If you are a cat owner you will almost certainly have heard your cat “chattering”. It almost always happens when there is a bird or any other kind of “prey” in close proximity – but just out of your cat’s reach.
It’s really strange the first time you hear it – totally not the sort of sound you would expect to be made by a cat. If you watch him closely you will see your cat’s mouth slightly open and kind of vibrating, his teeth chattering and this strange little chirruping noise emanating from his mouth. If the prey is in very close proximity the cat usually adopts the same crouched position he would if he was stalking the prey for real, but you will notice he is agitated and his tail flicks sharply from side to side.
I’ve known cat owners who are actually quite freaked out when their cat starts chattering, but it really is nothing to worry about. Your cat is not about to turn into a vampire – he’s just behaving in a normal natural way for a cat and there are several explanations for it.
A cat only chatters when he sees some kind of prey within his reach, but he can’t actually “get at it”. If you hear your cat chattering whilst he is sat inside on the windowsill, just follow his gaze outside and I almost guarantee you will see a bird, a frog a butterfly… pretty much anything your cat would happily hunt down if he was on the other side of the glass pane. I have also seen my cats adopting the still, crouched down pose with jaws vibrating up and down when they are outside in the garden. Almost every time their gaze has been fixed on a bird up on the roof well out of reach, or sat on the tallest branch of a nearby tree.
When a cat chatters at prey his body language is completely different to when he is stalking any creature that he does have a chance of catching. If you have ever seen a cat in full hunting mode you will notice he does not make a sound or move a muscle until his prey is within clear easy reach.
Some animal behaviour experts believe the cat’s chattering is similar to what is known as the killing bite that wild cats use to kill a small bird or rodent swiftly before they have a chance to struggle. Others believe that when a cat chatters at a nearby bird he is emulating the sound the bird is making.
My own theory is that cat chattering is an act of frustration. I once noticed one of my cats chattering at a nearby bird whilst she was sat on the windowsill, so as an experiment I opened the window just to see what she would do. The moment the "barrier" to reaching the prey was removed my cat's body language completely changed. She suddenly dropped down on all fours, stopped chattering and her whole body went very still just like all cats do when they are stalking their prey. The bird flew away within a couple of minutes but it just proved to me that cat chattering only comes about when the cat knows he has no chance of getting his paws on the creature in his sights and in a way he is playing out what he would do if he was in close proximity.