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The Power of Meow: Cats Can Say a Lot Through Vocalization

Cats express a wide range of emotions and needs (and sometimes health problems) with meows.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Jan 13th 2017


Meows are reserved for humans. Although cats are adept at expressing themselves to other felines through body language, scent marking, purrs, chirps, hisses and growls, meows are rarely part of the feline-to-feline communication repertoire.

Meows cover a wide range — from sweet and subtle to loud and persistent. They can be as soft as whispers or as loud as howls. Meows convey the cat’s emotions, states of mind, wants and needs. They’re often conversational and endearing. Cats sometimes use their “meow” voices to call out to people or to indicate when they want something — such as food, attention, play, to be let in or out, or to be picked up. Meows can be endearing or, depending on the circumstances, annoying. Whatever the meower’s intentions are, meows get our attention.

Cat meowing. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat meowing. Photo by Shutterstock

Two-way conversation

Individual cats and their owners develop their own “language” which includes meows along with body language and positioning.  Although genetics, personalities and histories influence meowing, meows work when people’s responses reinforce them. Kitties quickly learn that when they meow around their owners, they usually get the results they want. Cat people recognize the meaning of specific meows and typically reinforce them by giving their little ones what they’re asking for, such as attention, food, or opening or closing doors. This is how behavior works — the consequences of a behavior predict whether the behavior will be repeated.

Some cats meow when they want to be picked up or when they want to be put down. Photo by Shutterstock

Some cats meow when they want to be picked up or when they want to be put down. Photo by Shutterstock

Endearing meows

Meows can sweeten relationships between kitties and their people. Some owners and their little ones hold conversations — answering each other’s words and meows. Often kitties greet their people at the door with meows, head-butts and purrs. Some kitties, like my deceased Maulee, sing duets. We would sing the “Maulee Bolt” song together. I’d sing a phrase and she would then respond with a perfectly timed meow. The sweet behaviors from these conversationalists and singers are reinforced with attention, love and sometimes treats. Depending on the individual kitty, attention, cuddles and strokes can be more powerful and persuasive than food.

Meows aren’t always appreciated — they can be incessant and loud. Some cats use their voices to demand attention or food or something else. These demands are usually loud, persistent and ill-timed — like in the middle of the night when people are sleeping or when they’re talking on the phone. In their efforts to stop the behavior, owners often unconsciously reinforce the annoying behaviors with attention and/or food. Kitties who hijack phone calls are sometimes picked up, petted and fed when they start disrupting conversations.

People don’t have to endure sleepless nights and fragmented conversations. The unwanted concerts can be stopped by first determining the reasons for the behavior and then addressing them without punishment, in ways that are beneficial for everyone. Typical reasons for the poorly timed arias are: boredom, attention seeking and hunger, along with the behavior being reinforced.

The nighttime yowling can gradually be stopped by giving the singer attention, playing immediately before bed, enriching the environment and strategically planned feeding schedules.

Woman reinforcing meowing with attention. Photo by Shutterstock

Woman reinforcing meowing with attention. Photo by Shutterstock

Genetics

There are some breeds of cats who are profiled as excessively chatty. Siamese, Burmese, Sphinxes, Singapuras, Tonkinese, American Bobtails, Turkish Vans and Bengals are some of the breeds that have a reputation of being vocally expressive and loud. There are of course exceptions — not all kitties fit the breed profiles. Some rarely talk, while others have sweet, soft voices.

Some breeds, like the Siamese, have a reputation for being loud and vocal. Photo by Shutterstock

Some breeds, like the Siamese, have a reputation for being loud and vocal. Photo by Shutterstock

Medical issues

Vocalizing can indicate there’s a medical problem. There are many diseases and painful conditions that can cause cats to vocalize. When cats who don’t talk much start meowing or when chatty kitties stop talking, they need to be checked out by a veterinarian — there could be a medical issue that needs immediate attention.

Hearing loss and dementia can also cause meows to escalate and increase in volume. Like many people who have hearing challenges, kitties may vocalize loudly when they can’t hear. Because they’re unable to gauge the loudness of their own voices, they turn up the volume. It’s also common for older kitties with cognitive issues to loudly meow — usually at night.

Cat being examined by a vet. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat being examined by a vet. Photo by Shutterstock

Meows are special. Although genetics and medical problems can cause cats to vocalize, our little household kitties have learned to express their emotions and needs to us through meows. Additionally, meows can develop into an exclusive language between cats and the people who live with them, deepening the connections between them.

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Do you have a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.

She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.