Cats may not have the same reputation for making noise as, say, dogs, but they are definitely far from silent. However, given how complicated cats are as creatures, if you’ve ever wondered exactly why cats meow, it probably won’t surprise you to find that the answer isn’t simple.
Interestingly, why a cat meows at any given time depends on a number of factors, including age, who the meowing is directed at, and what exactly the cat wants. Here’s what you need to know about cat meowing in a variety of situations.
Why do kittens meow?
Kittens tend to meow batch—and almost all of the vocalizations they make are intended to communicate or solicit the attention of their mothers. Kittens can vocalize almost as soon as they are born, so of course they start making use of their noise-making abilities right away. After all, their survival depends on it until they are old enough to take care of themselves.
One of the main types of kitten vocalization is the isolation call: a meow or yowl made by the kitten when its mother is absent to encourage it to return to the nest. According to a study published in 2012 in the journal frontiers of zoology these isolation calls are not always the same; kittens have specific isolation calls in their repertoire to reflect different types of isolation situations.
Meanwhile, a 2017 study published in the journal animal behavior found that kittens’ isolation calls change quite rapidly during the first two months of their lives, becoming less frequent and less intense after the first month or so. (Mothers also respond differently to calls as kittens get older, with their “willingness to return to the nest or rejoin their kittens.” [decreasing] noticeably “the closer the kittens get to weaning age).
Kittens meow to their mothers for other reasons, too, including when they’re hungry, afraid, or cold. The idea is that the meowing elicits care from its mother to help alleviate her distress or satisfy her demand. If the kittens have littermates, they may also communicate with their siblings through meowing, primarily to set boundaries.
As certified feline behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger told Catster in 2017: “If the fighting and playing get too intense or one is hurt, the little one communicates his distress through loud meows. This is usually enough for the kittens to back off and stop playing.”
The kitten stage lasts for about the first year of a cat’s life. As is the case with early development in a large number of creatures, the transition between the kitten stage and adulthood occurs in stages: around six or seven months, kittens usually lose their milk teeth and acquire their permanent teeth. ; At about a year, they are ready to start eating food geared toward adult nutrition, rather than kitten nutrition; but kitten-like behaviors can often persist until the cat is around a year and a half.
Meowing, though? That is the way of all things fairly quickly, as the kittens gain more independence and are able to take charge of their own survival. But though cats can meow less as adults, they don’t stop completely, or at least, they don’t if the cat lives with humans.
Why do cats meow as adults?
Here’s the thing about meowing: once cats get older, they mostly stop meowing at all. Each other. We know this from what we have observed in feral cats. As a study published in the Veterinary Science Journal as of January 2020, meowing is rarely heard in “cat-to-cat interaction”, and almost never in cat colonies or feral cat groups.
Domesticated cats, however, do meow, but not to other cats, if they live in a multi-cat household. It turns out that adult cats use meows almost exclusively to communicate with humans
Interestingly, however, when adult cats meow at humans, the end goal is usually not much different from the goal kittens have when meowing at their mothers. As the ASPCA points out, adult cats often meow to greet humans, to ask for attention (such as playtime or pets), or to beg for food. They may also meow to make an announcement, such as when they bring you one of their toys (“Look what I found!”) snug outdoors.
Just like they do when they’re kittens, adult cats meow to their humans for care and attention—that is, they meow so their caretaker can help them manage their wants and needs, from food to comfort and everything in between.
However, the way each cat meows at humans depends in large part on the cat’s specific environment and the specific humans they spend time with. As the anthropologist John Bradshaw points out in his book cat Sense, cats tend to develop “a repertoire of different meows” to use in different circumstances based on how their humans respond to the sounds they make.
“I eat [the development of this repertoire] Developments will depend on which meows are rewarded by the owner, getting what the cat wants: a bowl of food, a head rub, opening a door,” Bradshaw writes.
That is, through trial and error, cats learn which meows make their humans give them what they want and adjust their communication methods accordingly. In this way, cats and their humans “gradually develop an individual ‘language’ that both understand, but are not shared by other cats or other owners.”
In other words: The way you and your cat communicate is different than the way any other human-cat pair communicates, right down to the individual meows.
What other sounds do cats make?
However, meowing isn’t the only way cats communicate vocally; all meows may be cat vocalizations, but not all cat vocalizations are meows. In fact, cats use all kinds of different sounds to make their thoughts and feelings known.
In 1978, Mildred Moelk codified an identification system still in common use 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 “opens and then gradually closes”; and open-mouth sounds, or “sounds produced while the mouth is held tense and open in one position.”
Meows, along with howls and howls, belong to the second category; meanwhile, purrs and trills and make up the first, while grunts, grunts, hisses, spit, chatter and chirps make up the third. Cats can use any number of sounds or combinations of sounds to communicate with both humans and each other.
Also, cat sounds “don’t happen in a vacuum,” as Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., a certified animal behaviorist, told the Humane Society of the United States of America in 2015. The body language that accompanies cats meowing and other sounds a cat might make is also part of their communication style.
If you interpret a cat’s meow as an invitation to pet it, for example, only to find that when you extend your hand, the cat moves away from your hand, well, that’s your cat telling you it’s not really looking for pets in this moment; he wants something else.
Does your cat meow at you while trying to take you somewhere? That’s a pretty clear indication of what he wants, too. Pay attention to your cat’s ears, tail, and eyes, as well as any other physical behaviors it may display while meowing; doing so is key to discovering what your pet is looking for from you.
The bottom line is that we can’t necessarily rely solely on meows to determine what our cats want from us, but if is it so meowing, then at least we know to start trying to decipher its precise need.
Regardless, at least one thing is for sure: If your cat stands in front of her food bowl meowing, it’s probably time for dinner.