Cat’s meow is a reflection of the kitten-to-surrogate mother relationship we have with them

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There are two very well-known biologists and cat behaviourists who, in my view, agree on this point which is that the domestic cat sees us as surrogate mothers. We don’t quite know how they really process their observations of us but in terms of their behaviour towards us it reflects a kitten-to-mother relationship. These celebrity cat behaviourists are Dr. Desmond Morris and Dr. John Bradshaw who are both proliferate authors.

In the video on this page, Dr. John Bradshaw talks about the famous and much discussed cat meow. The video was made seven years ago when the world knew less about cats. The Internet has been so educational about cat behaviour. What he says in the video remains very pertinent today.

He doesn’t actually spell out the fact that adult domestic cats regard us as their mothers but that is what he is strongly implying (but Dr Morris does spell it out!). Bradshaw says that kittens meow to call their mother over. When they stop meowing the weaning process has begun. Their mother wants to wean them. She wants them to be independent. The meow no longer calls her over.

When the young cat is adopted by a person, they start meowing at their human caregiver for the same purpose: to get their attention, to call them over to do something. To try and stop their owner working on their computer or watching television because they are demanding one of the many forms of interaction between humans and cat. The most common of which is to provide food.

Each individual cat has their way of meowing at their owner. The meows vary depending upon the circumstances. The meow is a very flexible sound and doesn’t always sound like a classic meow. But behind the sound is this kitten-to-mother relationship which is also a reflection on the way that cat domestication keeps the adult cat thinking like a kitten all their lives; throughout this period of being pampered and cared for by their human caregiver.

Another great veterinarian and cat behaviourists, Dr. Bruce Fogle DVM, who is also a great author, refers to John Bradshaw’s work. He says that, “The respected animal behaviourist John Bradshaw says that cats meow at us because they are trying to imitate human speech”. I don’t think John Bradshaw actually said that but it is a nice thought.

Perhaps what Bruce Fogle is getting at is that domestic cats talk to us in their language which they find works to get our attention and which in some ways reflects the conversation which they observe between people.

Bruce Fogle also states that in his experience as a veterinarian and in a survey of vets’ perception of cat behaviour, Persian cats are less vocal than the average feline. And at the other end of the spectrum, Siamese and Oriental cats are more vocal than average. It is also a known fact that Oriental and Siamese cats have a voice which is louder, more insistent and more demanding than other cats. You wonder if their personalities make them more demanding. It is said that Siamese cats are more intelligent than other domestic cats. That might be true if they are more demanding. It means that they are more alert and aware of what they can get and perhaps feel they deserve and so they ask their human caregiver in a more forceful way.

But it isn’t just the loudness of the meow which gets results. Sometimes, some cats have developed a meow which tweaks the human brain as it contains the hint of a baby cry within it. This is part of the evolution of the domestic cat. A result of 10,000 years of domestication in learning to make the most of their relationship with humans.

Dr. John Bradshaw says that the domestic cat’s meow is instinctive because it is the same wherever the cat happens to live. The English language has 31 different ways to spell the word meow! Five examples would be the one I’ve used and the other four would be me-ow, mieaou, miaw, mouw and murr-roawall. Actually, that is five more.

As I say, domestication has changed the cat’s meow over time. The sound comes from the domestic cat’s wildcat ancestor which also meows wherever they live because the wildcat lives over a huge area of distribution from Scotland all the way down to south coast of the African continent.

I’m told that the southern African wildcats make a meow which is lower pitched and more drawn out than is typical of domestic cats. The meow is described as being less pleasant than the domestic cat meow. This would imply that humans have selected cats with a pleasant meow and deselected those with the harsher meow during these thousands of years of domestication. Although that is speculative.

Feral cat meows are apparently less guttural than wild cat meows. The sweetest vocalisations come from the domestic cat. The least sweet vocalisations come from the wildcat and in between the domestic and wildcat we have the sounds produced by feral cats.

Bradshaw also says that the sounds that the cats make are “profoundly affected by each individual’s early experiences of people.”.

Another point that Bradshaw makes is that “Kittens don’t start meow until after they are weaned, so as they become old enough to meow, they most likely try out a range of meows on their owners, quickly finding that high-pitched versions produce a more positive reaction.”

The difference between the wild cat meow and the domestic cat meow is partly genetic i.e. inherited and partly learnt thanks to domestication.

Some cats attempt to coax their owner to do something whereas others are more urgent in demanding a quick response. The vocalisations are therefore different depending upon the circumstances and the goal to be achieved.

Owners often say that they can tell what their cat wants from the tone of their voice but this is not borne out in scientific studies. Perhaps people understand their cats not just through the sound of their meow but of course the circumstances under which the meow is delivered coupled with the behaviour of the person and their cat under particular circumstances which are nearly always part of the natural rhythms and habits within the relationship.

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