Why do cats meow?
I’m going to give you the short answer to this question right now: cats meow because they need to tell us something and cats know we’re too slow-witted to get the message any other way.
That’s right: meowing is how cats talk to people. Just people. Cats have a lot to say and a lot of ways to say it, but cats have got us all figured out. They know we’re not really good at reading body language and that we have a terrible sense of smell. It’s sound or nothing with us.
How do cats communicate with each other?
Contrary to what you’ll read on the Internet, cats are actually very social creatures. But they’re not social in the way dogs are social, galumphing up to say “hi” to whatever strange dog shows up in the dog park on a given day.
Cats in feral conditions generally live in social groups consisting of mother cats and their litters. Their social groups are also their family members. But as social as they are, cats still do some things alone, like hunting, scavenging, and eating.
Consequently, feral cats lack the communication skills of more social animals like dogs. Dogs hunt together, eat together, and sleep together, and thus have more evolved and complex communication strategies.
Cats avoid conflict with other cats, especially with other cats who don’t belong to their family group, through social distance. Their preferred communication style allows them to communicate without getting too close to other cats.
Cats use scent, such as urine marking, or visual marks, like scratching to indicate territory. (Scratching also leaves scent behind.) Scent and scratch marks hang around long after a cat has left the area, which makes for a terrific socially distant “conversation” with other cats. Cats also use body language to express themselves from afar.
Cats only meow at people, not other cats
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), we humans don’t have the finely tuned sense of smell that cats have. And because people mostly communicate with each other vocally, we’re not that attuned to body language either. We don’t tend to notice that subtle turn of the ear, or twitch of the tail.
So, when cats want to communicate with humans, they meow. Cats don’t meow to other cats. Meowing is just for people -- except when cats are kittens.
Cats are born meowing
Cats didn’t invent meowing for us. They start out life meowing. But if it wasn’t for the fact that they live with us, they’d stop.
Kittens are born to meowing. They meow to get their mother’s attention. If a kitten is hungry, he’ll meow to let mom know. If he’s cold, if he’s been stepped on, if he’s scared, he’ll meow until his mother responds.
Feral cats mostly outgrow this behavior. Only domesticated cats continue meowing into adulthood.
Professor Bjarne O. Braastad from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences explained it this way: “Animals that live with humans tend to use their baby behavior towards humans because they find that it works. But they don’t use the same behavior towards other adult animals of their own species.”
In 2011, researchers studied the difference between how feral cats and house cats vocalize. Feral cats were more likely to growl or hiss than domesticated cats. And for the feral cats who meowed, they did so indiscriminately: meowing at humans, dolls, and dogs equally. In other words, a feral cat’s meow is not a house cat’s meow.
Cats have more than one meow
There isn’t just one “meow.”
When we’re training dogs, for example, they learn that “sit” means to put their haunches on the ground, while “stay” (which is similar-sounding, one-syllable word) means they shouldn’t move from that place until further instruction.
Cats employ the same tactics with us.
Susanne Schötz, a linguist and phoneticist from Lund University in Sweden, was thinking about this very thing when she noticed that her cats meowed at her when she returned home at the end of the day. That kicked off a five-year project on “Melody in human-cat communication (MEOWSIC).”
Schötz and her team recorded and analyzed the meows of 70 cats, and noticed, among other things, that cats make different meow sounds depending upon their mood and the purpose of the meow.
Meows that are used by a cat in a positive state (or if the cat is asking for something) are usually short and have a high and rising melody.
Meows that are used in a negative context or mental state (such as when a cat is in the carrier, or at the vet's office) are longer and have a falling melody.
Here are some of the recordings from the study. It’s hard to hear the difference at first, but if you listen, it’s there.
Here's a "positive" meow. It's the same meow, repeated three times:
And here's a negative meow, also repeated three times:
Too bad there's no Google Translate for meows
I love this cat dictionary written in 1895 by Professor Alphonse Leon Grimaldi in his essay “The Cat.” Cats were long domesticated by 1895, but were not household companions for the most part, so people were new to the idea of communicating with their cats. Ah, if only it were this easy:
Reasons your cat may meow
If a cat is meowing to get your attention, what is she trying to tell you?
Unfortunately, there is no real cat dictionary. You’ll have to know your cat, and you’ll have to take the context into consideration. Here are some possible reasons your cat may be meowing:
Due to illness
Many sick cats hide, or at least try to hide their symptoms. But certain illnesses, including hyperthyroidism and kidney disease, can cause a cat to meow. If your cat’s meowing seems uncharacteristic for him, and you can’t pinpoint any other reason for sudden meowing, have a vet check him out as soon as possible.
Because of aging
Unfortunately, some cats experience cognitive dysfunction as they age, just like people. If the meowing becomes a problem, consult with a veterinarian as there are medications that can help. If your older cat becomes disoriented at night, consider purchasing a small nightlight to help her navigate. This one by MAZ-TEK is nice because you can adjust the brightness, and LED technology means you won’t be replacing bulbs.
Does your cat come running the minute anyone steps into the kitchen? (Cats: you know who you are.) Does he meow incessantly the minute you take a bite of anything? Do you quietly open a chip bag, hoping your cat doesn’t hear? Some cats get VERY vocal at feeding times. If you enjoy this, fine. If you don’t, stop rewarding it. Do not put the food dish down until your cat stops meowing. Don’t give treats to a meowing cat. Worst comes to worst, get a timed automatic feeder like this PETLIBRO model so you cat can start meowing at it.
Even though cats have a reputation for being independent, most cats really want to interact with their people. Some cats meow to initiate petting or play, or to get you to pay attention to them in some other way. Remember that your cat has no other outlets. He can’t text a friend, or schedule a playdate. You’re all he has. Remember, too, that a tired cat is a quieter cat, so indulging your cat's demand for playtime can help meet both of your needs.
Many cats meow when their person comes home. This one is going to be a hard habit to break. But would you really want to?
To go out
Whatever side of the door a cat is on, is rarely the one she wants to be on. Meowing incessantly to be let in or out works really well for cats, and makes their guardians want to pull their own hair out. One way to stop it is to never let it start: keep your cats indoors and they’ll never know what they’re missing. But once they have a taste of freedom, many cats will meow themselves hoarse to be allowed out again (and then back in!).
If you can, create a safe outdoor space, like a catio, that your cat can access at her leisure, or consider leash-training your cat. If you decide to try the later, don’t put the harness on or take the cat out in response to her meowing or you’ll have a whole new set of meowing problems.
From loneliness and boredom
You’re gone all day at work and you imagine your cat is fine without you. But many cats are not fine without their people for long hours at a time. Many cats meow out of boredom and loneliness.
Consider hiring a pet sitter to come in to visit and play with your cat during the day. But also provide an enriched home environment to keep your cat busy when you or the sitter can’t be there.
Hang a birdfeeder right outside a window. Any birdfeeder will do as far as your cat is concerned, but I like this Squirrel Buster model by Brome because of my personal experience with the brand. The company stands by its products for life.
I’d also consider leaving foraging toys around the house to challenge him and keep his mind active. This PetSafe model is simple and inexpensive and thus perfect for cats who are new to puzzle feeders.
Out of annoyance
A cat may meow out of annoyance, such as when she is being held too long for her liking. Consider yourself forewarned. A meow can swiftly degenerate into biting and scratching.
A fearful cat usually resort to hisses and growls first. A truly frightened cat will hide and be silent. But occasionally, a cat may meow when scared. Know thy cat.
When hard of hearing or deaf
Some cats meow more loudly and more often when they lose their hearing, perhaps because they can’t hear themselves talk. Other cats become mute once they lose their hearing.
The owner of this deaf cat is a saint:
If he/she is still intact
If your cat isn’t neutered or spayed he or she is more apt to meow. Females yowl when they are in heat, and males yowl when they smell a female in heat. For this reason and a thousand others that are just as good or better, spay and neuter your cats.
If they are stressed
Have you welcomed a new pet into your home? Or a new baby? Has your cat lost someone she loves, or is that person or pet ill? A bewildered or stressed-out cat may express himself through meowing. Give your cat the attention he so badly needs at this difficult juncture in his life. Know that this stage, too, shall pass.
If something is amiss
Do not just dismiss meowing as annoying, even if it is. Your cat may be trying to tell you something very urgent. She may be trapped somewhere, or unable to get to her litter box. Her water bowl may be empty (and this is a dire circumstance for a cat). Unless you absolutely know for certain why your cat is suddenly meowing, do the right thing and get up and check to make sure that nothing is amiss.
Are some cat breeds “meow-ier” than others?
If you don’t like meowing, don’t get a cat. No one can guarantee that your cat will be as quiet as you’d like him to be.
Remember that all cats are individuals. Just because your cat is a member of a breed that supposedly meows more than other breeds, doesn’t mean your particular cat may meow a lot. And vice versa.
That being said, if you live in a library, you probably should not bring home a member of one of the following cat breeds. These breeds are known for being “chattier” than average:
- American Bobtail
- European Burmese
- Japanese Bobtail
- Maine Coon
- Turkish Angora
What you should never do if your cat meows
Whatever you do, do not punish your cat for meowing. Do not yell at your cat. Do not spray water on your cat. Do I have to tell you to never lay a hand on your cat? I hope not.
Do not punish your cat because punishing is not effective. Sure, screaming at your cat may momentarily interrupt a behavior you don't like, but whatever is motivating your cat to meow will not change. If excessive meowing is becoming a real problem, work with a certified animal behaviorist to modify the behavior. Do not take matters into your own angry hands.
But more importantly, do not punish your cat because doing so will damage your precious relationship with your cat. Your cat may grow to distrust you, even dislike you. That is not why you brought this living, feeling being into your life and into your home. Honor and guard your special relationship with your cat.
This post on feline hyperesthesia syndrome is also relevant to this topic.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Kjørstad, Elise, and Ingrid P. Nuse. “Your Cat Meows Mostly for You.” Sciencenorway, 17 Oct. 2019, sciencenorway.no/animal-kingdom-communication/your-cat-meows-mostly-for-you/1578244.
 Yeon, Seong C., et al. “Differences between Vocalization Evoked by Social Stimuli in Feral Cats and House Cats.” Behavioural Processes, Elsevier, 26 Mar. 2011, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635711000568.
 “How Do Cats Communicate with Each Other?” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/zoology/item/how-do-cats-communicate-with-each-other/.
 Flowers, Amy. “Cat Excessive Meowing and Yowling: Why Cats Meow.” WebMD, WebMD, 20 May 2019, pets.webmd.com/cats/guide/cats-excessive-meowing#1.
 “Most Vocal Cat Breeds.” Purina, www.purina.com/cats/cat-breeds/collections/most-vocal-cat-breeds.
 Schötz, Suzanne. “LISTEN TO MEOWS PRODUCED IN DIFFERENT CONTEXTS AND MENTAL STATES.” Results Meowing, vr.humlab.lu.se/projects/meowsic/resultsMeowing.html.