We have been taught from an early age that cats make the sound, “meow.” But what does “meow” actually mean?
Cats rarely meow at other cats; they usually use hiss or growl as their primary method of communication with other cats. When they are kittens (after they’ve weaned), they meow at their mothers for attention, but this stops once they mature.
Meowing in Mature Cats
Later, the meow is primarily directed at people to get their attention. Cats constantly monitor their surroundings and are highly aware. Humans aren’t as aware of their surroundings, and often are multi-tasking or involved in specific activities, conversations, or distracted by technology (i.e., television, computers, phones, etc.)
However, humans do respond to unusual noises, such as meows. Cats have learned that we will respond to their meows and anticipate this response to get their needs met. Sometimes the response of acknowledgment or petting is reward enough, but cats have also learned precision when it comes to meowing. For example, cats will meow next to a door when they want to go out, or in the middle of the kitchen when they want food.
Some cats will even learn to change the tone and frequency of their meows to get different results! This language between you and your cat is unique and not universal cat-human language. It is usually only a cat’s caregiver who can reliably interpret their cat’s meows.
MEOW TIP: If your cat meows excessively, it can mean your cat has learned to do this to get what he wants all the time. If this is the case, you can ignore your cat’s cries to let him know that behavior will not be rewarded. For example, wait until your cat is quiet, then feed him. Over time, he will learn to use meows effectively.
Different Types of Meows
Cats can alter the sound of their meows to let their owners know the urgency of a need. They do this by altering their pitch and duration:
- Mid-pitch Meow – might mean a demand for food.
- High-pitch/Drawn-out Meow – might mean the cat is in pain.
- Multiple Meows – can show excitement to see their caregivers.
Using trial and error, cats develop a set of meows they learn are effective to communicate with you in different circumstances. The cat and caregiver naturally train one another during this process. The action a cat takes after a meow can indicate the cat’s emotional state or specific need. In meowing, cats communicate and form close relationships with us, much as they do with members of their own feline family!
MEOW TIP: Changes in meow tone and increases or decreases in vocalization could indicate a medical problem. If you notice these types of changes, cat owners should have their feline friend checked by their veterinarian.