Did you know that cats meow to people, but not to other cats? Adult cats that do not live with humans have clear communication with one another. Cats communicate with one another through scent, facial expression, complex body language and touch.
Cats use vocal communication for caterwauls for mating, chattering upon spotting prey, hissing to ward off an intruder or shrieking when hurt or terrified. In nature, meowing is not part of cat communication, rather it was developed almost exclusively for humans.
The only meowing in cat language is done between a mother and her kittens. A kitten’s tiny “mew” is a cute, endearing sound, used to gain attention and care from her mom. Once the kittens are grown, the mews and meows would stop, if not for communicating with humans.
So, why do cats meow exclusively at people? Simply put, it’s because meowing is what works to communicate with you. Your cat is dependent on you and quickly learns that her methods of communication, through leaving scents on your belongings or through using body language, are not working.
The meows and mews are what get you to do what she wants – whether that’s to give her attention or to give her food. The meowing quickly develops into a second language to communicate with 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!
There are many different meows that cats can use which vary in pitch, length and volume. Most cat owners can learn the language quickly. A short, high-pitched meow is a standard way of saying “Hello!” Several of those meows strung together can mean excitement – “Yay! You’re home!”
Cats use pleasant meow sounds to solicit you for food, to go outside or to simply get attention. 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,” your cat may have separate variations for each of her regular demands. Generally, the following meows have these meanings:
Dr. Nicholas Nicastro, PhD, 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 and respond with what they thought the cat was communicating. Part of the experiment asked for general interpretations, such as whether the cat sounded angry or pleasant. The other part of the experiment asked for more specific translations, like if that cat is asking for food or if the cat wants to be left alone.
Unsurprisingly, people who had more experience with cats were better at understanding meows. People who owned cats could correctly translate 40 per cent of the meows. This is remarkable, considering that the respondents were not able to see the cat. Normally, when a cat meows, we get more clues to the meaning from the context – including location, time of day and body language. To learn more about how cats express their mood and needs through body language, read our article on how to understand cats.