The reason why cats meow at humans more than at each other

The reason why cats meow at humans more than at each other
The reason why cats meow at humans more than at each other. Image: MikeB
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Introduction: the title refers to the feline meow. It is a request sound – “I’d like some food please”. The cat makes other sounds which are used in interactions between adult cats such as the agonistic hiss and growl. It is the meow which is the standard vocalisation of the domestic cat and it comes in many variations of tone, volume, softness and hardness. It can even be entirely silent.

Short version answer

There are two main reasons why cats meow more at humans than at each other:

  • Evolutionary adaptation: Cats are descended from solitary hunters, and complex vocalizations weren’t necessary for their survival. Kittens meow to communicate with their mothers, but adult cats typically rely on body language, scent marking, and hissing to interact with one another.
  • Learned behavior: Over thousands of years of living alongside humans, cats discovered that meowing is an effective way to get what they want from us. We tend to respond favorably to meows, whether it’s by providing food, offering attention, or opening a door. This reinforces the behavior, making them more likely to meow at us in the future.

Here’s some additional information you might find interesting:

  • Cats aren’t the only animals who have adapted their communication for humans. Dogs bark less at each other than they do at us, too.
  • While meowing is rare among adult cats, they do use other vocalizations to communicate with each other, such as yowling, hissing, and chirping.

Alternative short answer

Originally, cats were solitary creatures, preferring to live and hunt alone rather than in groups. Most of their social behavior was limited to interactions between mother and kittens. Outside of this relationship, cats rarely meow at each other. However, as cats began to live alongside humans, their vocalizations took on new meanings. When a cat meows at us, it’s as if they see us as their caregivers, similar to their feline mothers. Over time, cats developed closer bonds with humans, adapting their vocalizations to tap into our sensitivity. Unlike dogs, which were selectively bred by humans, cats essentially domesticated themselves, thriving alongside people and changing their behavior over thousands of years. So, when your feline friend meows at you, it’s their way of communicating with their adopted family.

Long version answer

Solitary: Historically, cats have been solitary animals, favoring a lifestyle where they live and hunt independently rather than in packs. Their social interactions were primarily limited to the bond between a mother and her kittens. Beyond this bond, it is uncommon for cats to meow at one another.

Domestication: It is likely that cats first came into contact with humans about 10,000 years ago as people started to form permanent settlements. These new settlements drew in rodents, which attracted cats in search of food. The cats that were less timid and more adaptable prospered, taking advantage of a steady food source. Gradually, these cats formed stronger relationships with humans.

Contrary to dogs, selectively bred by humans for certain characteristics, cats effectively domesticated themselves. Those individuals able to endure human presence and interact with them gained a survival edge, resulting in a lineage adept at coexisting with humans.

Mother-kitten relationship: As cats have adapted to living with humans, their vocalizations have developed new meanings. Often, when a cat meows at a person, it seems to regard them as a caregiver, akin to the way they would interact with their feline mothers.

However, as cats have become domesticated and started living alongside humans, their vocalizations have acquired new meanings. Often, when a cat meows at us, it seems to regard us as its caregivers, akin to the way they interact with their feline mothers.

Fox domestication resulting in changed personality, appearance and vocalisations to help explain the evolution of domestic cat communication: To comprehend this process, one can examine the Russian farmed fox experiments. Starting in the 1950s, Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyaev and his colleagues began selectively breeding silver foxes, choosing individuals that displayed less fear and aggression towards humans for mating.

Through generations, these foxes grew more docile and amiable, acquiring physical characteristics akin to those of domestic dogs, like floppy ears and curled tails. Their vocalizations also evolved, transitioning from aggressive coughs and snorts to friendlier cackles and pants, akin to human laughter.

Evolved vocalisations: Similar to silver foxes, cats have evolved their vocalizations over a much more extended period. Human infants are altricial at birth, completely reliant on their parents. This reliance has heightened our sensitivity to distress signals, as overlooking them could have dire consequences for human survival.

Refining feline vocalisation: Cats have altered their vocalisations to tap into this sensitivity. A 2009 study by animal behaviour researcher Karen McComb and her team gives evidence of this adaptation. Participants in the study listened to two types of purrs. One type was recorded when cats were seeking food (solicitation purr) and another recorded when they were not (non-solicitation purr). Both cat owners and non-cat owners rated the solicitation purrs as more urgent and less pleasant.

Distress cry: Acoustic analysis has uncovered a high-pitched element in certain cat purrs, akin to a cry, which engages our natural sensitivity to such distress sounds, rendering them hard to disregard.

Baby talk: It’s not only cats that have modified their vocalizations; humans have as well. In conversing with infants, we use “baby talk,” marked by a higher pitch, exaggerated intonation, and simplified speech. This speech pattern captivates infants and aids in their linguistic development. It has been found to be more effective when communicating with cats.

Feline’s tweaked vocalisations: In 2009, animal behaviorist Karen McComb and colleagues provided evidence that cats have tweaked their vocalizations to exploit this human sensitivity. The study had participants listen to two purr types: one emitted during food solicitation and the other in non-solicitation contexts. Both cat owners and non-owners found the solicitation purrs more pressing and less agreeable.
Our engagement in pet-directed speech strengthens a connection that reflects the interaction between mother and kitten.

Vocalization changes are evident beyond feline-human interactions. Dogs, diverging from their wolf forebears, have broadened their barking to better communicate with humans. Similarly, we adopt pet-directed speech when engaging with dogs.

Cats have progressively adapted their vocal signals to align with our caregiving instincts. Coupled with our pet-directed speech, this mutual communication underscores.

Sources: Myself, The Conversation article, Bing Copilot and Google Gemini.

How can I understand my cat’s meows better?

Understanding your cat’s meows can be quite rewarding! Here are some tips to help you decipher their language:

  1. Context Matters: Pay attention to the situation. Cats use different meows for various purposes. For example:
    • Hunger: A persistent, high-pitched meow might mean your cat is hungry.
    • Attention: If your cat wants your attention, they may use a softer, repetitive meow.
    • Greeting: A friendly meow when you come home is like saying “hello.”
    • Discomfort or Pain: Cats in pain may vocalize differently.
  2. Tone and Pitch: Listen to the tone and pitch of the meow. High-pitched meows often indicate excitement or distress, while lower-pitched ones may convey contentment.
  3. Body Language: Observe your cat’s body language alongside their meows. Are they rubbing against you, purring, or showing signs of stress? Contextual cues provide valuable information.
  4. Eye Contact: Cats communicate through eye contact. If your cat maintains eye contact while meowing, they’re likely trying to convey something important.
  5. Experiment and Respond: Try responding to your cat’s meows. If they meow when you enter a room, acknowledge them with a gentle “hello.” If they’re hungry, feed them. Over time, you’ll learn their specific cues.

Remember, each cat is unique, so take the time to understand your feline friend’s individual language.

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