Caturday felid trifecta: “Machine-gunning” in a cat, deaf cat makes strange meows, and cat-related gifts

If you have a cat, you’ve almost surely seen it “chatter” (I call it “machine-gunning”, a far better term), when they see a prey item like a bird. The cat below serves as an excellent example. But why do they do this? It would seem to be positively maladaptive since the cat’s noise might alert the prey to its presence. There are lots of theories, including one researcher’s idea that some South American felids do this to imitate (and fool) their tamarin-monkey prey, but domestic cats evolved from the African wildcat, not South American monkey-eaters.

In truth, we don’t know. CatHeath.com offers some alternative theories, including that the cat is mimicking the “kill bite” when it seizes prey, but that doesn’t sound likely. Frustration? Fooling birds? Excitement? Maybe, but who knows? Somebody should test these theories, if that’s even possible.

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From Homer and Me  we have one clue: an odd-eyed cat that is deaf and communicates largely by chattering. Deafness is a genetic condition in some white cats, and the incidence is increased when they have blue eyes. (The condition is caused by degeneration of the inner ear.) This cat has odd-colored eyes, and it’s possible that it can hear through the ear on the green-eye side, but I don’t think so given its vocalizations.

Anyway, here’s Milla, whose normal communication appears to involve machine-gunning:

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Finally, if you’re really into weird stuff, you’ll know about Archie McPhee, a novelty store with headquarters in Seattle (I’ve visited). There’s lots of cool things to buy for yourself and your friends, but today I’m showing a few items from the “Crazy Cat Lady Gift Shop.” Click on the screenshots to see more.

This finger puppet:

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HOURS OF FUN!

 

and this bizarre Xmas ornament, featuring the Cone of Shame (why???):

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And if you have $24.95 to spare, you can buy this rubber cat mask, which I suspect will scare the hell out of your moggie:

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And although this isn’t cat related, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you the opportunity to buy this Darwin christmas ornament, now on sale for $9.95. Be sure to read the text!

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26 Comments

  1. rickflick
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Cat “machine gunning” is certainly strange behavior. Since I can’t think of a functional reason for it, I’d suggest it’s due to domestication. Cat’s have urges to call for various reasons in nature, but after genes have been shaped for domestic existence, these urges may have been altered so they become inappropriate. To disconfirm this idea, it would be good to know if any closely related wild cats do the same thing.

  2. GBJames
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I have one of those Charles Darwin ornaments. It sits atop our refrigerator. Almost like having Jeremy Bentham watching us prepare dinner.

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    The cat machine gunning is always when seeing prey. Have no idea what it means but seems like they are chewing out the enemy. I have to say, squirrels do something very similar and with more noise. They will do it to humans and I think, each other.

  4. loren russell
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Do they do this when they’re free to stalk the prey? I’ve only seen/heard this with our various cats when they were bird- or squirrel-watching at a window. So assumed inthese cases it was frustration.

    I saw it in our present cat only in early days when she was indoor, before being transitioned at 2+ to indoor/outdoor. Mostly directed at squirrels.

    • Posted March 4, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      I’ve definitely seen cats outdoors, crouched in the grass, making this noise as they’re watching birds. I can’t recall if they ever gave chase, but it’s definitely not housebound frustration.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted March 4, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        I agree. Some cats do it a lot and some seem not to. But they do it inside or outside.

      • Newish Gnu
        Posted March 4, 2017 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        Our indoor/outdoor cat– Jessie — not only made the machine gunning noise but violently whipped her tail back and forth. That way, if the prey was deaf, they at least could see her coming. I don’t think she ever caught a single critter. She certainly never brought home any “gifts”.

  5. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I like the description – it’s for those who don’t want to lie to kids so they can fool their Mum that it’s Santa? Hypocrisy much?

    I must admit I’d like one though!

    • Blue
      Posted March 4, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I saw that portion within its descriptor, as well, Ms Hastie: “Don’t feel left out during Christmas just because you don’t want to lie to kids, celebrate in your own way with the Charles Darwin Ornament. You can have one of your intellectual heroes hanging on your tree (with the included string) while everyone else thinks it’s Santa Claus.”

      And, yeah, along with its “included string,” I so ‘d like to celebrate each Winter Solstice, actually, with one, too !

      Blue

  6. BJ
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Whenever my cat sees birds — and only birds — he makes the “bird-mimicking” sound. I think that’s what they’re trying to do.

    • loren russell
      Posted March 4, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      I’ve never seen our cats do this when they are in vole-hunting mode. They sit upright, ears cocked — and VERY quiet before the pounce.

      And [as above] I haven’t seen/heard Present Cat Sierra do it about 5 years — once she learned that squirrels and jays should be left alone.

  7. Posted March 4, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I think the frustration theory makes most sense, since I’ve never observed any of my outdoor cats doing this when they have access to the prey. What’s most interesting to me is that one of our indoor cats, Bow, makes different sounds for different creatures, the most distinctive being the one for crows.

    Another interesting cat behavior is what my vet calls “misdirected aggression.” When Bow sees my neighbor’s white cat in the yard (and it only happens with this one white cat) she will attack my other cat, Fiddle—again, apparently out of frustration. My wife once got in between the two cats when this happened and Bow bit her severely on the leg—so severely, in fact, that my wife ended up in the hospital with c-dif (a result of antibiotic allergy, not the cat bite per se). This is an ongoing problem, even though Fiddle and Bow are generally very “affectionate” with each other.

    It occurs to me that Trump’s election has triggered a good deal of “misdirected aggression” among my friends who have differing political views.

  8. Merilee
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    To me the chattering sounds like a creaky rocking chair. My current kittehs don’t seem to do it much, but then Dingle comments on everything under the sun.

  9. Steven Howell
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    One of my cats is white with blue eyes, and deaf. It has surprised me how normal he sounds–he’s not a really talkative cat but does meow, chirrup, and purr. Tells me that a lot of vocalizations are instinctual, not requiring auditory feedback.

    • BJ
      Posted March 4, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Were you there for the birth? Is it possible your kitty went deaf at some point and wasn’t born deaf? That would explain why it sounds normal. Usually people who had hearing for some portion of their life but eventually went deaf can speak normally.

      • Steven Howell
        Posted March 4, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        I suppose that’s possible. He was a few weeks old when we got him. Old enough to have acquired tapeworms and loads of fleas.

  10. Posted March 4, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Tempting to get the cat disguise, but I saw something even weirder, something truly in the “what the heck!?” category: The Banana Slug Mask.

  11. Taz
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the machine-gunning is intended to disturb the prey just enough so that it moves slightly – perhaps to an easier position to attack – but doesn’t flee the area completely.

  12. Posted March 4, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I think the noise is probably frustration while stalking. Of the four cats I know well. Two of them make the noise and two do not. I have only seen it happen outside once (the cat saw a bird not too far away). Every other time it happened with a cat looking out the window at something they would like to hunt. By the way, a hummingbird feeder placed near a favorite window is a very good trigger for this behavior.

    My cats aren’t outside much (maybe 20 minutes a day), but the cat that did make the noise the one time is usually silent when stalking outside and noisier when watching from inside. I intervene outside if I think she has a chance of actually getting a bird.

    In the video with the white cat, I am very curious what they were doing behind the camera to elicit the machine-gunning sound from Milla. Would it fit the theory of frustrated stalking or not.

    • BJ
      Posted March 4, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      But have you noticed, as I have with all three cats I’ve had, that they only make the chirping sound when they see birds? If they’re not trying to mimic them, then why don’t they do it when they see all their other types of prey?

      Unless someone else here has seen cats do it with other prey besides birds.

      • Taz
        Posted March 4, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Mine used to do it when they saw a bug on ceiling.

      • ratabago
        Posted March 4, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

        Mostly birds. But I’ve also seen cats do it to insects, spiders, small lizards, a possum, and a remote control car.

  13. Amy
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Can cats have privacy while they are alone?

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    The Darwin Christmas ornament looks more like Dan Dennett than CD himself, IMO.

    As both Isaac Newton and Rod Serling were born Dec 25th (IN by the Julian calendar) I would like Christmas ornaments for both these gentlemen.

    (I don’t need a Humphrey Bogart or Sissy Spacek one even though these worthies were born 12/25, and if I were religious I would regard Karl Rove’s birth on 12/25 as proof he was AntiChrist.)

  15. nicky
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    None of my cats ever made that ‘machinegunning’ sound, however ‘BB Nap’ was a small tomcat who kind of growled/buzzed whenever he got food. A rather loud, continuous noise. Gave him away when he stole our Sunday Chicken (chicken was luxury food those days). Never heard this growling/buzzing in any other cat.

  16. mudskipper
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I wonder if the machine-gun sound is a way of a mother cat alerting kittens to the presence of prey when they are learning to hunt. I say this because I’ve often imitated this sound when I’ve seen a bird outside. My cats will usually respond by running to the window and looking all around for the bird.


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