Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.
Jack takes his role as “spokescat” of my household seriously. At mealtime, the
7-year-old stands at my feet, meowing to remind me to fill his bowl first, then the bowl of 3-year-old Phillip. He chirps his contentment when my kids and I scratch that special spot behind his ears, and he chatters at the birds at the feeder in the backyard.
Phillip, on the other hand, speaks up only occasionally — most frequently when he loses track of where we are. His long “merrooww” can be heard throughout the house, and he keeps it up until we call to him from whatever room we’re in.
We’re accustomed to their vocalizations, and we frequently talk back to them to encourage human-feline conversations. Becoming familiar with your cat’s typical “vocabulary” is an important part of cat ownership, said Dr. Jane Brunt, because if your cat starts making different noises, it could indicate a medical issue.
“Knowing what’s normal for cats in general … is important,” she said. “That way, when the cat exhibits behavior that’s different from ‘normal,’ you can respond appropriately. An obvious example is vocalizing when the cat has altered urinary function.”
Kittens use meows and other vocalizations to communicate with their mothers and other caregivers. These meows typically indicate when a kitten is hungry, cold, or unsure of her surroundings.
When Jack was a kitten, we lived in a two-story house. If we were upstairs and Jack was downstairs, he would meow over and over until we walked downstairs to comfort him.
Don’t worry: As a kitten grows accustomed to her environment, she might meow to reassure herself that her mother or caretaker is nearby.
Be concerned: Loud, plaintive meows that sound different from your kitten’s typical vocalizations could mean she’s in pain. Take her to the vet as soon as possible.
Photo by Shutterstock
As kittens grow older, though, they tend to meow less when they are in the exclusive company of other cats (unless they are angry or upset — then they will growl and hiss). Some studies indicate that cats learn to meow with humans because we respond to — and reward–the chatty behavior.
“It’s been reported that cats don’t ‘speak’ to each other, though it’s normal for cats to vocalize when threatened by an intruder or predator, and they don’t have an escape route,” Brunt said. “On the other hand, with people, they often do speak. Pet cats often vocalize when they desire food, and since they frequently get rewarded, the behavior is reinforced.”
You might notice that your adult cat has his own repertoire of meows ￼￼￼￼￼that he uses when he wants different things — one type of meow might mean he wants you to feed him, while another means he’d like you to open the bathroom door.
Jack uses different noises in different situations. He seems to respond to his name, using a quieter “meep” noise that sometimes comes out almost silently. And when he’s particularly happy, he’ll try to meow and purr at the same time, emitting a noise that sounds like a trill.
Phillip, on the other hand, seems to meow only when something exciting or upsetting is happening. He doesn’t like to be left alone and almost yowls to find us, and he chatters when he sees birds in the backyard.
Don’t worry: It’s OK if your adult cat isn’t the talkative sort, as long as he doesn’t suddenly stop making his normal noises.
Be concerned: If your normally quiet feline companion begins meowing to get your attention, take him to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
Sometimes loud yowling — especially in senior cats — might be a symptom of disorientation. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome can cause dementia-like symptoms in older cats, which might lead them to yowl because they are confused or anxious.
Still, Brunt stressed that any change in your cat’s normal vocalizations warrants a visit to the vet. “Interestingly, even during ‘healthy cat’ checkups in middle-aged … cats, I frequently hear reports of yowling, and the owner does not interpret pain,” she explained, noting that upon hearing the cat has been yowling, she will look for signs of hypertension and hyperthyroidism, as well as CDS.
Ginger cat meowing by Shutterstock
Don’t worry: As your senior cat ages, she might lose some eyesight and hearing and begin meowing more because she can’t pinpoint her surroundings as easily. If her health checks out with your vet, help her compensate by keeping her regular spots free of obstacles and maintaining the arrangements she’s used to.
Be concerned: As Brunt said, yowling can indicate chronic feline illnesses, so schedule a veterinary visit if your senior cat starts vocalizing more often.
About the author: A lifelong cat owner, Stacy N. Hackett writes about cats, cat breeds, and pet-related topics. A big source of inspiration comes from her two adopted cats: Jack, a 6-year-old red tabby domestic shorthair, and Phillip, a 2-year-old gray-and-white domestic shorthair. Stacy also is “stepmom” to a Cocker Spaniel/Labrador Retriever mix named Maggie as well as two brown tabbies named Katie and Leroy.