Cats might not have the same reputation for noise-making that, say, dogs do, but they’re definitely far from silent. Given how complicated cats are as creatures, though, if you’ve ever wondered exactly why cats meow, you probably won’t be surprised to find that the answer isn’t a simple one.
Interestingly, why a cat meows at any given time depends on a number of factors, including how old it is, who the meow is directed at, and what, precisely, it is that the cat wants. Here’s what you need to know about cat meows in a variety of situations.
Why Do Kittens Meow?
Kittens tend to meow a lot—and pretty much all of the vocalizations they make are intended to communicate with or solicit attention from their mothers. Kittens are actually able to vocalize almost as soon as they’re born, so of course they start making use of their noise-making abilities right away. After all, their survival depends on it until they’re big enough to look after themselves.
One of the main types of kitten vocalization is the isolation call—a meow or mew sent out by the kitten when its mother is absent in order to encourage her to return to the nest. According to a study published in 2012 in the journal Frontiers of Zoology, these isolation calls aren’t always the same; kittens have specific isolation calls in their repertoire to reflect different kinds of isolation situations.
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Meanwhile, a 2017 study published in the journal Animal Behavior found that kittens’ isolation calls change pretty rapidly over the first two months of their lives, becoming both less frequent and less intense after the first month or so. (Mothers also respond differently to the calls as the kittens get older, with their “willingness to return to the nest or reunite with their kittens [decreasing] notably” the closer to weaning age the kittens get.)
Kittens will also meow at their mothers for a number of other reasons, including when they’re hungry, frightened, or cold. The idea is for the meow to prompt care from their mother to help alleviate their distress or satisfy their demand. If kittens have litter mates, they might also communicate with their siblings through meows—mainly to set boundaries.
As certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger told Catster in 2017, “If the wrestling and playing becomes too intense or one is hurt, the little one communicates his or her angst through loud meows. This is usually enough for the kittens to back off and stop playing.”
Kittenhood lasts for about the first year of a cat’s life. As is the case with early development in a wide number of creatures, the transition between kittenhood and adulthood happens in stages: By around six or seven months, kittens have usually lost their baby teeth and acquired their adult teeth; at about a year, they’re ready to start eating food geared towards adult nutrition, rather than kitten nutrition; but kitten-type behaviors can often stick around until the cat is around a year and a half old.
Meowing, though? That goes the way of all things fairly quickly, as kittens gain more independence and become able to take charge of their own survival. But although cats may meow less as adults, they don’t stop entirely—or at least, they don’t if the cat lives with humans.
Why Do Cats Meow As Adults?
Here’s the thing with meows: Once cats grow up, they mostly stop meowing at each other. We know this because of what we’ve observed in feral cats. As one study published in the Journal of Veterinary Science in January 2020 pointed out, meowing is rarely heard in “cat to cat interaction,” and almost never in cat colonies or groups of feral cats.
Domesticated cats, however, do meow—just not at other cats, in the event that they live in a multi-cat household. Adult cats, it turns out, use meows almost exclusively to communicate with humans.
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Interestingly, though, when adult cats meow at humans, the end goal is usually not too dissimilar from the goal kittens have when they meow at their mothers. As the ASPCA notes, adult cats often meow to greet humans, to ask for attention (such as playtime or pets), or to ask for food. They may also meow to make an announcement, such as when they bring you one of their toys (“Look what I found!”), or to request something else that they want, like to be let out or back inside if they’re comfortable going outdoors.
Just as they do when they’re kittens, adult cats meow at their humans to solicit care and attention—that is, they meow so that their caretaker can help them handle their wants and needs, from food to comfort and everything in between.
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How each individual cat meows at humans, however, depends in large part on the cat’s specific environment—and on the specific humans with whom they actually spend time. As anthrozoologist John Bradshaw notes in his book Cat Sense, cats tend to develop “a repertoire of different meows” for use in different circumstances based on how their humans respond to the sounds they make.
“How [the development of this repertoire] unfolds will depend on which meows get rewarded by the owner, through achieving what the cat wants—a bowl of food, a rub on the head, opening a door,” writes Bradshaw.
That is, through trial and error, cats learn which meows result in their humans giving them what they want and adjust their communication methods accordingly. In this way, cats and their humans “gradually develop an individual ‘language’ that they both understand, but that is not shared by other cats or other owners.”
In other words: How you and your cat communicate is unlike how any other human-cat pair communicates—right down to the individual meows.
What Other Sounds Do Cats Make?
Meowing isn’t the only way cats communicate vocally, though; all meows might be cat vocalizations, but not all cat vocalizations are meows. In fact, cats use all manner of different sounds to make their thoughts and feelings known.
In 1978, Mildred Moelk codified an identification system still often used today that divides cat vocalizations into three categories: Murmurs, or sounds produced when the cat’s mouth remains closed; “fixed vowel-patterns,” or sounds produced when the cat’s mouth “is opened and then gradually closed”; and open-mouthed sounds, or “sounds produced while the mouth is held tensely open in one position.”
Meows, along with howls and yowls, fall under the second category; meanwhile, purrs and trilling and making up the first, while growls, snarls, hisses, spit, chattering, and chirping make up the third. Cats may use any number of sounds or combinations of sounds to communicate both with humans and each other.
Furthermore, cat sounds “don’t occur in a vacuum,” as certified applied animal behaviorist Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. told the Humane Society of the United States of America in 2015. The body language that accompanies the meows and other sounds a cat might make is part of their communication style, as well.
If you interpret a cat’s meow as an invitation to pet it, for example, only to find that when you reach out, the cat pulls away from your hand—well, that’s your cat telling you that it’s not actually looking for pets right now; it wants something else.
Does your cat meow at you while attempting to lead you somewhere? That’s a pretty clear indication of what it wants, too. Pay attention to your cat’s ears, tail, and eyes, as well as any other physical behavior it might be displaying while it meows; doing so is key to figuring out what your pet is looking for from you.
The bottom line is that we can’t necessarily rely on meows alone to determine what our cats want from us—but if they are meowing, then at least we know to start attempting to puzzle out their precise need.
Regardless, one thing, at least, is certain: If your cat stands in front of its food bowl meowing at you, it’s probably dinner time.