Why Do Cats Meow?

Monica Tarantino, DVM
Feb 24, 2020
   |   5 min read
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank

Cats use dozens of different meows to communicate. But did you know that the majority of cat communication from one cat to another is through body language and scents?

In fact, cats rarely meow to each other, but will often meow to humans. Why is that? What are cats trying to tell us when they meow?

Cats Meow to Communicate With People

Why is it that cats meow to communicate to humans?

Well, we are not always perceptive enough to read a cat’s body language, and our sense of smell is not sensitive enough to pick up on their subtle scenting. And even if it were, we wouldn’t know how to decode the scents.

As a result, cats adapt to us and learn over time that meowing is one way they can get our attention.  

Why Does My Cat Meow So Much?

Different cats will meow more than others. Some cats, in fact, are very vocal and use meows all the time, while others do not.  

It’s important to pay attention to how often your cat usually meows. A change in how frequently your cat meows can be one of the first signs a cat is not feeling well. So if you think that your cat seems to be meowing more often, see your veterinarian. 

For example, often one of the first signs of hyperthyroid disease in cats is that they start meowing a lot at night. Changes in meowing can also signal that your cat needs or wants, like food. 

What Do a Cat’s Meows Mean?

Meows can communicate so many different things. Some meows and mews signal love and affection, while others can be signs of distress, pain, or confusion at times.

Cats can also produce other types of noises such as chatters and yowls, which sound different than meows. Below, we’ll go through the six common reasons why your cat may meow at you.

1. The Greeting Meow

One reason a cat will meow is to greet someone. This is often a short meow or mew to say hello. This meow is your cat telling you that she is happy or interested in you arriving home. Depending on the cat, the meow may indicate happiness or excitement.

2. The ‘I’m Here’ Meow

Another reason a cat may meow is to announce their presence. Often you see this in situations where a cat comes out of a spot they were hiding or sleeping in, or if a cat is thinking about exploring a new bedroom or open door.

This announcement meow helps them gauge whether to pursue something they are interested in.  They are usually waiting for a positive response to their feeler meows. Talking to them in a gentle, loving voice may encourage them to explore if they are anxious to check out a new area or object.

3. The Demanding Meow

The third reason why cats meow is to demand that you pay attention to something. Not all cats will do this, but many do. The meaning behind this meow can range from wanting to be fed to wanting attention or for you to let them out of a room they accidentally got stuck in.

Common things that cats may demand include:

  • Food or treats

  • Water

  • Playtime

  • A clean litter box

  • Pets or cuddles

  • To be let in or out of somewhere

Often when they are demanding things, cats will meow multiple times or give a long, drawn out meow. If you suspect that your cat is meowing to demand something, check their food, water, litter box, and bedding area to make sure that all are in an appropriate state. Often your cat will walk you over to see what they are complaining about.

4. The Anxious Meow

A cat can also meow because they are scared, anxious, or in pain. If they are fearful of a person or other animal, they may let out repeated meows to indicate that they are in a state of stress.

One common source of stress for cats is when we put them in the carrier to go to see the vet. This is why it is so important to talk to your vet about ways to make trips to the vet low-stress.

Vets often recommend things like leaving carriers out year-round and applying catnip and low-stress pheromones to the carrier’s bedding help desensitize them to their carrier.

Cats that are in pain often have loud, high-pitched meows, or if they are very ill, they may emit a quiet meow that is weak and barely audible.

5. The Warning Meow

Another reason a cat can meow is to give a warning sign that they are about to lash out. Often, these meows have a lower tone and are coupled with a growl.

A warning growl may be given when two cats are starting to disagree over something.

Sometimes, if you are holding your cat and she does not want to be held, she may give you a warning meow/growl. It does not take long for a warning meow to turn into a cat lashing out.

6. The Yowl

Cats can often have longer and more expressive meows that are classified more as ‘yowls.’

Yowls can often indicate underlying medical issues such as hyperthyroid disease or dementia. Oftentimes, excessive meowing or yowling can be one of the first signs of a disease. Cats that have not been spayed may yowl because they are in heat.

If you hear your cat yowling, contact your vet to check for illness or dementia so you can find the proper treatment or response.

What to Do When Your Cat Meows

When your cat is meowing, pay attention to the circumstances to see if you can help.

If your cat’s meows seem persistent or inexplicable, look for something obvious that they may need, like food, water, or clean litter, and also make sure that they are safe.

If they continue to meow without an obvious reason, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a thorough checkup.

By: Dr. Monica Tarantino, DVM

Featured Image: iStock.com/peeterv

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