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Why do Cats Meow?

 
By MarĂ­a Besteiros, Expert veterinary assistant and canine/feline hairdresser.. Updated: November 11, 2019
Why do Cats Meow?

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If you have lived with cats you will already be familiar with their characteristic meows. You have probably also noticed that cats emit different meowing sounds depending on what they want to convey or achieve. If you can understand a cat's language you will be able to care for them better. So, it is important to learn to recognize and interpret different types of meows and what causes each one. This will help good communication between owner and feline and you will be able to respond to any need or problem promptly and effectively.

In this AnimalWised article we answer the question why do cats meow?, and we explain reasons for meowing and the different types of meows a cat can emit. We also explain the meaning behind these different meows and in what cases the sound may indicate that a visit to the vet is necessary. All this will help you interpret and understand your cat so that you can communicate better with them.

You may also be interested in: Why Does My Cat Meow When I Pet It?

Kittens meowing

A cat's meows are how it communicates, mainly with humans. Curiously, adult cats do not meow at each other. They communicate through body language, scent, touch and other sounds such as hissing or caterwauls. Kittens, on the other hand, meow to communicate with their mother, each other and us.

When do cats start meowing?

Kittens start meowing when they are just a few weeks old, usually between 3 and 4 weeks. Kittens meow to get attention, much like human babies. A kitten's meow communicates that it is cold, hungry, frightened or lonely. It also helps a mother cat locate her kittens in one of them gets lost. These meows are usually sharp and short. As your kitten grows up, you will notice that the tone and frequency of their meows change.

Why do kittens meow so much?

If you have just adopted a baby kitten, you may find that it meows constantly. Meowing is its way of calling for its mother, so this probably means that it is feels separation anxiety. In fact, it is best to allow kittens to stay with their mothers until they are at least two months old. When this is not possible, try to provide your kitten with the love and care it needs to feel at home.

Kittens also meow to communicate other feelings like hunger, stress, pain or even joy at seeing you. If your kitten meows a lot and you want to know why, check out this AnimalWised video where we explain some of the possible reasons and what to do:

Why do cats meow at humans?

So, why do cats meow at us? Meowing is one of the ways a cat communicates. Cats also use other sounds such as snarls, hisses, chatters or cries to communicate with other cats, animals and humans. In addition cats communicate through scent and pheromone emission, though humans cannot perceive these. In fact, the theory is that cats meow at humans because they have learnt that we cannot understand the methods of communication they use with other animals.

Of course, some cats are very ‘talkative’, while others rarely utter two meows. If this is the case, you may have to look for and interpret other signs of communication, like the cat's body language. You should never ignore a cat's meow, or try to stop it. After all, meowing is the only way a cat can ‘speak’ to us.

Like with any other language, cats use different meows to tell us different things. Many of the current characteristics of the cat meow have evolved thanks to the relationship between cats and humans brought about by domestication. Have you noticed that sometimes a cat meowing can sound like a crying baby? The high-pitched sound of a cat's meow, that is so much like the cry of a baby, triggers a response from humans who are programmed to care for them. The sound of the meow makes us respond quickly to the cat's needs, just as if it were a crying human baby.

Do cats meow at each other?

Adult cats do not normally communicate with each other by meowing. Domestic cats that have been around humans for a long time may occasionally meow at each other, but this is usually in the presence of humans and is never their primary means of communication. The only time meowing may be a form of communication between cats is when cats in heat meow loudly to get a mate's attention.

Types and meaning of cat meows

The word ‘meow’ is an onomatopoeic description of the standard sound a cat emits at a human. However, depending on what the cat wants to convey, this meow will vary in tone, intensity and frequency. If you can perceive and interpret these differences, you will be able to understand your cat better.

Here are some of the common causes and meanings of different types of cat meows:

  • Call for attention: a clear and loud meow, directly addressing you, is a cat's way of calling for your attention. The cat wants something and needs you to listen. For example, it may be outside and wants to be let in the house. This type of meow is also emitted when the cat cannot see you and calls to you, as do kittens that lose sight of their mother.
  • Greeting: cats often meow to greet their owners or other humans they are pleased to see. This can be a short meow, like a quick ‘hello’, or several consecutive meows that indicate your cat is excited to see you.
  • In heat: a cat in heat will meow loudly and persistently, in a high pitched tone. Female cats meow to signal to surrounding male cats that they are in heat. The fertile period in cats is accompanied by rubbing, elevation of the pelvis, increased urination and other symptoms.
  • Hunger: we usually feed our cats regularly, so they should not go hungry. However, if you forget to fill the cat's bowl or it wants a specific food, such as a tin of fish or something you are eating, it may begin meowing loudly and persistently while staring at you. The cat may also stand next to its bowl, or next to the food that interests it, to help you understand exactly what it wants.
  • Stress: cats are very sensitive to changes in their environment and one way they communicate this is by meowing. If our cat suddenly begins to meow more than normal, it may be because of a change that has altered its routine. This is usually a deep and loud meow. Boredom and loneliness can also be a cause a cat stress. To avoid anxiety in your cat, introduce any changes gradually and provide your pet with a positive and engaging environment where it can grow and develop.
  • Affection: a mellow, gentle meow is a cat's way of showing affection. This is normally accompanied by rubbing the sides of its face against your body and purring. Licks, small nibbles and kneading you with its paws are also part of a cat's way of greeting you happily or showing you affection.
  • Conversation: some cats are more ‘talkative’ than others and may try to converse with us in the form of repeated or chattering meows. Though we do not speak the same language, this may be their way of responding to the sounds we make when we talk to them.
  • Malaise: cats can also meow when they feel pain or discomfort. It may be that you accidentally stepped on your cat's tail or it got its paw stuck in a tight place. However, if your cat calls in loud, drawn-out meows and you cannot attribute it to any of the above causes, examine its body and surroundings to see if there is a problem. Keep in mind that many sick cats do not meow, but hide, seem apathetic or stop eating. Keep an eye out for any signs of sickness in your cat and don't wait for a distressed meow to take it to the veterinarian.
  • Fighting: If a cat is on the defensive or about to attack another cat or animal, it may emit loud meows that sound more like yowls or screams. In such cases, bristling hair, folded ears, an open mouth and raised tail usually accompany the sounds. If your cat is in a fight situation try to get it out as calmly and quickly as possible to avoid it getting hurt.

Never ignore your cat's meow or scold it for meowing too much. Try to understand what the meows mean. This will help you respond better to your cat's needs and prevent or solve any problems.

For more information and examples of cat meows and what they mean, take a look at this AnimalWised video:

Why is my cat meowing strangely?

Now that you have seen some of the main reasons why a cat meows, you may wonder what it means when a cat meows strangely. If you notice changes in the tome, pitch or frequency of your cat's usual meows, and cannot find an obvious cause, it is best to go to the vet. Changes in its meow may mean that your cat is suffering from a respiratory illness, such as feline rhinotracheitis. This can cause inflammation in the respiratory tract making your cats sound hoarse, just like humans do with the flu. Other symptoms of respiratory infection in your cat are nasal and ocular secretions, loss of appetite, etc.

A cat may stop meowing entirely. This could be due to either physical causes or problems related to stress and anxiety. Consult a veterinarian to first rule out disease as a possible cause. If the lack of meowing is related to a behavioral disorder, we suggest you get in touch with an ethologist or feline behavior specialist.

An ageing cat may also meow strangely or excessively. This could be related to a number of causes ranging from cognitive disorders to kidney problems. Always consult your vet to find the source of your cat's discomfort and how best to treat it.

Why do cats meow at night?

Cats are crepuscular animals, and in the wild they tend to be more active at dusk and during the night, which is when they hunt. Domestic cats are normally less active at night, although some are more so than others. If your cats tends to be active at night it may meow to communicate with you in the middle of the night.

When a cat's meows intensify during the night this is could also be because they are going through a period of heat.

How to reduce a cat's meowing at night

If your cat gets hungry or bored during the night it is more likely to start meowing and wake you up. You may enjoy this version of an alarm clock in the morning, but probably not in the middle of the night. It is best to train your cat not to make this a habit. Keep it entertained during the day, offer it a stimulating environment in which it spend its energy, and play with it at dusk if you can. Doing these will help avoid excessive nighttime activity.

As we have seen, cats meow to draw attention to specific needs. So, before getting into bed, make sure that your cat's litter box is clean and that they have enough food and water to get through the night without waking you up. Also make sure your cat has not been locked out or in anything. If its basic needs are taken care of, even if your cat remains active at night, it is less likely to meow and call for your attention.

If your cat is meowing at night because it is in heat, the best way to prevent this is sterilization or castration.This involves removing of the uterus and ovaries in females and testicles in males, to prevent reproduction.

If you want more tips on how to deal with your cat meowing excessively, here is an article on how to stop your cat form meowing all the time.

If you want to read similar articles to Why do Cats Meow?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

Bibliography
  • Morris, Desmond (1994). Watch your cat. Barcelona. Plaza & Janés Editores.
  • Newman, Aline Alexander; Weiztman, Gary (2015). How to speak cat: a guide to decoding cat language. Washington. National Geographic Society.

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