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All cat owners rely on meows to help decipher how their pet feels and what they might need. But did you know cats haven’t always used this type of communication?
Researchers believe cats create vocal sounds like humans do — via a larynx (aka the ‘voice box’) and supporting throat muscles. However, they’ve likely not always been inclined to make meows: it’s thought cats only began to do so once they began socializing with humans and became domesticated creatures.
In fact, adult cats very rarely meow to each other. “The most common reason cats meow is because they want something from us, their humans!” shares Clare Hemington, accredited cat behaviorist and founder of Honeysuckle Cat Toys. They can also do so to convey joy, as a form of greeting, or show displeasure or anxiety, among other things.
Want to feel like a meow-stermind? Read on for our essential guide to kitty communication.
Common Reasons Why Cats Meow
Our furry friends emit meows for various reasons — but let’s take a closer look at some of the more common ones.
To say hello
Whether you’re returning home from work or your feline is making a reappearance after prowling the neighborhood, “some cats meow as a greeting,” says Linda Hall, a certified cat behaviorist at Cat Behavior Alliance.
They want attention
Sometimes it can be hard to be a small cat in a big human world, and they might meow simply to let you know they’re still around and want a bit of TLC. This attention demanding behavior can have downsides, too, as we’ll explore a little later.
They’re just chatting
In the same way some humans are more talkative than others, some cats just like to meow away. “Breeds like Siamese are known to be very vocal,” notes Rita Reimers, also a certified cat behaviorist at Cat Behavior Alliance.
Domestic cats rely on their human owner to provide food — they can’t just go into the cupboard and get it themselves! So, cats often meow to let you know it’s time for dinner. How much to feed your cat will largely depend on their life stage and lifestyle, so be sure to check in with your vet and ensure you regularly keep tabs on your cat’s weight and body profile.
Felines can’t take themselves to the vet if they’re under the weather. Sometimes, yours might become more vocal if they’re trying to tell you about their pain and need a bit of help feeling better.
There’s no TV watching or reading to keep cats entertained. If they desire some stimulation or interaction, meowing could be their way of letting you know they want to play, explains Hall.
Moved to a new area or introduced another pet into the home? According to The Humane Society of the United States, “a cat who feels anxious or confused may meow to seek reassurance.”
What Does My Cat’s Meow Mean?
“Cats can make nearly 100 different sounds,” reveals Reimer — so no wonder it can be tricky to decipher what your cat is trying to tell you.
However, by recognizing some of the more popular ones and understanding the intentions behind them, you can start to piece together the puzzle.
|Type of sound||What it means|
|General meow||This “is the most basic meow,” says Hall, and “is a bit of an all-purpose sound.”|
|Short meow||This might sound like a ‘meep’, notes Reimer, and is “usually a sign they are trying to get your attention.”|
|Series of meows||Two or more meows show “they are very insistent on getting what they want,” Hall explains.|
|Low-pitched meow||This can be a sign your cat feels unhappy or uncomfortable.|
|High-pitched meow||One you’ll want to hear more often, as it’s an indication your feline is happy.|
|Drawn-out meow||A form of complaint, this often arises when we have something they want, shares Reimer.|
|Purr||A sign of happiness, or that your cat is comforting itself as it feels anxious, unwell, or in pain.|
|Hiss||This is an involuntary sound, explains Hall — and indicates “they are scared or startled. Comfort your cat and watch to make sure that fear doesn’t turn into an attack.”|
|Yowl||A way of communicating to other cats, it’s “almost a screaming plea for their attacker to go away!” notes Reimer. Female cats are also prone to yowling when in heat.|
Is My Cat Meowing Too Much?
Humans get carried away with conversations, so can cats also meow too much?
“This is a tricky one to answer,” states Hemington. “Given that cats have developed their meow specially to manipulate their owners, it really depends how much you are prepared to tolerate and whether or not you may be inadvertently encouraging it!”
She notes that some breeds, such as Bengals, Burmese, and Oriental cats, including Siamese, are naturally a lot more vocal than others.
Certain factors or activities are linked to temporary increases in meowing, such as:
- You just got home;
- They’re feeling hungry;
- They’re bored and need entertaining;
- The litter box is full;
- They want to go outside;
- They’re in heat.
In addition, felines often become more vocal as they get older. “Cats get hearing loss, sight loss, and dementia as they age,” reveals Hall. “This can cause them to get louder, just like the way Grandpa started talking to you loudly as he aged. He can’t hear himself.”
You might notice your cat is a lot more vocal during nighttime hours — which can be frustrating if you’re trying to sleep, but is normal for them to do. Cats are what’s known as crepuscular, which means they’re most active around dawn and dusk. “This is when they tend to increase not only their physical activity, but their vocal activity too,” Hemington reveals.
It’s worth noting that excessive nighttime yowling has both normal explanations, and can also be a sign of more serious health conditions, so it may be worth a conversation with your vet if you’re concerned about your cat’s health and wellbeing, especially if you notice any sudden or significant change in your cat’s behavior or appearance. “It’s always a good idea to get it checked out by your vet,” she adds.
How do I stop them from meowing so much?
If those noises are getting excessive and starting to interrupt your day-to-day life, is there anything you can do?
Try switching up your own behavior, recommends Hemington. “If each time [he meows] you either stroke him, play with him, or give him food, you might inadvertently be rewarding the very behavior you would prefer he didn’t do quite so much,” she explains.
As such, consider changing when you give your kitty treats. Hemington continues: “[By] rewarding him instead when he is silent, he should soon learn that his meowing tactic isn’t working but being calm and quiet is.”
It’s also important to remain calm, Hall states, and understand when to offer strokes. “If you know your cat is okay and is just meowing for attention, don’t give in when you are sleeping!” she says. “If they get attention, it will never stop pestering you at 3am.”
Finally, meowing — excessively or otherwise — can signal upset or stress among some cats. In these cases, anxiety aids can be a great help, says Reimer, along with playing relaxing music.
Do Cats Meow At Other Cats?
As noted previously, adult cats rarely meow at each other — and this form of vocalization is something domesticated felines have developed and learned to communicate with humans.
That said, meowing is a noise they make earlier on in life.
“Kittens meow to communicate with their mama. They cry out for her and tell her when they are hungry,” explains Reimer. “If the kitten is feral, once he no longer is nursing on mama, he doesn’t need the meow and will lose that ability.”
However, she continues, “in our homes, they turn that meow to us! We feed and care for them, so those meows turn to us for communication.”
For cats that venture outdoors, loud meowing and yowling noises — particularly at night — can be a way of asserting their presence and warning other cats off of their territory.
Can Meowing Mean Something Is Wrong?
Frustratingly, cats are prone to hiding when they’re in pain or are ill — and sometimes do so “almost until it’s too late,” Hall shares. Why? “It’s their nature. If they appear sickly, then they are a target for predators.”
However, some cats aren’t so secretive, and an increase in meowing can indicate an issue. For instance, this could be a sign of frustration or that something is up — such as “that he’s in pain or is injured,” Hemington explains.
Certain illnesses encourage more frequent bouts of meowing, notes Reimer — including “hyperthyroidism, hypertension, problems with their larynx (like infection), or urinary blockages, just to name a few.”
If you have an older cat, increased vocalization may also signal feline cognitive dysfunction, which more than a third of felines over the age of 11 develop. The condition “can present as general confusion, resulting in meows — which, in cats that are going deaf, can be ear-splitting,” Hemington shares.
Cats can create a variety of vocal sounds, with meows being the most commonly heard. But remember that cats also use other approaches to communicate with humans and other felines — such as swaying their tails, giving gentle head butts, and engaging in playtime.
Remember: if you’re unsure whether the meow you’re hearing is a-OK, “we always suggest a vet check!” says Hall.