My husband and I display a decorative tile in our home that reads, “Meow is like Aloha; it has many meanings.” We were missing our kitties in Hawaii when we bought it and laughed before we realized how true it was.
Cats’ signature onomatopoeic “meow” officially entered the English language in 1582 according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Similar spellings of this universal feline word exist in many other of the world’s languages, which speaks to the human-feline bond that can be traced back thousands of years.
For whom cats meow
Studies on feline communication proliferate journals and books. One of them dates back to 1895, long before litter boxes existed and people kept their cats indoors. In the book Pussy and Her Language, Marvin R. Clark published the findings of French naturalist Alphonse Leon Grimaldi, who documented numerous unique words he heard from cats and ascribed meanings to them.
More than a century later, researchers still hypothesize and pen what various feline vocalizations mean, but one of the most fascinating findings shows for whom cats meow.
In his landmark book, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, anthrozoologist John Bradshaw observed that feral cats meow much less often than their domesticated counterparts. This and other evidence led him to conclude that cats meow for humans, not other cats.
Although kittens do meow to get their mothers’ attention, most adult cats meow to get humans’ attention. Bradshaw explains in one of his studies, “Sociality in cats: A comparative review” published in the January-February 2016 Journal of Veterinary Behavior, that meowing and kneading are kitten- to-mother communications that cats direct toward their human caretakers.
10 meanings of meow
Indeed, meow has many meanings, and just to make sure we understand their messages, cats often give us clues. For example, they’ll stand by their food dish and meow, or they’ll stand at the door and meow. Here are some common messages in those meows.
- I’m happy to see you. Cats will often welcome you home with short, repetitive meows accompanied by an upright tail, head butts and pacing back and forth in front of you. If you say “hi” back, they will likely continue to meow right back at you.
- My food bowl is empty. If you’re late in feeding them, cats often stand in front of their food dish at the same time each day, reminding you that it’s time to feed them.
- Let me out. If they are used to some outdoor time, they often stand in front of the door reminding you that it’s time to go out with them. We recommend that cats never go out unaccompanied by you and only in an enclosed yard or patio.
- Let me in. On a cold, rainy day, a stray cat comes to the door and meows, hoping to find a kind soul who will open it. I have a friend who adopted her cat this way, after she checked with local shelters and neighbors to make sure the cat didn’t belong with someone else.
- Play with me. Cats know where you keep their toys and will often stand in front of the cabinet meowing when they want to play.
- Brush me. They usually have a preferred place where they want you to brush them. If you have more than one cat, they will likely prefer to be brushed in different areas of the home.
- Pay attention to me. A head butt to your hand is usually a good indication that they want you to give them affection and attention. Sometimes this is accompanied by a silent meow with purring. A silent meow is an inaudible meow that indicates affection and contentment.
- My litter box is disgusting. If the box is dirty, cats will meow while racing out of it as though they are disgusted by it. Meowing while using the litter box can also indicate a serious health problem, so always take your cat to the vet to rule that out.
- Come find me. Older cats with cognitive decline will meow more often when they become disoriented.
- I’m sick or in pain. A dramatic increase in vocalization can indicate a health problem, so take your cat to the veterinarian if she is meowing more than usual. Hyperthyroidism or kidney disease are among the health-related causes of increased vocalization.
About the author:
Author and editor Susan Logan-McCracken shares her home with her husband, Mark, and two red tabby domestic longhair cats, Maddie and Sophie.