In general, feral cats do not meow. This is because it is usually a learned vocalisation between domestic cat and human caregiver which is employed to ask for something. We hear it a lot. In short, it a product of cat domestication. However, I would expect that the meow must have entered the feral cat population to a certain extent when some domestic cats are abandoned. They become stray cats and their offspring become feral cats and under these circumstances it is reasonable to suggest that the meow would occur occasionally especially when a feral cat colony is managed by TNR volunteers.
Perhaps the better question is: do feral cats meow between themselves? Is it a cat-to-cat vocalisation within feral cat colonies and among feral cats? And the answer to that question is that there are some rare occasions when feral cats do meow at each other for social reasons.
When a feral cat might meow to another feral cat
One such occasion would be when two feral cats meet each other. One of the cats wants to be friendly to another. They signal their friendliness to by raising their tail to a vertical position as they approach. This is the “tail-up” position, a well-known friendly greeting. But if the receiver of that signal appears disinterested, the sender of the signal may meow to attract the attention of the other. This, then, is an example of when a feral cat might use this specific cat-to-human vocalisation.
Normally, when one cat greets another with the tail-up body language, the other reciprocates. This can result in the two walking up to each other. If the response from one is unfriendly the first cat with its tail-up then lowers their tail and heads off in another direction having decided that their friendliness is unwanted. This can lead to the ‘tail-up cat’ being chased by the other, often a larger cat who is determined to be left alone.
Dr. John Bradshaw established that the tail-up position is a friendly signal by cutting out life-sized silhouettes of cats from black paper and sticking them to the skirting boards of the homes of cat owners. When the resident cat saw an upright tail silhouette they usually approached and sniffed it. If the silhouette represented a horizontal tail the cat backed away.
Origin of tail-up
Dr. Bradshaw confirms that the tail-up signal almost certainly developed during the domestication of the cat. It probably originates from the posture kittens use when greeting their mothers. My thought on this is that kitten strike this posture because we know that mothers lick the backside of the kittens to promote defecation. The tail-up may be a precursor to that process.
He says that some North African wildcats in zoos do raise their tails into the vertical when they are about to rub their zookeepers’ legs. However, he suggests that these wild cats may have some domestic cat in the ancestry i.e. they may be hybrids. There’s a lot of hybridisations of African wildcats.
Other subspecies of the African wildcat do not raise their tails in greeting but their kittens do hold their tails upright when approaching their mother.
Somewhere along the process of the evolution of the domestic cat, the innocent tail-up position of kittens developed into a signal of friendliness between adults.
After the tail-up greeting
On a friendly encounter between tail-up individuals, the next step is for the cats to make physical contact and rub their heads, flanks or tails or a combination of them all before separating and walking on. This behaviour is normally performed by female cats greeting males and young cats of either sex greeting females. It is believed that this physical contact and the merging of body scent between the individuals is part of a bonding process to improve the strength of their social connections.
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