Different reasons why cats meow

Cats can be noisy animals. They communicate by ‘meowing’ – that is, by making specific vocal sounds depicted by humans as meowing. Meowing occurs in many situations and is the main form of communication by cats – it is used for both inter-species communication but, more significantly, to communicate with us, their owners. Of course, the pitch, tone and length of meows can vary greatly depending on what a cat is trying to communicate; but the meow in general is specifically associated with cats. This article will explore different reasons why cats meow and what different types of meows might mean, which is important for cat owners and animal professionals to understand.

The meow

Meowing is not the only form of communication used by cats to attract attention. Other forms include purring and hissing. However, the meow is distinctive and effective. It is generally associated with younger kittens communicating with their mother cat or with fellow littermates, for example. In fact, older, adult kittens do not generally meow to other cats at all; they maintain their meow only for attracting the attention of their human companions. This suggests that meowing is likely a modern trait developed as a result of the domestication of cats. Ancestral wild cats generally do not have the same ability to meow.

Types of meow

Meowing is a very broad term. In fact, there are many different and distinctive types of cat meows, each signaling a different want or need. Many cat owners will not notice and pick up on these small differences so easily, but animal experts have studied cats in detail in order to try to understand what their vocalizations mean so that we can address their needs.

Here are some of the most common types of cat meows and what they tend to indicate. Cat owners should be familiar with these basic vocalizations.

  • Short, high-pitched meow

This type of meow, also known as a mewl, is generally regarded as a friendly greeting. It is often directed by cats to their owners when they enter the room and is thought to be comparable to a simple ‘hello’ in human language.

  • Repetitive meow

Cats sometimes perform several short and repetitive meows, all at a similar pitch. This correlates generally with excitement, most commonly when their owner returns home from a day at work, for example. Your cat is happy to see you again and would like to give you attention in return for some affection after a day on his own.

  • Long, drawn-out meow

Longer meows, often sounding very drawn-out and extended, generally correspond to a specific demand from your cat. He knows what he wants and will meow long, loudly and clearly to assert this need. For example, if a cat is hungry or wants to be let outside, this distinctive, drawn-out meow is seemingly effective in catching the attention of his owner so that the cat’s need is fulfilled. Like most meows, this will generally be accompanied with specific body language indicating what your cat desires – for example, a hungry cat will likely stand near his bowl or near the food supply whilst meowing like this, making it clear to the owner exactly what he wants.

  • Loud, high-pitched meow

If a cat is suddenly startled or scared by something unexpected, he will most likely deliver a loud, high-pitched meow. This is an instinctive noise and many animals, including humans, have a similar ‘yelp’ that they blurt out intuitively when suddenly shocked by something. Amongst cats, a common cause for this type of meow is their tail being is accidentally trodden on, causing both shock and pain, for example. Generally nothing needs to be done when this meow is heard – unless the shock causes a significant injury, resulting in longer term pain or discomfort. This should be clear from the cat’s behavior – how he reacts directly after the high-pitched meow is heard; whether he returns to his normal self or remains disturbed and, perhaps, shocked for a long time afterwards, in which case professional medical help should be sought.

  • Low-pitched meow

A lower-pitched meow often indicates disapproval – similar to a low-pitched grumble that a human might make when complaining about something, for example. With cats this type of meow is often for simple reasons such as their water bowl being empty or their owner being late to feed them. However, it might also relate to something more significant – ongoing internal discomfort, for example, such as an upset stomach. When such a meow is heard, it is therefore important to try to determine and address the underlying cause. If your cat appears to be in pain, a trip to the vets is necessary. However, first ensure that the obvious needs are fulfilled – including food, fresh water and somewhere clean to go to the toilet (be that inside or outside).

  • Silent meow

Some cats will also perform seemingly silent meows. Their mouths move and open, just as with a normal meow, but no significant noise comes out. This is less common than normal, vocal meows – likely because it is relatively ineffective, hence cats quickly learn to make more noise and speak up properly when they want something. It is thought that silent meows occur because cats have better hearing than humans – they can detect much higher pitches than we can. Thus, cats probably don’t realise that we cannot hear these quiet or silent meows as well as they can; they have to learn the hard way that more noise is necessary if they want to get our attention!

Conclusion

As discussed, cats meow for many different reasons, indicated by the difference in pitch, tone and meow length. Some meows happen naturally when a cat is shocked or frightened, whereas others are intentional cries for help or attention. Either way, meowing is an effective means of communication between mother cats and their young kittens, or between adult cats and their owners. Understanding the meaning behind different types of meows helps us to better understand cats and ensure their needs are addressed.

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