Do you recognize any of these six cat meow sounds that kitties make to speak to their humans? Even in a household with six cats, a distinctive moaning meow leaves no doubt that my orange tabby, Tinsel, is lurking nearby with some mock prey in her mouth. “Tinsel!” I call out in response to the trademark, guttural meow-moan. “What’ve you got for me?”
Within seconds, Tinsel appears from around the corner with a pair of socks in her mouth or the occasional soft cat toy. Obsessed with socks, she loves “hunting” and carrying pairs around the house. I consider this Tinsel’s ersatz hunting, feeding her predatory instinct while living the life of a strictly indoor cat.
We cat owners — particularly those with talkative cats — hear many vocalizations, but is a cat meow sound just a one-size-fits-all kitty word? Or do cats have a vocabulary of cat meow sounds, with different pitches, pronunciation and rhythms of the same basic sounds denoting different messages? It appears that felines do speak to us in varying cat meow sounds, says Marilyn Krieger, certified cat behavior consultant. And some breeds even have their own distinctive meows — like the Siamese, known for a voice that sounds like a baby crying.
“Generally speaking, meows and the different meows you hear are for people,” Krieger says. “They are so capable of so many different types of vocalization.”
If we respond to those cat meow sounds — like feeding him when he makes a certain vocal demand — then that sound becomes tailored to you, because it produces results, Krieger says. She has two Bengals named Olivia and Jinniyah, and a Savannah named Sudan — each of whom has unique sounds to communicate with Krieger.
I have identified six different cat meow sounds, though, as people’s anecdotes have confirmed, many cats have highly individual noises that aren’t necessarily part of all cats’ vocabularies. It’s difficult to spell a sound with a made-up onomatopoeia, but I’ll do my best.
Inspired by Tinsel’s sock obsession, this is one of those cat meow sounds that seems a bit like a muffled moan. Imagine a slightly faint “Owwwww, Mowwwww,” and you’ll get the idea. Many cats use this when they carry in their mouths plush mice, socks and anything else that feels like prey. I assume they’re celebrating their catch and showing it off to their humans.
You’ll hear these cat meow sounds when mother cats communicate with their kittens or sometimes if your cat is just being friendly. I hear this sometimes when my cats jump up onto my couch or bed, kind of as a “Here I am!” greeting. A cat chortle is a birdlike, endearing sound, somewhere between a chirp and a purr. It has a bit of a vibration to it, perhaps spelling something like “Rrrrrrruh.”
“It’s almost like we’re rolling our Rs in a way, but it is a soft roll of the Rs,” Krieger says. “That’s a sweet kind of affectionate type of vocalization.”
Growling may be mostly a dog thing, but cats have their own version of the low-pitched, menacing sound. A cat growling sound is not a happy one, unless it is part of play wrestling. Heed the warning. If your cats are making wavering, growling “Grrrrow” noises at each other during mealtime, they’re feeling stressed about another cat poaching their food. You can fix this problem by not putting each cat’s bowl too close to another, Krieger says. Cats are, by nature, solitary hunters and eaters.
Different cats have different ways of communicating their impatience and hunger. In my house, increasingly loud and incessant cat meow sounds like, “Meow! Meoww! Meowwww!” mean, “Get off your lazy butt and feed me already, human!” You’ll also hear this caterwauling if your cat is asking for something else — to be let out of a room, for instance, and you’re not listening. The longer you ignore it, the louder and more insistent this meowing gets.
Oh, that high-pitched squeaky mew of a kitten meow. It will melt the feline lover’s heart! Note that if an adult cat lets out a strong, high-pitched meow, it is a screech rather than a cute kitten squeak, and the cat is upset about something.
This is a quick, staccato “Meh!” or “Eh!” that seems to serve as a conversational filler or greeting. My cats often do this when they approach me for affection or just have a dialogue with me. St. Louis-area resident Jaime Ingle has two Maine Coons, Pumpkin and Daisy.
She hears this “Meow eh!” chirp from Daisy when she gets her human up in the morning, as if she is saying “Good morning, Mom!” (As for Pumpkin, she employs a distinctive scratchy “Me-yowww!” while she rubs against Ingle’s legs, begging for treats.)
Amanda Tatala, who lives in the Pittsburgh area, has recognized in her Tiger a short “Mrra!” meow, which she translates as a recognition-based “Oh, there you are!” or “Yay, you noticed me!”
“I’ve noticed he does it more often when I know he’s hungry,” Tatala says. “Yay you noticed me … now put something in my dish!” While meows may provide fun listening, take note if your cat’s meowing patterns change, Krieger cautions. It could indicate an illness, like senility or a thyroid problem.
“If the cat starts doing an incessant meowing or a different kind of meowing — something that is not usual and does it a few times — there might be something wrong, and the cat needs to be examined by a veterinarian,” she says.
Tell us: What cat meow sounds do your cats make? What do those meows mean in cat language to you?
Thumbnail: Photography by Casey Elise Photography.
This piece was originally published in 2017.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
Kellie B. Gormly is a Pittsburgh-based journalist otherwise known as Mother Catresa to homeless kittens and cats. She blogs about her adventures in fostering at mother catresaschronicle.blogspot.com.