What Do Cats' Meows Mean?

Cats meow for many reasons. Researchers say you don't know any of them.

By Laura Doering | Posted: August 6, 2013, 10 a.m. EDT

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Kittens Meowing
"Hello!" or "Goodbye!" or "Help, get me out of this thing." Researchers say cat meows might be uninterpretable. 
"Meow … Meow … meOW … MEow!”

What does "meow” mean to you? The fact that you log onto Cat Fancy is a fair indicator that you are more likely to be fluent in cat speak than say a student volunteer looking to score some beer money textbook funds by responding to his or her university’s "participants needed” listing. DiscoverMagazine.com recently cited an academic paper dedicated to finding out if people can understand what a cat’s meow might mean.

See why some cats constantly meow >>

In a nutshell, the study’s authors concluded that people generally cannot understand canned cat talk. Yep, most people could not really tell what a cat was trying to say after hearing a recording of said cat. The recordings were labeled along the lines of hungry kitty meow and scaredy-cat meow (no doubt procured after being taken to the scariest place of all — a car!).

Find out how to read cats' body language in this video >>

Participants weren’t told in what context the meows were recorded. Overall, most participants flunked Meow 101; they couldn’t tell a canned "Hello! I’m starving over here!” meow from a canned "Help me – If you get me out of this vile travel carrier, I promise not to use the planter as a litterbox” meow. Those who had cat experience fared slightly better; perhaps recognizing the slight nuances of the food-ordering meow compared to the resigned–to-its fate, undignified meow of being held against one’s will.

Hear what odd meow sounds might mean >>

According to the abstract, researchers are under the impression that cat meows are simply "nonspecific, somewhat negatively toned stimuli that attract attention from humans.” If they really wanted to find out what’s behind the meow, talking to seasoned cat people while they are listening to and interacting with their own cats might have resulted in more "Can you hear me Meow?” thumbs ups. Cats are individuals after all and, with that, one cat’s "Feed me!” might sound like another’s "Get me out of here,” and their people can tell the difference. However, I think it’s safe to say that most cats are on the same page with the "I’m bored, you have permission to pet me now” meow.
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What Do Cats' Meows Mean?

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Reader Comments

bonnie sue    santa rosa, CA

4/26/2014 11:53:15 AM

abstract meows from a strange cat, no, but these researchers are welcome to come to my home, record my 3 boy's meows. then they could play them to me without context and i bet you i score high on understanding their meanings!!

Jennifer    Norfolk, VA

9/10/2013 6:31:27 PM

The body language and the meow need to be read together, IMO.

Nigel    International

8/27/2013 4:29:53 PM

Since we are human, we can only surmise what a meow
is really about. After 18 years with cats, i think
felines are so instinctive and responsive to any
mammal (esp. human), who is nearby and familiar to
them visually and socially. Some of this we will never know for sure. And a cat knows with experience
who has the food. When trust has been made they will make any response that they feel like doing.

Don    Syracuse, NY

8/11/2013 6:02:22 AM

My indoor cat always meow quiet a lot because I am hearing impaired that I couldn't hear him so I'll have to figure out every time. Most of the time, he is very often begging more Greenies dental treats and also he wants more attentions something.

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