Why Do Cats Meow?

By Langley Cornwell

Our cat has a very specific language and I know what he is ‘saying’ almost every time he meows. My husband marvels at how well I interpret our cat’s sounds, but it seems natural to me. I spend a lot of time with the little guy and tend to his needs. We understand each other. Moreover, he’s extremely communicative.

Jack, a neighbor’s cat, and our cat are best friends. They hang out on front porches and patrol the neighborhood together most of the day. If our cat is out and Jack isn’t, he’ll go to Jack’s door as if to say “can Jack come out and play?” and vice-versa. Their interactions provide entertainment for the whole neighborhood; everybody tells “Jack and Jet” stories. In total, I’ve probably watched these cats for more hours than I care to admit. One thing that stands out to me is that these two never meow to each other. All of their communications –of which there are many– are primarily inaudible. This observation got me thinking about how well my cat communicates with me through meows and why I never hear him and his buddy meow to each other.  

In researching this, I learned that cats only meow to people, not to other cats. Cats communicate with one another through scent, facial expressions, body language and physical touch. Think about it. You’ve probably heard a cat caterwauling for mating, hissing to scare off intruders, screeching when he’s hurt or fearful, or chattering when he identifies prey, but I bet you’ve never heard a cat meow to another cat. They save that for humans.      

According to Cornell News, only a mother cat and her young kittens meow to one another. A kitten mews to get attention from her mother cat and once the kitten is grown, they stop. This begs the question, why do cats meow to people? Cornell University did an evolutionary psychology study and determined that cats meow to people because it works. Cats have figured out how to get what they want from humans.

Since we evidently don’t understand the scent-messages the cat leaves us, and most of us are not entirely fluent in cat body language, cats have to resort to some manner by which to communicate with their humans. Because our cats are dependent on us in every way, they have to meow to get what they want. So cats are bilingual – they speak cat language to one another and they’ve developed a second meow-language to communicate with humans. Brilliant!  

Cat-to-Human Language

Even more brilliant is the way cats use a variety of meowing methods to communicate different things; their meows vary in volume, pitch and length according to what they want. Our cat uses a short, high-pitched meow as a general greeting. When he strings a few of those greeting meows together, he’s letting me know he’s happy to see me.

Cats use pleasing meow sounds when they want food or attention. In fact, the Cornell study claims that cats learn which meow is going to get the results they want and act accordingly. Pay attention to this. If your cat has a meow that you cannot resist, it’s likely that meow is a solicitation for something that delights him such as climbing on your lap and getting scratched behind his ears.

When you hear harsher, louder meows it’s usually because your cat is reprimanding you or expressing annoyance. These meows have an unpleasant, low pitch and there’s nothing cute about them. Cats have learned not to use disagreeable meows to seek a favor because most cat people are unlikely to abide by such rudeness.

The cat-to-human language varies per cat. Even though there is a specific “demand meow” sound, your cat may distinguish between his regular demands and you may be able to differentiate between the sounds. For example, your kitty may have one meow for “give me my FELIDAE cat food now!” and another for “please let me out.”

The more time you spend with your cat (or cats in general) the easier it is for you to understand cat-to-human language. Studies indicate that the more experience people have with cats, the better they are at understanding meows. 

It’s nice to think your cat is smart enough and resourceful enough to learn a second language. And it’s especially heartwarming to think your cat has learned a special language to communicate with you. Of course, he learned the language out of necessity but also out of fondness. Your cat wouldn’t bother meowing a greeting or meowing for your attention if he didn’t enjoy the special connection the two of you have.  

Photo by Joel Duggan

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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13 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Meow?

  1. When cats were first domesticated in Ancient Egypt (4,000 – 5,000 years ago!) they became attuned to the sound of a [human] baby’s cry and witnessed the infant got immediate attention. Therefore, cats began to ‘mimic’ this sound to humans knowing they would also get this same attention. :-)

  2. MY CAT HAS ME TRAINED VERY WELL .SHE GOES TO THE KITCHEN, SHE WANTS TO EAT.SHE GOES TO THE DOOR SHE WANTS OUT .SHE STANDS AT THE BASEMENT DOOR SHE WANTS HER LITTER BOX CLEANED . SHE PEES NEXT TO THE BOX IF SHE DOESNOT LIKE THE NEW BRAND OF LITTER.

    MY NEXT LIFE I’AM GOING TO BE A CAT.

  3. It’s amazing how sweet my cats can meow when they want to be fed. Though my Ginger can get me to let her in the back patio glass door without a sound. I’ll suddenly look up and there she is waiting when she wasn’t there a minute ago.

  4. Yes I knew this :) Austin only makes chirruping noises with his buddy, and sometimes he growls! With the neighbourhood bully cat it’s yowling at 90 decibels, But with me he uses the full range of his meows to tell me what I need to know! Great post!

  5. Because I am deaf, both my cat and dog use special sounds for me. My cat meows if her dish is getting empty, but she makes sure I have noticed her meow. Then she knows I will take care of her dish and though it may not be right away, I will do it. She goes off feeling assured. My dog changes the pitch of his bark when he wants my attention. I don't hear his regular bark, but his higher tone, I do! Annoying as it is, it works for me! They are smart little animals!

    Jo in Minnesota

  6. Because I am deaf, both my cat and dog use special sounds for me. My cat meows if her dish is getting empty, but she makes sure I have noticed her meow. Then she knows I will take care of her dish and though it may not be right away, I will do it. She goes off feeling assured. My dog changes the pitch of his bark when he wants my attention. I don’t hear his regular bark, but his higher tone, I do! Annoying as it is, it works for me! They are smart little animals!

    Jo in Minnesota

  7. I too never thought about this either and it is so true. My cats know just which meow will get me to do what but they do use body language on me too. They go to the door and look at it when they want to go outside. Great post. Very interesting. Take care.

  8. I had heard that before – that cats only “meow” to humans. I found it very fascinating. I am very aware of all my cats “meows” and they are hilarious. She is very much the “mother hen” and meows me to bed when I am up late at night.

    Great little post. I am off the tweet it.

  9. I never thought about this, but it’s true, the felines at my house only trill or prrrrrp at each other–and if they spat they use hisses and growls. Intruders get caterwauls, but Scott and I are the only ones to receive the MEOW.

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