While there is a certain degree of universality in the vocalizations of all cats, there is also much variability in the sounds and meanings of those sounds in an individual cat. It may be impossible to predict with any certainty what a certain “meow” means for one individual cat. Cats tend to learn which “words” have an effect and which ones don’t, and every cat and every environment is different, so individual differences are bound to arise. However, when a cat is stuck in a tree, the emotion and urgency driving a cat’s language usually appear to be fairly consistent and clear, and, fortunately for us rescuers, that is typically all we need to understand.

Humans are flawed. We don’t always accurately perceive what we hear. Because we are human, we often hear what we want to hear or expect to hear whether it is cats or anything else. Listening requires a certain amount of objectivity, discipline, and an eager willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. When we are listening to a cat while watching him, what we hear is also heavily influenced by what we see in his behavior. If you remove the visual clues, the clarity of the meaning of the voice often disappears. I challenge rescuers to spend some time blindly listening to video recordings of cats in trees to determine the cat’s state of mind and then listen again while also watching. You will surely be correct most of the time, but, when you listen to a large number of cases, I suspect your error count will increase while your confidence decreases. At least, that was certainly my experience.

Any one vocalization may not be very clear by itself, but more clarity can be derived when that vocalization is heard in the context of the vocalizations before and after it, the behavior and posture of the cat when expressing them, and the nature of the environment and activity occurring at the time. Context is important. By listening alone, it is easy to misinterpret a cat’s vocalization, so it is critically important to be observant of all the cat is experiencing at that moment in order to understand the motivation for his vocalization. His cry could be in response to you, a movement or sound that you made, a sound he heard in the distance, seeing a dog on the ground or large hawk close overhead, the movement of his limb, his feet slipping, a stuck foot, a pain he is feeling, or any number of other causes. As a tree-climbing rescuer, you have much to observe and consider beyond your tree-climbing techniques and safety.

If a rescuer cannot determine the emotional state of a cat solely by listening to him, then the behavior and body language will usually make it clear. Scared cats will look uncomfortable and tense, and they are usually standing and looking up and around for an escape path. When scared cats cry, they usually are looking off into the distance when they do so. They will look at you sometimes, but, mostly, they look away. Receptive, excited cats, however, are usually looking at you when they cry, and they also may crouch, lean, or stretch their body toward you to be closer to you.

Unfortunately, we usually can’t expect to gain much information about a cat’s vocalization by reading his facial expression. Cats do not have the large number of facial muscles that people have, so their face simply does not reveal as much information about what they are thinking. Indeed, it is the cat’s stone-faced expression that often amuses us so much. Normally, we gain more useful information by focusing on the cat’s behavior and posture than on his facial expression.

On those occasions when you are hearing mixed messages or having difficulty interpreting a cat’s vocalizations, it may be worthwhile to remember that the situation is fluid, and the cat’s mood can change quickly. He may be friendly and receptive at first and become suddenly frightened by something that you may not notice. While a burst of adrenaline can be instantaneous, it takes a certain amount of time for his body to calm down even when his mind has been reassured, so a cat can still sound frightened even while his behavior may appear friendly. Some cats may be undecided about you and may be feeling both excited and fearful while they watch you to gather more information about you, so their vocalizations may waver between negative and positive in response to what they observe. Clarity is not guaranteed, and lack of clarity is not necessarily a sign of failure on your part.

Just as with people, each individual cat’s voice is different. Some are higher-pitched or lower-pitched than average, some are louder or softer than average, and the basic timbre or tonal quality may be anywhere in the range between clearly pitched and noisy or scratchy. Regardless how the timbre sounds when the cat is relaxed, it will become more forceful and intense as his level of distress rises. When I am making preparations for a rescue, I like to listen to the cat to become familiar with his voice. Even though he is usually distressed, I can often derive a baseline vocal quality from his cries. Relative deviations from that baseline give me information about his state of mind at that moment. For clues to understanding the cat, I find it useful to be attentive to all the attributes of the sound including tonal quality or timbre, pitch, amplitude, intensity, duration, number of syllables, repetition rate, and the shape of both pitch and amplitude.

Relatively high and low pitches usually indicate a heightened level of fear. High pitches may also indicate a feeling of threat with an imminent response likely, and, the higher and/or louder the pitch, the more serious the threat and sooner the response. Relatively low pitches are usually a warning sound that indicates a feeling of fear or serious concern, but a response is not imminent unless further provoked. Rising and falling pitches appear to reflect the relative volatility of the moment in an unsettled situation.

The intensity of a vocalization refers to the forcefulness or pressure used to produce the sound. As a cat’s level of distress increases, so does the intensity of his voice even if the amplitude does not. When a cat is afraid, his usual, melodic meow is intensified into a loud, raucous cry which he repeats continuously. The duration of the cry is often extended a bit longer than his usual meow, and, in extreme cases, can be extended for several seconds. In some cases, the sound morphs into a soft, suppressed, intense, and sustained mixture of growl and hum which is somewhat muted by a partially or fully closed mouth. The pitch may rise and fall like a siren but typically settles into his mid-to-low pitch range. It is in these soft or moderately loud sounds that intensity is most apparent.

Most of the cat’s vocalizations in a tree are short, one-syllable “words,” but, when they want to emphasize the message, they will often sustain that word for a longer period of time. It appears to me that they are expressing more urgency and seriousness in the message, and, the longer the word is sustained, the more urgent and serious the message.

I don’t recall hearing a cat using a multi-syllable word in the tree very often, but I do hear it at other times. One of my own cats gets very distressed when I put him in a carrier, and he always begins loudly repeating a three-syllable word over and over. The pitch of each syllable descends roughly one-half step, and the first two are quick while the last one is sustained four times longer. It sounds like he is saying “Iowa” with the last syllable sustained for a while, and he repeats it as long as he is distressed. While it’s very amusing at first, it also becomes very annoying on those long trips to the veterinarian.

When a cat is stuck in a tree, he is in distress, and he will usually cry out for help. His cry is typically a short, one-word cry, but he will keep repeating it until he gets tired or distracted. The rate and amplitude at which he repeats it appears to correlate with his level of distress. The more distressed he is, the faster and louder he will repeat his cry. If he is terrified to see someone climbing up to him, he will cry faster and/or louder as the climber gets closer to him. If he is excited to see someone climbing up to him to rescue him, he will repeat his cry of excitement or impatience in the same manner until the rescuer reaches him. The repetition rate and amplitude of the cry appear to reflect the strength and severity of his emotion.

Some cats make no vocalizations at all. I do not hear them crying when I arrive, when I am on the ground below them, or even when I climb up the tree toward them. In addition, they add to the mystery by making very few movements as well. It is reasonable to assume that a quiet cat is scared or cautious, but, even though this is expected behavior for a feral cat, you can’t assume the cat is feral without further information. The closer you get to a feral cat, the more uncomfortable and tense he will appear, and he will look around for an escape path. He will be very reluctant to speak or even look at you, and he will not let you get close unless he is trapped. He will make every effort to keep a safe distance from you even if it means jumping out of the tree. A tame, quiet cat will usually not appear as uncomfortable or tense, and they will usually let you get closer and give you a chance to prove your friendly intentions. Once they trust you, they can blossom into very friendly and chatty cats. Don’t assume every quiet cat is feral, and, even if you think he is feral, approach him as a tame cat to give him a chance to surprise you.

Below are some very short excerpts from some of my rescue videos which demonstrate most of the vocalizations that cats make during a rescue. I have arranged them in five categories: Pleading, Cautious, Excited, Falling, and Fearful. They begin with the Pleading cries that you will hear when a cat at the top of a tree is crying out to the world and begging for help. Next are the Cautious cats who are fairly relaxed and receptive but are watching me carefully for any sign of trouble as I approach. The next excerpts are the Excited cats who have no reservations about my approach and are excited to see me coming for them. These are followed by the Falling category which contains examples of cats who are experiencing a loss of control and are very nervous about losing their footing and falling. The last category, Fearful, is for cats who are scared to see me approaching, and these examples are ordered in roughly increasing levels of distress from mild fear to threatened.

Unfortunately, because I tend to talk to the cat frequently during the rescue, my voice often interferes or distracts from the cat’s voice, so the listener is advised to focus on the cat and ignore my voice as best as he can. Also, so that no one is left wondering about the outcome, all the cats in these excerpts were successfully and safely rescued.


This excerpt demonstrates the cry of distress that a rescuer typically hears upon arrival for most rescues. The cat is stuck, miserable, and begging in all directions for someone to help him.

This excerpt shows the pitiful sight of a kitten crying desperately for his mama. He never looked at anyone below while crying. Instead, he cried intensely, loudly, and repeatedly off into the distance in every direction for a mama who never came. This kitten was unknown and probably feral, and he was so much trouble for me to rescue that I named him Trouble.


Stella’s voice was closer to a normal, relaxed meow than a cry. I detected only a small amount of tension, and the repetition rate was only moderate. She seemed reasonably comfortable with my approach, but she was also watching for any sign of trouble. It was when I broke a small twig above me so we could have a better view of each other that she became concerned, and she responded by intensifying and sustaining her voice much longer. Fortunately, she did not make any moves away from me, and she forgave me quickly and was reasonably comfortable after that.

In this excerpt, Lucy, who was generally receptive to my approach, demonstrates a variety of voices including a relaxed, short meow, a longer, slightly excited meow, an intense, excited meow, and an intense, concerned meow. Listen carefully to identify them all and watch how her body language and movements reflect them.


Tarrare had been stuck in the tree for almost three weeks, so this two-year-old was very excited to see someone coming up to him. His unique, small voice disguised the intensity of his cry, but the high repetition rate, body position, and lack of movement away from me revealed his excitement.

One-year-old Betty was stuck in the tree for one night, and she hated it. She was excited to see me coming for her and repeated her intense cry continuously until I reached her. Most of her cries were directed toward me, and she remained in a crouched position and readily reached down to me to sniff my hand.

Pimple was only twelve weeks old at the time of this rescue, and his small, kitten-like voice was very intense with high-pitched excitement as he sustained each cry a little longer than usual. His body language made it clear he was happy to see me. He looked at me when he cried, and he reached his head down toward me to get closer to me.

Twelve-weeks-old Barnaby was desperate for a rescue. He was in a car when it was stolen, and the thief dumped him in the large parking lot of a large, abandoned business in a very busy commercial area by a very busy four-lane highway. Barnaby climbed the only tree near him which was in the median of a boulevard off the highway. He could have easily climbed down on his own, but he was displaced and too afraid to leave the relative safety of the tree. He had spent one night in the tree before his rescue. His cry was very intense, loud, and repetitive, and his movements were always toward me, so it was clear he was excited and desperate for a rescue.


When Squash saw me climbing up to him, he got excited and slipped off the limb. He was hanging by his front claws, and, despite his extreme efforts, he was unable to pull himself back up. As he hung there exhausted, he pitifully uttered a soft, muffled, mid-pitched sound that can be roughly translated as, “I’m doomed.” It’s a familiar and mournful sound. I could not climb up to him in time to help him, and, if I had tried, I likely would have missed him. It was better to stay there and prepare to catch him. As it turned out, he fell right into my lap and was just fine.

GrisGris was in a precarious position, and she was happy to see me coming for her. She tried to come down a bit toward me, but she began to lose her footing. That is when she uttered the low-pitch, intense cry. After that, her paws were slipping as she struggled in a panic to climb back up into a more secure position, and that is when her cry became higher pitched, louder, and intense.

Pepper was reasonably relaxed and ready to walk into a carrier, but, as she stepped down the sloping limb, her feet began to slip, and, judging from her vocalization, she was afraid of losing control and falling. This excerpt begins with her normal, relaxed meow to compare with the soft, intense cry when she became frightened. I did not see her feet slip at the time and did not understand why she was suddenly afraid. After I reviewed the video, then I understood.

Kitten was trying to come down a steep stem, and, while her feet were not slipping, she was very nervous about losing her footing. Her fear was vocalized in several short, low-pitch, intense, and soft words, and, when she settled safely into the crotch, her voice returned to her normal, relaxed, higher pitch.


This cat, named Buttons, is a five-year-old kitty who was stuck in a tree for one night, and he provides a good example of a case of mild fear. His low-energy cry varies somewhat, but it never gets very loud or intense, and the repetition rate is a bit slow. He doesn’t like having me there, but he isn’t terrified either. A cat like this can usually be calmed fairly easily, and that was the case with Buttons who eventually walked into a carrier for a safe ride back down to the ground.

Fluffy was very afraid even before I began to climb the tree, and she let me know with this long, sustained, falling-pitch cry. When I climbed up to her and got close, her cry was much shorter and less intense, but that turned out to be misleading. Shortly after that, she jumped over to the adjacent tree to get away from me, and she fell from that tree shortly after that.

In this excerpt, Thomas demonstrates the classic scared, sustained cry with falling pitch and amplitude. Even though he did not want me anywhere near him, I managed to get him interested in some food, and then I put him in a bag despite his objections.

Clark’s rescue is my favorite example of a scared cat because this expressive, three-year-old boy demonstrates a wide range and variety of fearful vocalizations. Clark was scared even before I began the rescue, and his fear only worsened as I approached. When I first came close, his cry became more sustained, and, when I made the mistake of continuing my approach too soon, he climbed up and hung vertically on the trunk of the tree where he uttered his most pitiful and mournful sounds while deciding where to go next. I had to follow him to the top of the tree where you will notice that, as time goes on, he gradually relaxes and his cries lessen in severity until we can have an almost-normal conversation. He eventually calmed down enough that I could pet him, and I brought him down safely. He had been in the tree for six days.

This unknown cat had been stuck in the tree for ten days, but he did not want me to approach him. As I climbed toward him, he repeatedly warned me not to come any closer with cries that began loudly but quickly transitioned into softer, intense, mid-pitched growls which he sustained for a long time. His mouth would normally be closed for the duration of the long growl, but, sometimes, he would open and close his mouth causing both the pitch and amplitude gradually to rise and fall in proportion. In spite of his fear, he eventually calmed down and turned into a sweet cat. I gave him some food, and he let me pet him before I lured him into a carrier.

Six-year-old Blue was terrified to see me coming toward him, and his cry reflected that with his loud, yodel-like rapid pitch changes and fast repetition rate. When I came too close, his voice changed to a softer, mid-pitched, sustained sound muted by his partially closed mouth. After following him to the top of the tree, he eventually calmed down enough that I could pet him and put him in the cat bag for a safe ride back down to the ground.

This unknown cat was terrified of me, and his repeated, loud cries confirmed that. When I arrived, I was concerned that he might try to climb higher in the tree to get away from me, and that would have made the rescue extremely difficult and risky in this very large tree. To prevent that, I intentionally approached him from above even though I knew that would frighten him even more. I was also concerned about the slight possibility that he might be stuck in the fork of the tree and unable to free himself. As you will see in the video, however, either he was not stuck or he managed to free himself. At that point was the peak of his fear, and he laid his ears back which showed just how serious this was to him. I placed an arm around the stem above him to discourage him from climbing higher, and, fortunately, he stayed low where I was eventually able to earn enough of his trust to lure him into a carrier.

This four-year-old cat, Buttons, actually frightened me with her vigorous hissing and spitting when I first approached her. She was terrified of me at first because I intentionally approached her from above to prevent her from climbing higher into the dead top of the tree, and she felt trapped. The microphone did not pick up her hissing, but this excerpt demonstrates her spit which she followed with, what I call, a siren growl, i.e., a growl that rises and falls in pitch. After I spent some time reassuring her and earning her trust, the rescue resolved quietly and easily when she voluntarily stepped on my lap for a gentle ride back down to the ground.

This is an example of the scream and hiss warning that a scared and feisty cat gave me, and she backed it up with a swat at my hand to make her message even more clear. I backed away and was patient with her until I was eventually able to lure her quietly into a carrier for some food.

Cat Management:  Rescue Strategy   >>>