The cat’s meow and talkative cat breeds

This is a brief discussion on the well-known domestic cat’s meow and talkative cat breeds. You will see some websites proclaiming confidently that certain cat breeds are more talkative than others but I wouldn’t be so certain. Often it is an individual cat trait and it also depend a lot on the relationship between cat and person. Don’t believe websites Pets Radar (very cynical site) and The Scotsman (equally bad) on the cat breeds. They spout a lot of mumbo-jumbo.

Although, apparently, Dr. Bruce Fogle DVM and author carried out a survey of veterinary clinics and asked them about cat behaviour and within that survey there was a question about the talkative cat breeds. Although he’s not sure (which undermines these very confident websites) “they consistently reported that Persian cats were less vocal than [the average domestic cat], while Siamese and Orientals were more vocal than average. This goes along with what I know about cat breeds in the Siamese cat family of which there are many, one of which is the Oriental Shorthair.

Burmese are vocal
Burmese are vocal in general but they are individuals too with their own characteristics. Image: MikeB
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Dr. Bruce Fogle also states that the respected animal behaviourist Jon Bradshaw PhD “says that cats meow at us because they are trying to imitate human speech”. Fogle adds that the most talkative cats are therefore going to be those that are raised from birth by humans and are therefore consistently in contact with humans.

This prompted me to do some research from Dr. Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense. Interestingly, he says that although the meow is part of the cat’s natural repertoire of vocalisations, they rarely use it to communicate with another cat and “it’s meaning in cat society is somewhat obscure”. This well-known expert on cat behaviour tells us that we are still unsure about the meaning of the cat meow. Although, I think we are sure that the one thing that it does mean is to make a demand or request of their human caregiver particularly for food!

Feral cats are nowhere near as vocal as domestic cats. Cats are born with the ability to meow and it doesn’t matter where they live because each country has their own word for the English “meow”. But domestication has changed the way that cats meow. The wildcats (a species of wild cat) make a meow sound but it is lower pitched and more drawn out than the sound made by domestic cats.

Domestic cat owners found that the wild cat meow was much less agreeable than the meow of their cat companion. This by the way is always the case with wild cat vocalisations. In general, they are more aggressive sounding and intimidating than the softer and more gentle domestic cat vocalisations. This is due to domestication and being around humans for up to 10,000 years. Their sounds have involved to fit in with human life. To be more effective when communicating with people. It is another reason why exotic wild cat ‘pets’ are not great unless you are particularly into that kind of thing.

And, it is possible that humans engaged in informal selective breeding by picking those cats that made the most pleasant sounds. Although, the specific wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat is the North Africa wildcat which may have a slightly softer sound than its southern African cousin.

If the wildcat has a guttural meow and the domestic cat has a much softer one as mentioned, the feral cat meow is somewhere in between the two. Because feral cats have no contact with people this variation in the sound of their meow strongly indicates that the sound is modified when the cat is in contact with humans. And early contact during those formative first seven weeks of life of a kitten is the time when those modifications will take place. Pet kittens don’t start meow until after they’ve been weaned.

Female cat's meow is like music
Female cat’s meow is like music. Image: MikeB

Bradshaw suggests that kittens probably “try out a range of meows on their owners, quickly finding that high-pitched versions produce a more positive reaction”. The conclusion is that the domestic cat meow is partly created through inheritance and partly through the environment in which they live; directly in line with the nature/nurture influences on a cat’s behaviour.

Domestic cats alter their meow to suit the occasion. They change the tone of their meow and they’ve learnt sometimes to add in a baby-like sound or a purring sound to make the meow more enticing and effective.

This is also due to evolution within the human environment. Bradshaw thinks that cats initially find that their owners respond to meows and then some of them might develop a repertoire “of different meows that, by trial and error, they learn are effective in specific circumstances.”

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