Both my outdoor cat and indoor cats do the twitching and chattering. My inside cat does it when he sees a fly or moth. The outdoor cat does it when she is preparing to catch a bird.

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