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The meanings behind the meowsThe meanings behind the meows

Did you know that cats meow to people, but not to other cats?

Adult cats, living apart from humans, have very clear communication with one another. Cat language is spoken mostly through scent, then through facial expression, complex body language and touch.

Cat sounds for vocal communication involve caterwauls for mating, chattering upon spotting prey, hissing to ward off an intruder or shrieking when hurt or terrified. Meowing is not part of natural cat language—it was developed almost exclusively for humans.

The only meowing in cat language is done between a mother cat and her kittens. A kitten’s tiny “mew” is a cute, endearing sound, used to solicit attention and care from mom cat. Once the kittens are grown, the mews and meows would stop, if not for communicating with humans.

So why do cats meow to people? Because meowing is what works. Your cat is dependent on you and quickly learns that you are clearly not picking up the scent messages she leaves on your belongings or the body language she is attempting to use.

The meows and mews are what get you to do what she wants. So the meowing develops into a second language to communicate to you.

Some scientists would go so far as to say that cats have refined their meows specifically to manipulate people. And we have to admit—it works!

Cat people know cat language

Dr. Nicholas Nicastro, Ph.D., did his thesis on humans’ ability to understand meows. He recorded hundreds of meows cats used in real settings with their owners. He had people listen to the meows, then asked what they thought the cats were communicating. Part of the experiment asked general interpretations (Does the cat sound angry or pleasant?) and part were more specific translations (Is this cat asking for food or does he want you to go away?).

Not surprisingly, the more experience the people had with cats, the better they were at understanding meows. People who owned cats could correctly translate 40% of the meows. That’s pretty remarkable considering the respondents did not have the benefit of seeing the cat. Normally, when a cat meows, we get more clues to the meaning from the context—including location (by the door, near a dirty litterbox) time of day and body language.

Different meows. Different meanings.

There are dozens of meows that cats can use—they vary in pitch, length and volume. Most cat owners learn the language easily. A short, high-pitched meow is a standard “Hello!” Several of those strung together can communicate excitement—“You’re home! YAY!”

Cats use pleasant meow sounds to solicit you for food, to go outside or to simply get attention. Your cat learns which meow is going to get the results she wants.

Cats use unpleasant, harsher, louder meows for demands, reprimands or to express annoyance. These meows have a lower pitch.

Even though there is a distinct “demand meow,” for example, your cat may have separate variations for each of her regular demands. Generally, the following meows have these meanings:

  • Short meow or mew: Standard greeting. “Hello!”
  • Multiple meows or mews: Excited greeting. “Great to see you!”
  • Mid-pitch meow: Plea for something. “I’d like to eat.”
  • Drawn-out mrrroooow: Demand for something. “Open the door. NOW.”
  • Low-pitch MRRRooooowww: Complaint of a wrong you have done. “Hey—why’s my bowl still empty?”
  • High-pitch RRRROWW!: Anger or pain. “That’s my TAIL you just stepped on!”

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