Picture this: it is four o’clock in the morning. My husband and I are sound asleep. Suddenly, I hear a terrible sound, almost like a small child in horrible pain, crying out heartrendingly for their mother. After the initial shock passes, it becomes clear—it is just Kompis, explaining to a rival outside in the garden that there is nothing to see here, and that the interloper should very well be on his way, or else. It is the same drama every spring! This time, the interloper does not surrender so quickly—they give as good as they get, and so the howling gives way to growling. They are locked in a howling, growling duel, with no end in sight. After a while, the interloper admits defeat and creeps dejectedly away. The victorious Kompis has defended his kingdom and begins to clean himself, licking his imaginary wounds.
I assume many of you are familiar with this kind of situation, too. I have observed a great number of similar occurrences in my neighborhood (when I go walking or jogging in the morning, for example), and I have managed to record some growling and howling sounds with my video camera. Frequently, two cats howl together as though in a duet. The dominant voice leads the melody up and down, and the other voice accompanies with weaker, brighter (with acoustically high resonances) tones. It is not just male cats who moan at their adversaries like this. Females, too, can howl and growl at each other for several minutes if they do not like each other. Cats rarely engage in physical violence with each other; they seem to be able to defuse tensions through these concertos of howls, a kind of diplomacy before things go bad. Frequently (though not always), the winner is the one who can howl the deepest, loudest and longest. There are different reasons for this, and some of them are anatomical. An animal with a larger body also has a larger apparatus for making sounds—larger lungs, voice box and vocal folds (vocal cords). So big dominant cats can produce the deepest, loudest tones. Or the other way around: cats howling in the most low-pitched, loud voices appear to be big and dangerous (although they may very well be bluffing). The loser cowers and creeps ever so slowly away, as though in slow motion.
Sometimes, however, there is simply no option but a physical confrontation. When that happens, the howling culminates in terrible shrilling and very loud snarling, shrieking and crying sounds. It is enough to freeze your blood. Luckily, this kind of confrontation usually does not last long.