- Cats mainly meow at humans – to greet them, to get attention and, of course, when they want food.
- The length and volume of the meow, as well as your cat’s body language, can provide clues to her mood.
- To improve your bond, speak calmly, watch their pupils, and let them rub against you to share their scent.
Cats communicate with a vast vocabulary of meows, howls and purrs – but meowing, in particular, started when humans started keeping cats as pets.
Before domestication, cats primarily communicated through scent, usually by rubbing against objects, says Amanda O’Brien, cat behavior specialist at The Discerning Cat.
“Since humans don’t have a great sense of smell compared to felines, the cats had to find another way to communicate with us once they started their domestic adventures,” says O’Brien.
Since cats are more likely to meow at humans than others, a vocal feline friend is likely vying for your attention.
Here are the most common meows your cat uses to communicate and what each one can mean.
Different types of meows
“Humans use different tones of voice to communicate different emotions, and cats have evolved the same response,” says O’Brien.
Here’s what your cat is telling you, according to O’Brien:
- A quick meow: This is usually a greeting, especially if you have just entered the same area.
- A long and prolonged meow: It usually means your cat wants something, like food or attention.
- Repeated meows: If your cat is particularly nervous or friendly, he may continue to “chatter” just to get your attention.
- A high-pitched meow: It could mean that your cat is hungry.
“But it’s not just the volume or pitch of the sound that matters, it’s also how long they keep it going,” says Melissa Brock, veterinarian at Pango Pets.
For example, a short, high-pitched meow could be an invitation like, “Hey, come pet me.” But if your cat only meows once or twice and stops when you ignore her, she’s probably bored and wants attention, Brock says.
What do the other cat cries mean?
Other sounds like growls, hisses, and purrs can also have various meanings.
Cats start purring like kittens, and mothers sometimes purr to let their babies know that mom is home and there’s no danger in sight.
Purring often indicates that your cat trusts you and feels satisfied. However, purring can sometimes indicate worry or restlessness. For example, your cat might purr to calm itself down.
“Be aware of their body language when they purr. If they’re flattening their ears and lifting their fur, they’re definitely not happy,” says O’Brien.
If your cat bares his teeth, pants, or purrs in a louder voice than usual, he’s probably feeling distressed.
A growl can indicate anything from anxiety to terror. A growling cat with abruptly ruffled hair on its back or tail or a very arched spine is probably extremely upset.
You shouldn’t touch your cat while he’s growling because he might bite you if he’s scared. If they react this way when they see another cat, it’s a good idea to separate them quickly before a fight breaks out.
A cat’s hiss sounds like air coming out of a tire. Hissing or spitting usually means they are incredibly distressed. You may also notice your cat’s tail twitching or wagging noise.
Hissing is often the last warning sign before they run wild with their claws or teeth.
If your cat constantly hisses or often seems agitated, you may want to consult your veterinarian. Chronic nervousness can cause stress-related health problems, such as overeating or weakening the immune system, both of which can contribute to obesity and infections.
Deciphering your cat’s meows
We tend to assume that when our cat meows one way it means one thing, and when it meows another way it means something entirely different, Brock says.
But cats are more nuanced: a meow can convey a whole range of meanings — and research suggests that people can’t decipher specific information from cat vocalizations very well. Your interpretation of their cries tends to depend on things like your experience with cats, your gender, and your empathy for them.
For example, researchers found that female participants and those who had spent a lot of time with cats were more likely to correctly translate cat sounds.
But with a little practice, you can learn to understand your cat. To improve your cat’s communication skills, try these three tips:
1. Share the smells
Letting your cat rub their chin, mouth, or head along your hand or leg helps blend your scents, making them feel more connected to you. This increases their confidence by helping them distinguish you from an intruder or potential threat.
2. Keep your tone of voice and body language consistent
Cats are extremely sensitive and can pick up on your emotions from subtle cues, like a louder voice, kicking, or swiping gestures.
“Try not to let your frustration show when talking with them – they’ll notice, no matter how hard you try not to show it.” Brock said.
Your stress can increase their stress, so be careful how you show your frustration the next time you come home after a long day.
3. Check their students
It turns out that your cat’s eyes also offer a window into their soul. While their pupils typically get bigger at night and shrink in daylight, pupil size can give you insight into how they feel and how to react.
Large, dilated pupils can mean your cat is scared or excited. Check their ears if you are unsure which one your cat is experiencing. Upright, forward-facing ears suggest your cat is excited or curious – she’s ready to play and might want you to join her. However, flattened ears can mean they are upset.
Smaller pupils at night (like pupils shaped like a surfboard) can mean your cat is feeling uncertain and may need reassurance. If they view a new toy or person this way, going with them to investigate can help ease their fears.
“Cats meow as a result of domestication because it’s a sound that humans can understand,” Brock explains.
Just as humans have different ways of showing their emotions, cats have different ways of sharing their feelings through sounds. Your cat’s meow could mean he’s hungry, scared or bored and wants to play or cuddle.
Listening to and responding to your cat’s vocalizations can improve your ability to decipher a particular meow, making you a better cat whisperer.