Has your cat ever wandered through the house meowing in the middle of the night? Or meowed their way up to you while sitting on the couch, only to drop a toy mouse at your feet? All pet parents know just how diverse their cat’s meow can be but have you ever wondered why cats meow?
We’re here to discuss the possible reasons behind feline vocalization so that you can better interpret what they’re trying to say. By the end of this article, we hope you’ve learned a little more about your cat so your relationship can be even closer!
The Overall Purpose of a Cats Meow
Humans have been obsessed with better understanding their feline friends for centuries. Cats are often a mystery, even when you’ve lived with them for years. One day they’re stuck to you like velcro, and other days, they’d rather spend the afternoon in their cat tree, not interacting with you at all.
We must look at the whole picture to figure out what our cats might think or feel. The noises our cats make are a significant part of that puzzle, offering a little more insight into their inner workings.
Growls, purrs, hisses, and meows can all be categorized as vocalizations. Although they are all slightly different (even within the same subcategories), their purpose is the same — communication.
Every noise our cat makes is trying to get some kind of point across; to you, to another animal nearby, or to anyone who will listen. Certain cat breeds, like the Siamese, Bengal, Oriental, and Japanese Bobtail, are more vocal than other breeds (like the domestic shorthair).
With that said, meows are also the most common vocalization directed at their human counterparts. In nature, most cats don’t meow at each other, and this communication method was likely developed just to be able to talk to us.
Because it’s such a unique cross-species form of communication, it’s even more vital that we learn how to interpret what they’re trying to tell us — unfortunately, they can’t just speak up and tell us for themselves.
So, Why Do Cats Meow?
While every cat is individual, their overall purpose for meowing comes from centuries of evolution and behavioral modification. Because of that, we can make some educated guesses about what exactly their meowing may mean.
Here are six of the most common reasons cats may meow and what those different meows may mean.
To Say Hi
Have you ever come home from work and had your cat run up to you, meowing or chirping in short, high-pitched little bursts? In most cases, this type of vocalization means that your cat recognized you were gone and may have missed you.
Often, cats just trying to greet you and tell you that they’ve missed you will wind themselves around your feet in circles, even when you try to walk. As much of a tripping hazard as this can be, it’s also a good sign that your cat is excited you’ve come home (even if they’re equally excited that your being home means they’re getting fed soon).
To Be Fed
Let’s be honest; many cats see us mainly as a human feeding machine. If you notice that your cat starts making a long, drawn-out meow at specific times of the day, it could be just another way for them to tell you that they’re hungry.
However, feeding a cat when it meows at you can quickly become a reinforced behavior, so be careful to make sure you wait until they’re quiet to put the food down, or you may create a monster.
To Get Attention
Cats may tend to be solitary creatures, but they can also be very clear about wanting attention — at least on their own terms. Meowing offers cats a way to express that they need attention.
Your cat may be trying to tell you that they want you to pet them, that they’re ready for some playtime, or just to draw your attention to that toy mouse they just brought you. Some cats will even meow, rub briefly on your shins, and then run in the direction of what they want (again, often the food bowl).
Not every cat seeking attention is looking for human companionship. Cats who have not been spayed or neutered will also meow a lot louder and more frequently when in heat. Both female and male cats vocalize to find mates when in the wild, but just because your cat is in the house doesn’t mean they’ve lost that instinct.
Luckily, spaying or neutering your cat will usually stop this behavior (and reduce your cat’s risk of developing associated health issues, like mammary gland, testicular, or uterine cancer).
Because They’re Not Feeling Well
As close as we are with our cats, we can’t see what’s happening inside their heads. Cats can’t tell us they’re not feeling well, but if you pay attention, their body language, behavior, and vocalizations can often give it away.
A cat who is meowing because they don’t feel well often does it at inappropriate times (in the litter box, for example) or at far louder volumes than usual. Yowling, also referred to as the appropriately named caterwauling, is the perfect example of a vocalization designed to help cats express distress.
Kidney disease, thyroid issues, and urinary tract infections are all potential triggers for unusual meowing. Any disease or injury that may be painful enough that it causes your cat to vocalize should be taken seriously, especially if it shows other signs of distress (like panting, hiding, etc.).
Because of Aging
Like dogs, older cats are also subject to cognitive dysfunction syndrome, the animal world’s version of dementia. While it doesn’t happen to all cats, studies have shown that more than 25 percent of cats will show at least one sign of cognitive dysfunction after age 11 (and that number significantly increases after they turn 15).
In addition to an increase in meowing, cats with cognitive dysfunction syndrome are frequently disoriented, have changes in their sleep/wake cycles, may experience problems using the litter box, and interact with you differently (either more clingy or more independent).
While there isn’t anything that can be done to stop the aging process, there are ways that you can make your cat’s senior years more comfortable and peaceful.
Because They’re Stressed Out
Cats, like any domesticated animals, are prone to stress. Specifically, changes in their environment or routine can cause an ordinarily quiet cat to meow more than usual.
Besides hiding and other behavioral changes, excessive meowing should trigger you to take a closer look at what might be stressing out your feline housemate. Remember that what cats see as stress might not be as apparent to us as their pet parents.
Cats may also meow when they’re put in their carriers and taken to the vet. Although it can be hard to hear them yowling in the car, this source of stress is temporary and for a good reason.
If your cat gets excessively upset about the trip to the vet, talk to your veterinarian about ways to soothe their feelings of stress (like CBD oil). Some vets will even come to you, which may benefit a cat who is anxious about car rides.
What Should You Do When Your Cat Meows?
Answering “why do cats meow?” is only part of the conversation; you also have to know how to respond based on the information they’re giving you.
Most feline vocalizations are benign, even though they may become an accidentally reinforced habit (like feeding your cat when they’re meowing at you). Ninety percent of the time, you’ll be able to quickly identify what your cat wants when they’re meowing at you — food, attention, etc.
However, if your cat is meowing in an unusual way or at an unusual time, the next step is to see if you can figure out what the trigger may be. Is your cat meowing while they’re using the litter box?
Your cat must take a trip to the veterinarian because they may be dealing with a urinary tract infection. Is your cat yowling and hiding after you brought a new pet home? You may need to separate them and talk to a cat behaviorist about reintroducing them in a lower-stress way.
As always, your veterinarian is going to be your best resource. Regular checkups keep your cat happy and healthy and help catch health issues early, giving them a better chance of being treated or managed successfully.
From the adorable trill to the loud yowl, cats make a wide, fascinating variety of noises. Successfully interpreting those noises can help you build a better, stronger, more cohesive relationship with your cat — whether they’re new to your home or an old friend you’ve had for years.
ElleVet is here to help you become an even better pet parent because we know just how much joy they add to your life; we’re pet lovers, too!
What’s in a Meow? A Study on Human Classification and Interpretation of Domestic Cat Vocalizations | PMC
Renal Dysfunction in Small Animals | Merck Vet
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) | Indoor Pet Initiative