—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
Is meowing a way for cats to communicate?
Yes, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. You also likely think a meow is a meow, right? Not exactly – there are actually many different meows, with varying lengths and intensities.
Let’s explore this common cat sound, what it means, and why cats do it.
Although we commonly associate cats with their larger ancestors like lions and tigers, domestic cats are actually a subspecies of wildcats. Since wildcats tend to live in more forested, denser areas, studies have shown these cats make more high-pitched sounds, including the meow.
The traditional big cats like lions and tigers can’t meow or purr, but can make a deep growl or roar used for communicating in open habitats.
Although this is contradictory to the belief that lower-pitched sounds are better in forests and high-pitched in open areas, scientists hypothesize that cats’ closeness to the ground is the reason for the difference.
Cheetahs, bobcats, and cougars are also part of Felinae, the same subfamily of cats as wildcats and domestic cats, so they can also meow and purr, but can’t roar.
What about the word meow? It comes from the Egyptian word mau, which means cat.
Meows Start as Mews
A kitten cries because it can’t hear or see after birth, and it’s the best way to tell mom, “I’m hungry,” “I have to poop,” or “You’re sitting on me.”
These cries are called mews because they sound like a mew and not a full meow. In return, the mother meows or trills back to her kittens to call them. Since they can’t hear at first, I imagine they feel the vibration from the meows, and for sure they know her through her scent.
Body Language & Pheromones
When cats pass kittenhood and motherhood, it’s pretty rare for them to meow at each other. Why? Because cats are nonverbal creatures, typically communicating through body language and scent.
Pheromones are big for cats, which is why they rub against objects and sometimes paw at them. This behavior is important for the survival of cats that live outside.
Pheromones provide an easy, safe, and quiet way to mark territory. Scent marking (through urine and rubbing) helps limit turf wars, which lessens fighting, and gives the cat a better chance of survival.
Although fights between outdoor cats still happen, a cat that smells another cat and doesn’t want to challenge it will simply leave the area. No harm, no foul.
An overly vocal cat would cause constant fights, which opens the door for injuries and infections for all involved cats, as well as draws unwanted attention and danger from predators.
One study showed that feral cats rarely meow, and if they do, they don’t seem to distinguish what they’re meowing at. They could meow at a person, dog, another cat, or even an object. This is very different from indoor cats, who clearly meow at us.
Something else to consider is that cats could be making other subtle sounds, including meows, that we can’t hear because their hearing is superior to ours.
While they hear only slightly lower than we can, on the higher end, they can hear 1.6 octaves above us and 1 octave above a dog.
Why do indoor cats meow?
Quite simply—we are verbal creatures, and they quickly learn we make and respond to sound. In fact, they’ve trained us so well that when they’re hungry, they tend to cry at a higher pitch that’s similar to the frequency of a crying baby.
They meow for other reasons, too, like if they want attention. Some cats will carry toys in their mouth and bring them to you while crying, communicating that they want to play. They have us trained too well.
Now, it’s important to consider that cats can meow for other reasons, mostly for confusion, pain, or hunger, although meows from pain tend to sound more like howls and yowls.
Common medical reasons include dementia, as seen in older cats or sick cats with decreased cognitive function; hearing loss, which may or may not be related to age; separation anxiety, which is more common with dogs but can occur in cats; depression, often from the loss of a human or pet; or thyroid issues, especially with hyperthyroidism, where a cat’s appetite is constant.
Too Much Meowing?
Once meowing becomes a habit, it’s a tough one to break, but don’t worry, there are some things you can try:
- One of my favorite things to do is to play before bed, then reward the cats with treats. The idea is that you drain the cat’s energy and fill its belly, so it has less of a reason to wake you up at night and is more likely to want to sleep when you do.
- For older cats, especially ones with senility or hearing loss, try to keep them in a small space with you, like your bedroom (I recommend closing the door so they don’t wander at night). Make sure you have nightlights plugged in so they can see in the dark. If all else fails, you can talk to your vet about trying some anti-anxiety medication.
- If your cat is crying because they want you to get up, don’t give in. It’s extremely annoying, for sure, but if you can avoid getting up, your cat will eventually give up the behavior. I used to put my crying cats in the hall, close the door, and go back to bed. Eventually, they didn’t want to go into the hall and be separated from me, so they stopped crying. You can also put on some relaxing music or try earplugs as alternatives.
- Keep in mind that kittens or very young cats have more energy and will have bursts of energy at night. This is natural and normal, and although it doesn’t line up with our lifestyles all the time, we think they’re cute enough to be worth it. Make sure you have toys around that they can play with solo and occupy themselves while you’re in your slumber.
The next time your cat is meowing at you, make no mistake – they’re trying to tell you something. It’s your job to figure out what that something is, and if it’s the middle of the night, don’t give in!
Science Mag, Cat Purrs Evoke Baby Cries.
Keane, Diomira. CatGazette, The Cat’s Meow: An Origin Story of the Word “Meow.”
Peters, G., Peters, M.K. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 101, 487–500. Long-Distance Call Evolution in the Felidae: Effects of Body Weight, Habitat, and Phylogeny.
Syufy, Franny. The Spruce Pets, All About Sense of Hearing in Cats.
Yeon, S.C., Kim, Y.K., Park, S.J., Lee, S.S., Lee, S.Y., Suh, E.H., Houpt, K.A., Chang, H.H., Lee, H.C., Yang, B.G., Lee, H.J. Behavioural Processes 87, 183–189. Differences between vocalization evoked by social stimuli in feral cats and house cats.
Zielinski, Sarah. Smithsonian Mag, Why Some Kitties Meow and Others Roar.
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist