The Method Behind Meowing

Cats meow to communicate with us, not to talk to other cats.

By Janiss Garza | Posted: April 21, 2014, 3 p.m. EDT

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Why Cats Meow
Cats communicate in other ways besides meows.
Why Cats Meow
Meows are mostly for people's sake.
Why Cats Meow
The silent meow is the most powerful tool cats can use on people.
Meow is a special language cats invented purely to communicate with humans. It's true. Feral cats in the wild don't meow the same way that housecats do. Adult feral cats might yowl, howl and growl, but they only meow amongst themselves quietly and infrequently, preferring to communicate cat-to-cat in other fashions – through scent, marking and physical contact. Kittens, domesticated or feral, will mew for their mothers but eventually outgrow this phase. If the kitten grows up among other wild cats, the need for vocalizing declines. But if the kitten grows up in a household, she quickly finds that the adult cat version of the mew – the meow – does a pretty good job of getting her whatever she wants from the resident human.

Find out the meaning of cat meows >>

No one has done a study on this (yet), but it's hypothesized that cats speak to humans because they see humans speaking amongst themselves. They imitate our communication by meowing at us – and they keep doing it because it works. They meow at us and we talk back, we give them food, we engage with them. We humans seem to understand the language of meow, at least well enough to give our cats what they want most of the time.

Hear reasons for constant cat meows >>

If you live in a multicat household like I do, you might notice that your cats meow at you way more than they meow to the other cats in the family. That's how it works here. Our No. 1 talker, Binga, is always telling us we don't give her enough treats, complaining that dinner is late, and discussing other important subjects. When I tell her to stop bothering Sparkle while she is eating, Binga talks back to me. She only talks to Sparkle and Boodie as a warning that she is about to whap them for some imagined infraction. Other than that, she's pretty quiet around the other two cats. Communication is more likely to be done by ear twitching, looks, headbutts and, when the occasion calls for it, smacks.

Meet Sparkle the Designer Cat >>

Interestingly, the frequency of meows coming from my three matches their human-friendliness. Binga, the talker, has never met a stranger. She loves people and will greet everyone who walks through the door with a purr and a headbutt. Sparkle, with her sweet little meows, keeps her distance from strangers, although she will check them out from a distance. Unless she's very hungry, she does not talk to anyone but me, but she uses her sweet little voice very effectively. Boodie, our shy cat, doesn't really know how to meow at all. She speaks in chirps and trills and sounds more like a space alien than a cat. As the non-dominant cat, she is also the one least likely to look you in the eye when she meows (or her version of meowing). She will sometimes use the same quirky vocalizations with the other two cats, unless Binga is playing too rough with her – then she squeals.

Get more stories from a cat's point of view >>

Boodie, however, has one secret weapon the other two don't – the Silent Meow, where she opens her mouth and no sound comes out. The Silent Meow makes humans putty in a cat's paws. If you have ever had a cat that meowed like this, you know. Which is funny when you think about it – for all their meows, the most effective form of feline-to-human communication is the quietest.
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Reader Comments

Lori    Apple Valley, MN

5/6/2014 8:21:04 PM

My cat Charger who I lost to a heart attack in January used to do the silent meow.I had a friend over and he was doing it to her and she thought he was hissing at her, I had to tell her "no he is just giving you a silent hello". He was a big lover not a fighter.

Dennis    Elmira, NY

5/1/2014 6:26:53 PM

My wife and I have two cats of our own. The communicate with each other by head butting, rubbing against, and cleaning each other. Except when our male cat wants to play, they don't meow at each other. When they want something from us the will meow and meow till they get it.

Karen    Savannah, GA

4/30/2014 5:13:59 AM

I adopted 4 cats from a large feral colony. Two who weren't even friends speak their own strange inter-colony language to me & to each other, which doesn't resemble anything like normal meowing. Phonetically it sounds like: Er REH eh, Er reh eh-EH.

patricia    hendersonville, TN

4/29/2014 8:36:42 PM

I have 3 siamese cats -- 1 has traditional chocolate markings, her litter mate also have the chocolate coloring but he has long hair (looks more like a Himalayan and is a flame point. All three are rescue babies. My flame point is the alpha cat and she lets everyone know it. She is the vocal. It seems that she carries on a conversation with you. My male (has the long hair) talks the most when he first comes in (it is like he saying "I'm home" His litter mate gives the silent meows, "she is the sweetest among the 3.

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