Cats rarely ever vocalize to communicate with other cats. They use their voice mostly for the benefit of humans, who by and large are too stupid to understand “cat-ese,” the subtle language of tail twitches, ear positions, facial expressions, and body contortions. I’ve written about the array of different types of vocalizations, but now it’s time to go deeper into the meow and talk about the meaning of different meows.
The difference between meows and other vocalizations is that meows often feature vowels with E, A, or O sounds — which is why they’re referred to as meows — whereas other vocalizations such as the burble (“murrrp”) or the trill (“prrrip?”) often feature U or I vowel sounds.
This type of meow is a lot like what humans do when they clear their throats: It’s a polite plea for attention. My surprise kitty, Tara, makes this noise when she comes out from under the couch and approaches me for affection while I’m sitting at my desk working on projects.
This is a slightly more insistent plea, which you might hear if you’re eating something tasty and your cat wants some. My Thomas makes this noise if I’m eating cheese or something else that might be tasty for kitties.
This is the “Dammit, give me what I want!” plea, which I hear every morning and evening when I prepare my cats’ meals.
When you hear this, your cat is saying, “Boy, I’m having fun!” My cat Belladonna makes this noise as she rockets around my house, playing soccer with one of her favorite toys until she gets bored and races up the cat tree.
This means “I’ve got something delicious!” My cat, Siouxsie, used to use this meow while carrying her favorite toy around the house. When we lived in the country, she also made this meow on the rare occasion that she caught a mouse and brought it inside, too.
This is the most heartbreaking sound you’ll ever hear coming from your cat. It’s the wail of despair emitted by a trapped or otherwise grief-stricken cat. Belladonna makes this noise when she’s looking out my apartment window and sees me getting out of my car, then realizes I can’t teleport to my top-floor apartment and immediately give her love.
Sure, humans make this sound when something feels really good. It’s just the opposite with cats. This meow usually means “I’m about to throw up!” or “It really hurts and I can’t hide it!” It’s also a sound cats make when they’re really sick and scared — my poor, beautiful Dahlia made this noise when her lungs were full of fluid and she could barely breathe.
In short, meows are usually requests, demands, or expressions of pride, pain, or fear. Or maybe, as this singer asserts, “meow” means “I love you” (and a whole bunch of other things).
Are there other meows you’re curious about? Share your mystery meows in the comments and I’ll translate for you.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal rescue volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.