Do you understand your cat’s meow?

Cat meow

Cat meow. Click for a larger version of the image.

Bradshaw in his book “Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed” writes that cats can modify their meows to suit different situations. Some meows he says coax us to do something while others are more demanding and urgent. These variations of the meow are accomplished by varying the duration and pitch. Sometimes the meow is combined with other sounds such as a chirrup or growl.

Cat owners often say that they understand what their cat is saying by the tone of their cat’s meow. I don’t at the moment because my cat has yet to learn how to meow! He is about 9 months old but doesn’t really meow. He makes cute sounds though. But I understand him from his general behaviour and time of day or circumstancs rather than the quality of the sound that he utters.

Scientists tested whether it was true that cat owners can understand their cat’s meow and low and behold they failed! At least most of the time. They discovered that angry and affectionate meows had their own definite tone and were recognisable (indicating an emotional component the sound). However meows that (a) requested food (b) asked for a door to be opened and (c) asked for help were not identifiable. However these sounds made sense to the cat owners because they were under certain circumstances.

Bradshaw says that cats learn that their human companions respond to meows and then develop a range of meows which they test by trial and error. I am not sure if this is true. It seems a bit far fetched to me but I don’t know.

For example, when a certain sound of meow achieves what the cat wants such as food, the cat and owner develop a language of sorts which they both understand. But this ‘language’ is unique to the individual cats and humans concerned. Cat and human train each other.

The ‘request meow’ works because it occurs under certain situations and attracts the owner’s attention. The context of the meow provides the answer as to what it means.

Bradshaw writes:

“If we can decode them, the meows that we inadvertently teach each of our cats to use may provide us with a window into their emotional lives.”

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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3 Responses

  1. Dee (Florida) says:

    I’ve learned almost all of my indoor cats’ meows.
    Some are more obvious than others.
    Some of the vocalizations that kick start me into action include howls from Howl that mean “feed me”, squeaky mews from Restart that some one has taken over her feeder, and loud, screeching from Linus meaning that he wants tuna flavored food and what I can do with the stuff in front of him.

  2. Sandra Murphey, No. CA, USA says:

    Most of the time I know what Mitzy’s meows are about.
    But one of the funniest things she does sounds like a chirping meow when she’s sleeping under the covers, during the day. I respond to her, thinking that she’s waking up, but when I look at her lump under the blanket, she’s not moving at all, and may not even wake up until an hour or so later. I don’t know if she’s dreaming or what. This only happens when she’s on my bed under the blanket, during the day, which is kind of rare. Mostly she sleeps in different places.

    I’ve never had a cat who slept in so many places. Mostly, they had a couple of favorite spots.

    She does have many different meows, and some just seem conversational, and without any demand for food, to go out (which she can do herself) or cuddling. Sometimes when she’s on my lap at my desk, and I’m focused on the computer screen, she does give a little chirping growl to get my attention. I’d love to record her sounds, but I don’t have a smart phone. I could do it via my camera video, but think she would be intimidated by it. A smart phone would make it so much easier. I’m trying to buy a used one, just for pictures and videos, but still in research mode.

  3. Michele S. says:

    I agree that if you live with a cat long enough you do learn to recognise certain meows as meaning a specific thing. You get to recognise their voice too. When I pulled into the car park of the emergency vet and heard a cat meowing loudly I knew instantly it was Sophie because I recognised her “distress” meow.

    The vocalisations which confused me the most with Sophie were the high pitched kitten-like meows. Sometimes it was an invitiation to rub her belly, but other times it meant I wan’t to be left alone. I learned to err on the side of caution 😉

    I’ve only had Phoebe for 3 months and I’m still trying to understand her meows. She’s a very vocal cat and when I arrive home I’m greeted by 10 minutes of continuous loud meowing. I’m assuming it’s just her way of greeting me because she’s not asking for food or a fuss. She was abandoned in a flat with another cat, so it had occurred to me that she may be worried that the same thing will happen again. Yet she’s rarely alone and seems to be a happy, confident little thing despite her bad experience.

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